Bobsleigh Network Project from the Heart of Tokyo
With maximum speeds reaching up to 140 km/hour, competitive bobsleighing is also known as Formula One on Ice. Clocking the best time for the win requires skilled bobsledders and state-of-the-art equipment. The great names in European high-performance racing, Italy’s Ferrari, Germany’s BMW and England’s McLaren put the full force of their automotive engineering talent into the development of world-class sleighs. Joining the competition, small high-precision manufacturers in the heart of Tokyo are combining their supremely honed techniques to the manufacture of world-class bobsleds. The name of the project is The Shitamachi (heart of Tokyo) Bobsleigh Network Project. In this issue, we take a look at their history as we explore the essence of Japanese manufacturing.
Koji Okuda and Makiko Uchida
from the Ota City Industrial Promotion Organization.
“Your craftsmanship is the best!” Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation President Chris Stokes came to Nagano to evaluate a bobsled designed and manufactured by a group of small factories in Tokyo, and immediately decided to adopt it for the Jamaican team. In addition to its stability, the precision processing and the capability of the project members to respond to the bobsledders’ needs were immediately clear. The Jamaican bobsleigh team participated in the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Canada, the first time for a Caribbean nation to enter the bobsleigh event. Readers may have seen the movie “Cool Runnings,” the story of the Jamaican team’s path to the Winter Olympics. A combination of the Jamaican team’s physical prowess and Japanese manufacturing quality marked the start of a new story at the 2018 Winter Olympics Games in PyeongChang, Korea. However, the road that led to this starting point was anything but smooth.
Many small factories involved in machine and metal processing are based in the Ota Ward, Tokyo. While 90% of these are medium and small-sized businesses employing 19 or fewer individuals, they engage in state-of-the-art processing with the most advanced techniques to produce precision parts such as those used in the asteroid probe Hayabusa. With major companies shifting their production overseas in and after the 1980s, and the aging and retirement of small factory owners who had opened their businesses when the economy was booming in the 1960s and 1970s, the number of small factories has dropped from some 9,000 at the area’s peak in 1983 to around 3,500 now. While small factories find it a challenge to mass produce at low cost, they excel in the production of small-lot prototypes requiring high skill levels and quick delivery and they have confidence in their techniques. However, what they needed was a way to let the world know about them. Material Co., Ltd. President Junichi Hosogai, a key figure in the Shitamachi Bobsleigh Network Project thought a good way to accomplish this would be through the Olympics. At the same time, Satoshi Kosugi, a member of the Ota City Industrial Promotion Organization, had the idea of exploring the possibility of small factories in the Ota Ward working together to manufacture high-quality bobsleds for the Olympic Games. Looking into this, he found that Japanese bobsleighing suffered from a lack of funding, which forced many bobsleighers to use old-style foreign-made bobsleighs. Kosugi felt the fact that bobsleighs have many more parts than other equipment used in Olympic events, and that most of the parts from them are metallic, made them the perfect undertaking for the small factories in Ota. He proposed the idea to Ota Ward officials. The proposal was approved, but it was determined to be too much for the local administration to handle on its own and suggested that Hosogai himself head the project. Since Hosogai had been so enthusiastic about the proposal, even planning to cover the budget with funds from his own company if he couldn’t convince the Ota Ward to support the project, he accepted the suggestion without hesitation. One day in December of 2011, the Shitamachi Bobsleigh Network Project, got its start. This was a project that would grow to involve many, including a former bobsleigher living in Ota Ward, a race engine manufacturer and a university professor.
They say that “If you throw a paper plane with a design written on it through the window of a small factory in Ota Ward, you’ll have a completed product by the next day.” This is possible because of “nakama mawashi,” literally “passing something around to friends.” Taking advantage of their close proximity to one another, the small factories in the neighborhood are quick to ask one another to lend a hand to complete products. Hosogai felt that nakama mawashi would be a great plus for this project. He talked passionately about his idea with fellow manufacturers, sparking their imagination and interest in the project. He managed to borrow a bobsleigh from Sendai University. It was the first time he and his fellow project members had seen a real bobsleigh up close, and they jumped at the chance to dismantle it piece by piece and study the parts in great detail. They also studied the International Bobsleigh and Skelton Federation regulations closely before creating their design for the Shitamachi Bobsleigh, which was constructed of 150 parts. Hosogai invited factory owners in the Ota Ward to a briefing about the bobsleigh and ask for their cooperation on the project. About 30 owners attended the briefing and what Hosogai proposed to them was very simple. He laid out all the design drawings on the desk and asked each of them to select any parts that they thought they could or would like to handle. There were only two conditions. He told them that the project had no funding to cover their costs and that they would have only 12 days to complete the work. Though the two conditions raised eyebrows around the room, one by one, the assembled craftsmen started to sound off: “We’ll handle the hull,” said one. “We’ll handle this shaft,” said another. In the end, there were no designs left on the table. By the very next day, Hosogai had already received some parts. At the end of 10 days, all the parts had been completed. Thanks to their cooperation, the parts fit together perfectly on the first assembly, allowing the Shitamachi One to be completed within only one and a half months.
The Shitamachi One test run was conducted by a pair of bobsleighers who had won two consecutive Japanese National Championships. They said they were very anxious about testing a sleigh that they had never worked with before. However, when the pair saw the serious attitude of the craftsmen, they felt reassured and their confidence in the sleigh grew. On the first test run, they beat the time that took first place in the previous year. They said that Shitamachi One was much easier to handle than bobsleighs made overseas. Hosogai told them that he would happily make any adjustments they would like if they were interested in using the Shitamachi Bobsleigh at the Japanese National Championships scheduled to take place in 10 days’ time. “Yes!” was their immediate response. While rushing to make it available for the championship, Hosogai found that they required some additional parts. They were nearing the deadline and only had one day left. In spite of the pressure, the craftsmen came through. Each factory handled a part of the process, from material procurement to welding. They finished at midnight and the new parts were brought to the championship venue on the first scheduled bullet train and on that day the Shitamachi Bobsleigh made its debut in an official championship race. Compared with the test run held 10 days prior, the new bobsleigh bettered its time by more than one second. The Shitamachi Bobsleigh took first place in spite of the fact that this was its first time running in a championship competition; and of course the win put the Shitamachi Bobsleigh and the Shitamachi craftsmen in the spotlight.
Shitamachi Bobsleigh development advanced to a fifth version. Sadly, however, the Japan Bobsleigh, Luge and Skeleton Federation decided not to adopt it for the Sochi Olympics because of the lack of time for test runs. For the PyeongChang Olympics, too, the newly hired coach decided to adopt a German-made bobsleigh. The Shitamachi Bobsleigh manufacturers refused to give up, however, and they offered their bobsleigh to three overseas teams. The Jamaican team replied to them first and the Shitamachi Bobsleigh Project brought them to Japan for a test run. They decided to use the bobsleigh immediately after they tested it and the team started development of a new model for the Jamaican team. They employed an integrated structure carved from solid material to increase the aerodynamics of the frame, and in October 2016 they achieved the lowest level of wind resistance in history. What had started as a dream had become a successful reality. This success was made possible because all of the small factories in the Ota Ward had pursued the same dream and in turn created a strong new bond amongst them. The spirit and techniques of the craftsmen have gradually been brought to every corner of the world; and now small factories, each with only a few employees, are working together to compete with major manufacturers such as Ferrari and BMW. The challenge continues.
Junichi Hosogai, President, Material Co., Ltd.
Hosogai: Before I founded Material, I was working for a small sales company providing materials to small factories. When I visited engineering companies, I often wondered how much the materials that I was selling for 100 yen would sell for after processing. When I finally asked, I was surprised to learn that the products sold for as much as 100,000 yen. There I was, I thought to myself, working hard to sell a 100-yen product to make an 8-yen profit, when our company could be machining it ourselves and turning that 100-yen material into a 100,000-yen product as well. I told the owner of the company I was working that I would be happy to learn the machining techniques so that we could handle the full range of manufacturing, from material selection through to processing and sales. However, the owner rejected my offer immediately because he thought it wasn’t a good idea for a material supplier to handle processing too. I couldn’t give up though, and finally decided to start a new business that sold added value. When I was 26, which was in 1992, I set out on my own and founded Material Co., Ltd.
Hosogai: I currently employ 11 operators and I am proud to say that 9 of them have acquired certification. Remember back in school, if we were having trouble with a subject, we could ask our teacher for help or go to a tutor; but we can’t do that after we start working. Employees have as much if not more to learn than students do, but practically speaking they have neither the time nor the money to go back to school after work. This prevents talented people from improving and realizing their full potential. Before a manufacturer has time to discover and nurture that talent, the young employee has left the industry. I decided to host seminars at my company to change this by giving employees the chance to learn the skills required for certification. We have an instructor that comes to the company every Friday to teach. This is a comfortable and convenient learning situation for the employees, and they all try their best to improve their skills. When they receive their certification, their confidence and pride increase; and it’s a wonderful feeling for them to see the admiration in the faces of their coworkers and to hear the customers compliment them on their technique.
Hosogai: Because major manufacturers have sufficient staff, they tend to assign specific roles to each department. The downside of this is that while, say, the person in charge of procurement is an expert in purchasing products, that person might not know a whole lot about processing. That person needs to know the technical aspects as well as prices and delivery dates for the materials he is dealing with. This is why I believe that major manufacturers need to build cooperative relationships with medium- and small-companies that are familiar with processing. Meanwhile, small factories need to improve their individual specialised techniques and proactively advertise their skill in high-added-value processing, which would allow them to get involved in bidding for contracts. When I started this company, I did not have any specialist areas to offer to our customers. I simply tried my best to make all the work we got our specialty. I believe that if we have a strong desire, dream, or clear purpose in business, we can achieve it.
Hosogai: In a practical sense it is hard for each of the factories in Ota Ward to handle the entire manufacturing process. Some have special plating techniques and others have highly advanced machining or sheet metal working techniques. Indeed, many of these small factories have unique techniques that can be used in niche fields. The cost of handling everything though would be tremendous and price them out of the market. Even if the product is well manufactured and highly useful, it would be impossible to move at the price they would have to charge to cover their costs. On the other hand, these small factories can share their individual specialties to reinforce our competitiveness against prices offered by the major manufacturing companies. This cooperation among factories is our strength.
Hosogai: When we need to make changes and express what we need in the abstract, they can figure out what we need immediately. It is a major advantage that the craftsmen at small factories can quantify abstractions and immediately make fine adjustments at short notice, and it’s these things that really matter when it comes to improving bobsleighs. Bobsleighers are not engineers, so they can’t give the craftsmen specific descriptions or exact figures. With this in mind, it’s a great advantage that the craftsmen can quickly figure out what adjustments they need to make in response to vague comments like, “It’s a bit too light,” or “It should be more resilient.”
Hosogai: Our approach to bobsleigh manufacture is to try as much as possible to reduce the number of parts that require welding. The reason for this is because welded metal joints cause shrinkage, and shrinkage leads to slight distortions. What we did was to machine complete parts from one piece of material whenever we could. We also worked to interlock parts that needed to be connected. In fact, we were able to machine an eight-part combination that had been welded on previous versions into one section.
Hosogai: We started this project with the goal of showing the world what our small factories in Ota Ward were capable of. If we had given up just because Japanese teams decided not to adopt our model, our project would have been a waste of time, energy and resources. If we had given up, everything that we had accomplished would have ended at that moment. The thought of giving up before achieving our goal never occurred to us! I also believe that continuing in spite of challenges creates chances.
Hosogai: I think Ota Ward has developed as a manufacturing centre that offers a wide range of solutions for global markets. Many of our colleagues and their families live here, and I hope that we can already make this an even better place for our children. It would be great if we could all work together to realize this vison. I am also thinking about ways of working with other regions in Japan to advance revitalization. As a Japanese person, I understand unique Japanese values, including high-quality manufacturing. If we keep seeking higher quality manufacturing, we will be able to popularize Japanese products that are highly trusted around the world.
Hosogai: A craftsman, I think, is a person who has a consistently high level of skill. A craftsman, I think, is a goal oriented person, a person who continues doing what he or she has decided to do until it is finished. Beyond this, however, is the fact that while the spirit of craftsmanship has remained the same, new technologies have developed one after another, technologies such as AI, Industry 4.0 and IoT. For this reason, it has become more important for craftsmen to develop not only technical skill, but managerial skill as well. I want to create an environment capable of cultivating a new breed of craftsmen, craftsmen with both the traditional spirit and flexible management skills that allow them to respond better to changing markets.
Kotaro Kurosaka, President, Sanyo Kikai Seisakusho
Kurosaka: We are good at machining thin metal piping and flat plates that tend to deform when gripped by machinery. We specialize in machining extremely thin and extremely soft materials like aluminum. With materials such as these, even the slightest impact can result is significant deformation. This requires that we ensure the highest degree of exactness, including the use of the correct chucks, applying the correct machining parameters and selection of the right tools to finish the product.
Kurosaka: I would say that Japanese manufacturing is very considerate. Japanese manufacturers place a great deal of emphasis on customer convenience; that is, we think about how the customer is planning to use the products we manufacture. These customers are sometimes end users and sometimes another manufacturer who further processes the product. An example of this is when we manufacture parts that other companies will combine in subsequent steps in their manufacturing process, we visualize the finished product to determine how our part can best contribute to the convenience and success of manufacturers downstream. This is, I think, a particular strength of the Japanese manufacturer.
Kurosaka: My grandfather opened a small factory in Ota Ward in 1948. When he started, there were many more factories in the area. Currently, the number of those small factories has dropped drastically because of the lack of people to pass them on to, a declining business environment and the smaller operations moving overseas along with major manufacturers that have expanded internationally. Ota Ward itself has undergone significant change as well. Where small factories once stood, now apartment buildings have sprung up one after another; and this has weakened the once close relationships that were common among factories. Before the Shitamachi Bobsleigh Network Project, I didn’t know much about people working at the factories in Ota Ward. The project changed that quite a lot. Before the project, while I may have heard of a company, I really had no idea what they did. There were some craftsman that I heard had good skill but were hard to get along with. Once the project started though, I found that these were all great people. After getting to know the individual craftsmen at factories throughout the project, I gradually became more involved in the nakama mawashi that existed during my grandfather’s time. Everyone is in manufacturing, so it’s easy for them to understand what one another are thinking. With this mutual understanding among them, they share the same enthusiasm and a sense professional pride that promotes cooperation.
Kurosaka: I remember one day we had a part that required a 5-axis machining center. One of the project members asked us to take care of it because we had the machine for it. The problem was that we had used the machine for multi-face machining but not for 5-axis machining, and we really didn’t know how to use it properly. I hunted around for someone in Ota who could handle the machining and found a factory that regularly used the machine. Unfortunately, the owner was too busy to handle the piece. Lucky for us, however, he offered to show us how to use the machine for 5-axis work and even made a program for the machining. After we talked about a few important points on the phone, he tailor made a program for our machine. We had never worked together before, which would normally be disconcerting; but the program he made for our device worked perfectly. All we had to do was to set up the machine and press the button.
Kurosaka: Orders have been changing. We did not know the specialities of individual factories in Ota. Before the Shitamachi Bobsleigh Network Project started, and we had scant idea what the different factories in Ota could handle. As the project advanced, however, we became more and more familiar with their operations. Naturally, we started asking other factories to handle jobs when our workload was heavy and we had short delivery dates. We now have very good circulation among the factories in Ota. People have also become more familiar with the name, Shitamachi Bobsleigh,” so our customers in other areas have come to know about the skills and techniques that our small factories in Ota have. The greatest change, though, has been a significant increase in the motivation of our employees. The pieces we and each of the other craftsmen in Ota manufacture are only individual parts that are combined to create a final product; and while people don’t usually give much thought to the individual parts that go into a product, our products go into a bobsleigh that competes with other world-class bobsleighs. If Shitamachi bobsleighs perform well at the Olympic level, we will have accomplished our goal of showing the world what the factories of Ota Ward can do.
Kurosaka: It was hard to machine a frame from one block of material. We machined a block of S45C; and the middle of the frame needed to be hollowed out to reduce weight. The program for this machining requires CAM; and even if the program works just fine in the CAM simulation, we often get insufficient machining or too much machining due to deflection or deformation. Then there is weight, which is key for bobsleds; however, weight is not the only concern. We also have to look at overall balance, which is very important because the weight of bobsleighers sitting front and rear is different. Another difficulty is that bobsleigh parts are generally welded, and this causes deformation. To address this, we machined our bobsleigh parts as much as possible rather than fabricating them. We are happy that engineers from other countries are often surprised by the smoothness and beauty of the sleigh structure. While we can’t know for certain how much the machining of parts has helped the performance of the sleigh, as craftsmen, we give it our all if there is a possibility that we can improve it. Bobsleighers who have used our bobslieghs have told us that their high rigidity means less vibration on corners.
Kurosaka: Craftsmen should always do their best to turn their wisdom and technique into originality and ingenuity. What we manufacture is industrial products, not traditional artistic crafts. In a world moving at high speed, skilled craftsmen need to set their sights on innovation. Otherwise, they will soon be left behind the times. It is important not to be satisfied with the current state, but to move forward.