Uniquely Evolving Japanese Machining Craftsmen

Uniquely Evolving Japanese Machining Craftsmen

Japanese products are highly regarded for their quality. Looking into the history of the industry in Japan, we can find thousands of small- and medium-size companies that continued improving their technology amongst fierce competition to ensure quality. In this feature, we visited three companies that have established unique manufacturing methods with a small number of employees to survive in this industry while envisioning the future of the machining industry from their own viewpoint. We asked about their dedication and enthusiasm for manufacturing.

PART1: Syousin Machinery Works Co., Ltd. (Kobe City, Hyogo Prefecture)

Enhancing Inventiveness in Preparation for the Arrival of Machine Tools Equipped with AI

Reproducing Delicate Noh Masks with a 5-Axis Machining Centre

Syousin Machinery Works Co., Ltd. has been engaged in machining for over 50 years at the Kobe High-Tech Park for cutting-edge technology companies in Kobe. Always looking for innovation, founder Shoichi Mashima implemented 5-axis machining centres ahead of other companies about 20 years ago and has since strived to achieve the highest quality precision machined parts by employing the most advanced machine tools. Currently, the company machines a wide variety of parts for use in gas turbines at thermal power plants and engines for aircraft and submarines.

Around 2010, in addition to its regular work, the company started manufacturing products utilizing its own machining know-how to highlight its highly-advanced technological capability. It has manufactured completely machined stainless tumblers and beer glasses, Edo Kiriko glasses, wine glasses, and Noh masks, which is a traditional Japanese handicraft. The Noh masks manufactured with the 5-axis machining centre represent its accumulated technology. Syousin Machinery Works President Masanobu Mashima said, “When I saw a carved wooden Noh mask at a souvenir shop during a trip, I wanted to reproduce the precision utilizing a 5-axis machining centre.” The first process was to rough machine a block of aluminum alloy measuring 180 mm × 180 mm × 300 mm, and finish the horns, facial expressions and other details, including wrinkles, without re-gripping the block. “This super-precise processing cannot be performed by high-performance machine tools alone. Inventiveness is essential in the selection of tools, choosing the machining processes and making original jigs. This is the spirit that underlies our management policy, ʻManufacturing with a Wealth of Inventiveness!ʼ In 5 or 10 years, machine tools with artificial intelligence (AI) will become common. Our work on such products is designed to improve our inventiveness to a level beyond the capability of AI.” Because of this Noh mask, manufactured in cooperation with DMG Mori Co., Ltd., Syousin Machinery Works was selected as one of 10 Japanese representatives at the Machining Expert Contest, a contest for 5-axis machining organized by the University of Hannover, Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Hannover Centre for Mechatronics (Germany).

Masanobu Mashima, President, Syousin Machinery Works Co., Ltd.

Craftsmen Talking to Tool Machines

While the size and weight of the final products are being reduced, the machining industry will also be increasingly required to produce super-thin and super-fine parts. President Mashima said, “Even if machine tools are equipped with AI, super-thin and super-fine parts are not easy to machine. We are now perfecting our skill in this area with the reproduction of a paper plane but made of aluminum alloy with a thickness of only 0.2 mm. We machine an aluminium plate to a thickness of 0.2 mm, and provide a super-fine finish on the surface using a solid end mill. Since the material needs to be very thin, we need to be extremely careful and quick in machining to prevent bending and breaking. This is accomplished by adjusting the cutting force.” Yusuke Konami, Chief of Production Department, told us about the dedication of the craftsman, “Although it is the same as our regular work, super-fine machining requires us to “talk to the machine.” Operators touch a part of the machine they use to sense the sound and vibration to adjust the machining parameters, the form of jigs and method of clamping.”

Skilled Craftsmen Visualize the Entire Process, from Start to Finish

President Mashima said, “Skilled craftsmen can grasp the designer’s intention by looking at drawings and simple sketches, visualize the machining processes from start to finish and select the best method to produce the finished piece quickly and efficiently. This is, I believe, the strength of Japanese craftsmen. They never separate the individual processes. While they concentrate on their work, they keep the entire process in mind. This aluminum paper plane was created by teamwork. I just gave Konami a sample of the paper plane I made. They are good craftsmen.” Konami said, “My techniques are not up to this level yet. I want to be as skilled as the craftsman sent from one of our partnership companies. Using a centre lathe and a turning tool that he made himself, this craftsman processed parts from rough finishing to final finishing with precision and speed as if the parts were machined by an NC machine tool. He also managed the processes and continuously checked the quality until the piece was completed. I probably can’t imitate everything he was doing; but for sure I learned a lot from him."

Mashima also said, “Craftsmen exhibit sensibility in manufacturing, and that sensibility is developed through continual effort.” He continued, “Our company gives a brazed turning tool to newly hired employees in the hope that they will develop into good craftsmen. They grind and polish the tool by themselves, check the form of the edge and experience the hand feed of the centre lathe to develop their sensibility.”

Mitsubishi Materials Cutting Tools Suitable for Difficult-to-Cut Materials

Syousin Machinery Works started using tools made by Mitsubishi Materials around the year 2000, which is about the time Mitsubishi Materials released end mills with Impact Miracle coating. Suhara from Mitsubishi Materials looked back to the time and said, “At that time, Syousin Machinery Works mainly used tools made by overseas manufacturers. However, we heard via a trading company that they were looking for better quality tools. So we visited them and talked about our products. When they tried them, everyone there was surprised by the smoothness of the machined surface of stainless steel materials. Since then, they have mainly been using our tools.” President Mashima said, “Tools made by Mitsubishi Materials are high quality and long lasting. The machining of 64 titanium, 55 titanium, nickel and Inconel, which are all difficult-to-cut materials, and also super alloys used for gas turbines cannot be machined effectively without Mitsubishi Materials tools.”

Becoming the Priest that Spread the Gospel of Small- and Medium-Size Companies

President Mashima pointed out that since globalization has taken root, manufacturers have felt increasing pressure to reduce costs to remain competitive; but companies in the same industry are competing for work without thinking ahead seriously. “Most companies’ estimates for parts processing include labour and machine costs, but do not include rents, utility costs, quality or delivery management costs. They are often afraid to include overhead costs in their estimates because customers complain that prices are too high. What we need to do is to sell ourselves better. We need to help the customer understand what goes into production, what the real cost of the piece they have ordered is. If we can do this, customers place their orders with confidence that they are receiving the finest quality work at reasonable prices. It is time that more companies adopt this attitude of including the real costs of delivering a component and enlightening customers about what quality means. Doing this will help to raise the position of small- and medium-size companies in the Japanese machining industry. We will do our part by continuing to develop new technology to advance the development of the industry.”

(Top) Yusuke Konami, Chief of Production Department, Syousin Machinery Works Co., Ltd.
(Middle) Original products made by unique ideas
(Bottom) Only 0.2 mm thickness aluminium-made “paper” plane
(Right) Takenobu Suhara, Akashi Sales Office, Osaka Branch, Advanced Materials & Tools Company, Mitsubishi Materials Corporation

PART2: Kirishima-Seiko Co., Ltd. (Kirishima City, Kagoshima Prefecture)

Machining Super-Complex Forms Equivalent to or Greater than 5-Axis Machining with 3-Axis Machining Centres

High Difficulty Parts Machining

Kirishima City, the second largest city in Kagoshima, is located in the centre of the prefecture. Many well-known manufacturers have established bases in the city, and small- and medium-size companies that boast advanced technology are also scattered throughout the area. Kirishima Seiko President, Tamotsu Nishishige, worked at a company that machined precision parts for the optical communication and semiconductor industries, but the company went bankrupt due to excessive capital investment. Supported by co-workers who expressed a desire to work with him and together with partner companies that were willing to provide equipment for free, Nishishige established Kirishima-Seiko Co., Ltd. in August 2006. When they opened, they only had 5 employees and 5 machines. “We are good at machining parts with complex forms. Doing so usually requires high-performance machining centres. However, because I did not have enough financing to acquire machine tools at that time, we discussed using a 3-axis machining centre that we already had. We developed exclusive jigs and established a unique “curve cutting method” in less than one year,” said President Nishishige. With this unique method capable of machining complicated forms without re-gripping, they could significantly reduce the number of processes. This single-pass machining enables higher speed and precision that leads to super-fine machining but increases yield ratio. Kirishima-Seiko was certified as an Innovative Management Company by Kagoshima Prefecture in 2008 because of this technology. They have since built a new plant that is capable of operating 24 hours a day and moved the business to its current location.


Producing an extremely small dice measuring 0.2 mm³ and an ultra precision “jigsaw piece”

Kagoshima Industrial Support Center asked Kirishima Seiko if they were interested in participating in an exhibition in Tokyo. It was a chance for them to show products that could highlight their technology. “I decided to advertise our complex super-fine machining utilizing our 3-axis machining centre. I thought it would be a good idea to exhibit products that have a strong impact on people to attract their attention,” said Masanobu Hotokeyama, Chief of Manufacturing Division. The manufacture of these items required no welding or assembly of other parts. They used only machining to manufacture chains without joints, a bird cage that features a bird and a cage as one unit as well as pyramids with a decorative chain inside. The pyramids in particular were highly regarded and singled out with a Technique Award in the Prototype & Test Part Category at the Dream Contest sponsored by a machine tool manufacturer. Their techniques have gradually improved and they finally succeeded in making a dice measuring just 0.2mm³. On these stainless steel dice, they also machined numbers; that are invisible to the naked eye unless magnified, with an extremely small end mill. These extremely small dice drew interest from local newspapers and other media and visitors to the exhibitions and their plant were very impressed by these and the other products.

Recently, they made an object similar to a jigsaw piece. The piece was a Japanese kanji character, takumi (craftsman). The character, takumi, and the base in which the piece fits were machined out of carbon steel, with ultra fine precision and just 3 μ clearance. The fit was so precise that when laid flush, the “jigsaw piece” seems to disappear into the main base. The idea came from when they were watching TV and saw a similar product. President Nishishige asked Hotokeyama, if they could replicate such a thing, to which Hotokeyama immediately answered, “Yes, of course.” “I was skeptical, but he brought me a finished product in a few days,” said Nishishige pleasantly. This flexibility, wisdom, and the drive to seek something new in manufacturing reflects the strength of the company.

(Left) Extra small products manufactured using super-fine machining (Right)Extra small workpiece measuring 0.2 mm³, which is much smaller than a grain of rice

Using the existing machinery creatively is the real pleasure

They focused on doing as much work as they could get for three years after the company opened its doors, accepting any and all orders, including those that came in late at night or during holidays. Looking back on that time, President Nishishige told us that he was asking himself many questions at that point in his career – “Was this really what I wanted to do? Was this the company I wanted to build? Did I think my employees were really happy?” During that time, he showed workpieces that his company had machined at an exhibition that received impressive comments. “That bolstered my confidence, so I decided to focus on mastering complicated precision machining, at a level that requires techniques and skill that cannot easily be imitated.” With the motto, “Never say we can’t. Just try hard,” they have continued highlighting their specialty in difficult-to-cut materials and super fine machining. This has led to their handling of a wide range of super precision parts, including components and devices for the semiconductor, healthcare, satellite and other industries. Mitsubishi Materials tools are essential for such high-level machining and Chief Hotokeyama said, “The precision and sharpness of the Mitsubishi tools are beyond comparison and they deliver what we need, when we need it.”

When Kirishima-Seiko receives a request for an estimate, top management studies the drawings, identifies problems and discusses ways to deliver the highest quality work at the lowest cost. They then deliver a proposal to the customer, who reviews it. Only after the customer is fully satisfied with the proposal does Kirishima-Seiko submit an official estimate for the high added-value parts machining.

The question was raised whether the employees prefer 3-axis or 5-axis machining centres. “Well,” Chief Hotokeyama told us, “it’s more efficient in terms of work allocation to have two 3-axis machines than it is to have one 5-axis machine. Besides efficiency, the real pleasure in manufacturing is putting our heads together in a process of trial and error to achieve the most out of the existing equipment. It is more enjoyable for us to try attain the same high quality results with a 3-axis machine as with a 5-axis machine, because it challenges us to improve our technique and this makes us proud as craftsmen.”

(Above Right) Masanobu Hotokeyama, Chief, Manufacturing Division, Kirishima Seiko Co., Ltd.

Kirishima-made products for the world

In the 10 years since Kirishima-Seiko opened its doors for business, its high-quality technology has been shown by the mass media and this has helped the company to continue to grow. Their orders from companies in Kansai and Kanto have increased and the number of employees has expanded from 5 to 36. President Nishishige said, “We had an event to celebrate the company’s 10th anniversary in August of this year. All the employees took part in the preparation and the event. Around 150 people attended, including employees, family members and special guests and everyone had a great time. At the end of the event, the employees surprised me with a present.” This demonstrates the warm atmosphere at Kirishima-Seiko that makes employees feel secure; this in turn enables them to fulfill their potential in manufacturing. This is one of the strengths of Japanese small- and medium-size companies.

“Thanks to the employees and the community, this company has grown so much. To repay their kindness, I continue to promote the advancement of machining to highlight the advanced technology and skill that goes into the high-quality products manufactured in Kirishima. I also want to develop new machining technology that surpasses the confidential curve cutting method to achieve further efficiencies and cost reductions.” President Nishishige continues looking to the future for the company and the community.

(Left) Yoshiyuki Kanezaka, Kyushu Sales Office, Osaka Branch, Advanced Materials & Tools Company, Mitsubishi Materials Corporation

PART3: Kitami Mould Steel Co., Ltd. (Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture)

Innovating by Excluding Technical Drawings: Defying the Conventional Wisdom

New Metal Moulds Vitalizing Japanese Manufacturing

Metal moulds are key to the production of the wide range of products being manufactured around the world; and Kitami Mould Steel Co, Ltd. (KMS) manufactures and sells mould bases. Established in 2002, KMS is a young company in an industry where experience and know-how are essential for survival and despite these difficulties for a start-up company, it has thrived. We asked what made this possible.

“It was the skill and experience of craftsmen that supports Japanese manufacturing,” answered President Yuichi Kitami. “It doesn’t help us, though, if we focus on experience and know-how, but ultimately lose out to global competition. Along with market globalization, basic customer needs such as quality, delivery dates and costs have become more demanding. With the motto, ʻEnergizing Japanese manufacturing,ʼ we decided to establish a production system capable of quickly responding to customer needs while ensuring that skill and tradition is also passed down.”

(Left) Kitami Mould Steel Co, Ltd. President Yuichi Kitami
(Right) Kitami Mould Steel Co, Ltd. Executive Director Tomoyuki Murata
(Right) Kohei Horiuchi, Distribution Sales Section, Sales Division, Advanced Materials & Tools Company, Mitsubishi Materials Corporation

Becoming Independent to Focus on Customer Satisfaction

“When I started in this industry, most of the top management of small- and medium-size companies in Japan was made up of company founders who were working hard to expand their businesses by establishing trusting relationships with individual customers. The company that I was working for though, did not seem to care much about responding to customers’ needs. I felt that was the wrong attitude, but knew that I would have to strike out on my own if I wanted to do something about it. That pushed me to start this business,” said President Yuichi Kitami, who had been in sales and marketing before starting the business. At the beginning in 2002, KMS did not have its own plant, which forced it to outsource production; but in 2005, KMS finally built its own plant. However, even when the business seemed to be on track, the company still had its share of ups and downs. One of the problems was that experienced craftsmen employed at the company often insisted on sticking with their own manufacturing styles and this interfered with being able to respond to customers requests, such as changes in specifications or delivery dates. Because of problems like this, KMS gradually lost customers to its competitors and the company’s future was put in jeopardy. However, instead of giving up, this critical situation sparked a fire in President Kitami’s competitive nature. He visited overseas manufacturers to look for ways to break out of the company’s difficult situation.

“When I saw the high productivity levels at overseas manufacturers, I realized that they were ahead of Japanese manufacturers in using data rather than depending on the experience of individual craftsmen. The difference I could see between Japanese and overseas manufacturers was quality. In other words, if we could establish an effective system of production that could compete with overseas manufacturers, but add Japanese quality, I thought we could break through.”

Enabling Newly Recruited Employees to Work as More Experienced Staff in Just Two Weeks

Kitami came up with an idea that departed significantly from the conventional method of manufacturing.

“I designed a standard system, such as the model applied to fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that would enable employees at all levels of experience to machine materials at a consistently high level of quality. If I had been an engineer, I might not have come up with such an idea; but my background in sales and marketing helped me to see problems differently.”

He started by developing unique machining programmes and establishing a production system. Yutaro Fukuhara, Head of the CAD System Development Department, said, “Developing a system and software that would allow us to manufacture our own products required a monumental effort, and I felt I would never get through it. However, after a lot of time and effort, approximately 80% of the manufacturing processes were completely systemised. I knew that our competition would not be able to do this easily.”

Surprisingly, there are no drawings at the factory, only machining instructions. Operators do not refer to drawings when they are working on a component. “Perception varies and each individual looks at the piece differently when they refer to a drawing. We discussed the content and expressions used in the machining instructions at great length to make it possible for everyone to prepare, machine and measure in a standardised manner to prevent operator error,” said Tomoyuki Murata, Executive Director. Although Kunihiko Iizuka, Plant Chief, felt anxious at first about not having a drawing to look at, he said, “Now I feel that referring to a drawing is an outdated method. Machining instructions made the work more efficient and provide an increase in quality. We still have room to improve, but we are trying hard to establish a system that allows all operators here to manufacture high quality products quickly and efficiently.”

(Left) Kunihiko Iizuka, Chief of Iwatsuki Plant 2, Kitami Mould Steel Co., Ltd.
(Right) Yutaro Fukuhara, Head of CAD System Development, Kitami Mould Steel Co., Ltd.

Overall Optimisation Achieves a 5 to 10 Fold Increase in Speed

President Kitami said, “Increasing the speed of a specific process will not increase the speed of the entire process. The key to increasing speed is to ensure that all the processes flow at the same speed. Reducing the time during which machines stop operating leads to increased speed,” which is the basic KMS manufacturing policy. Therefore, KMS divides each process into individual operating sections, and also divides labour into individual processes. Assigning one operator to each process allows each operator to learn skills more quickly and this leads to reduced scrap, less difficulties and irregularities. Currently, KMS has achieved a surprising rate of production, one that allows it to finish components 5 to 10 times as fast as its competitors; leading to customers having extreme faith in KMS delivery dates. It is not only the manufacturing method that is unique though. KMS has a motorsport team and many employees come to the circuit on race days to support the team. Such activities have helped to cultivate an atmosphere of unity among employees and increase their motivation. President Kitami said, “We will continue such activities with the hope that the manufacturing industry will become more attractive for young people.”

Continuous Search for Unique Manufacturing that Stays Ahead of the Competition

President Kitami said, “We expect durability from cutting tools. Price is less important because our priority is being able to continue operations. Any problem with a tool forces the employee to focus on one machining operation, which makes it difficult to handle multiple operations at the same time. When this happens, the speed of the entire machining process slows, which leads to increased cost. The MVX series from Mitsubishi Materials has a solid reputation among operators.” Cutting tools play an important role in realizing the excellent production system we have developed at KMS. Plant Chief Iizuka said, “The new system allows us to precisely calculate the time required for machining each process and this has significantly reduced overtime work. Cutting tools are critical in our business and we completely trust and rely upon Mitsubishi Materials for these tools.”

President Kitami also said, “Until we established our current system, employees worked until late at night to deliver products by the deadline; but that did not lead to increased profits. That was a tough time for everyone. It’s hard to break old routines, but we believe that applying innovation to increase the speed of production will increase our competitive advantage in the global market.” Having built a new head office in 2015, KMS is placing a priority on cultivating human resources as well as expanding business.