7, 1998 Design News
Emerging trends in manufacturing
Don't underestimate Japan
Larry Maloney Editorial Director
Tokyo--It's official: Japan is battling its
first recession in 25 years (with an unemployment rate
that's still at a very low 4%). Yet recent talks with
several leading OEM suppliers provide strong evidence
that the world's second-largest economy will not suffer
a long slump.
As these companies point out, Japan's inevitable resurgence
is closely tied to that country's status as a powerful
global player in a wide range of technologies. If anything,
troubles at home are stimulating even more activity
by Japanese manufacturers around the world.
For example, automation giant Omron plans to step up
its investments in the People's Republic of China, as
well as in India and Vietnam. The company also has set
up a design center in Europe. THK, which prides itself
in developing new patents in linear motion technology,
is expanding in both Taiwan and the People's Republic.
Moreover, its products travel worldwide as key components
in machines from companies like Mazak, one of the world's
largest machine tool builders, and Tokyo Electronics,
a leader in equipment for semiconductor manufacturing.
For example, THK's new "low-noise" ball retainer
system with built-in lubricator is being evaluated for
a new environmentally-friendly "eco" machining
center by Mazak.
While managers at Oriental Motors contend that the
long-range growth potential of Asia is "excellent,"
the company is looking to surging markets in the U.S.
and Europe for protection against Asia's current economic
troubles. The company cites its network of traveling
"technical fairs" worldwide as a prime tool
in showing off its broad line of small motors for applications
such as appliances, medical, packaging, and semiconductor
manufacturing. As for NAIS, a global supplier of sensors,
relays, and miniature PLCs, the web has become a key
tool to reach engineers worldwide--with some 10,000
hits every month.
Another shining example of the global reach of Japanese
suppliers is Minebea, which makes such products as miniature
ball bearings, stepper and fan motors, and keyboards.
The company now does nearly 90% of its manufacturing
outside of Japan, including four plants in Thailand
that employ 26,000 and feature a very high degree of
vertical integration. Those plants and others around
the world are setting high standards for productivity
and quality, says Managing Director Ryusuke Mizukami,
including ISO 9001, QS 9000, and ISO 14001 for environmental
management. In fact, one of the company's most effective
sales tools is shuttling plane loads of engineer customers
to its Thailand facilities. There the company designs
and builds not just millions of high-precision ball
bearings, but dies, jigs, tooling, and injected-molded
and die-cast components.
But Mizukami expects even higher levels of cost control
and manufacturing excellence from its two-year-old ball
bearing plant in Shanghai, which Minebea opened at the
invitation of the Chinese government that was impressed
by the firm's achievements in Thailand. Unlike most
operations in China, this plant is not a joint venture
but a wholly-owned subsidiary of Minebea.
These examples show that, despite economic worries
in Asia, leading OEM suppliers in Japan are by no means
retrenching. Like their American rivals, Japanese-based
companies know that globalization is an essential part
of their growth strategy. Says Minebea's Mizukami: "All
around the world, design cycles are getting shorter,
and engineers are looking for vendors who can supply
high-quality products in large volume under tight schedules.
In other words, they want companies that can deliver