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Makino Seiki: putting the 'cut' in cutting edge

Daisuke Shimizu President & CEO of Makino Seiki Co., Ltd.

Daisuke Shimizu

President & CEO of Makino Seiki Co., Ltd.

The leading machine tools company, which makes some of the world's highest quality tool and cutter grinders, provides an example of how the Japanese manufacturing sector's traditional value for craftsmanship combined with technological innovation continues to set its product apart.

In the recent years, the general manufacturing sector in Japan has been threatened by an increasing competition coming from other Asian countries such as China and Korea, that are able to replicate the Japanese products at a lower cost. Today, the world still praises Japan for providing high-quality, stable and reliable products; the pride of the Japanese monozukuri. Could you tell us about the essence of monozukuri?

In the machine tool industry, the key is longevity. Our customers use our products for a period of 30, 40 or 50 years. Our goal is that our customers acknowledge that it was a good choice for them to buy Makino Seiki machines. And to accomplish this goal, we need to make quality and highly precise machines. Our competitors in other countries may be not as careful as we are in terms of accuracy, and this is the reason why their machines sometimes only last for a couple of years. We do not only seek for the selling operation itself, we pursue long-term and trusted relationships with our customers. It is true that sometimes making long-running machines means that we are not able to repeat the sales soon after, but there is still a need for maintenance and replacement of certain parts, and this is also one part of the contract that we pass with the customers: the communication plays a great role in building this relationship.

Machine tools are not just machines. They are made by people. And some techniques can still only be made by hand, such as the scrapping process which requires high human skills. In Japan, when people enter a company, they intend to stay until their retirement. For this reason, we can train them continuously and these skills are precious for the company. This specific model is one of the reasons why Japan still holds an advantage compared to other countries.

The global tool grinders’ market is expected to grow at a rapid 4.52% annual rate over the next 5 years, driven by an increasing demand in automotive, electronics and aerospace. Could you give us a general overview of this market and its opportunities for the coming years?

Our machines make cutting tools. These tools can be used in a wide range of industries and the opportunities for a further growth are everywhere. We need to make traditional cars as well as electric vehicles (EV), we need to make new mobile phones to adapt to 5G for which new molds need to be made, and these trends are also found in many other sectors. The number of potential customers is constantly increasing in Japan and all around the world, especially in countries such as China, Vietnam and India. And the good thing for us is that the number of potential suppliers for quality grinding machines is limited. There are only two players in Japan, including us. The other competitors are mostly found in Germany, Switzerland, France and Australia. To compete on the market, we can rely on the accuracy, longevity and stability of our machines. We seek accuracy not only through the softwares but also through mechanics, because this is the best way to ensure that precision will be consistent in the long run. However, when combined with mechanical precision, softwares can be a good help.

Indeed, the market is increasingly adopting solutions to automatize the operations and increase efficiency. Your "MSPS-II" technology is a good example of a solution that allows an unattended and continuous operation. How can robotics and technology improve the next-generation machines?

The specificity of our company is that we manufacture machines but we also design our own softwares to work along. For this reason, the collaboration between technology and mechanic is even stronger. Usually, companies use external softwares to support their production. By doing both, the communication works much better between the production line and the software. We can customize both the machines and the features of the software according to the customers’ needs. Tool grinding machines usually have four-axis tools when ours have five-axis tools, which makes them more sophisticated and difficult to operate efficiently. This is why the software is key for running the operations.

Your company manufactures a wide range of machines, including its signature C-40 tool grinder which received the "Long Life Best Seller Award" in 1982. Could you give us an overview of your products?

Our product line-up is very wide compared to our competitors. We manufacture both manual and automatic machines, both very small and large diameters tool machines, from preparation machines to grinding and inspection machines. We offer fruit grinding machines, broach machines, regrinding machines, production or semi-production machines, high volume/low mix machines, and the only vertical cylindrical tool grinder in the world called TAD. Our best-selling machine is AGE30, a high-precision, high-performance and fully automated manufacturing machine released in 2009.

One striking element when we look at your machines is the beautiful design. How important is this aspect in an industry that usually considers the look not as a priority?

It is true that design used to be consider as secondary in this industry because the machines are almost never exposed to the public, they remain inside the customers’ factories. However, things are changing now and people start considering this aspect more than before. Our machines are made by people and for people. Even if they remain inside factories, they are used on a daily basis by workers. If the machines are beautiful, the workers will remain more motivated and happy. They will take pride from using these machines and will handle them more carefully.

Your signature C-40 machine was released in 1968 and is still on the market 50 years later. How do you explain such a longevity?

Developing countries in the Asian region are currently living a time of demographic and economic growth, with income levels on the rise. Based on the economic and social situation of ASEAN nations, we expect that the demand for healthcare services and facilities will drastically rise.

This machine is exactly the same now as what it used to be when we released it. It is part of our legacy and our customers still want the exact same one even if the price has almost doubled compared to the original price. We have brought innovation elsewhere such as in the Monocam2 system, that allows detection of small defaults in the tools. The trend is moving towards automation, especially in Japan, where the population is shrinking, and the different machines will be connected on the factory floor. For this reason, we need a system to check the potential defaults automatically, and operate the processes as smoothly as possible.

It is true that the Japanese population is shrinking, and for this reason, many Japanese companies are now looking for growth opportunities on the international markets. Makino Seiki already realize 44% of its sales outside Japan. Could you talk to us about your international strategy?

The overseas markets are very important to us because the sizes of certain markets are enormous such as China and increasingly India. We think that high-precision grinding machines will definitely have a bright future in emerging countries because it is not a know-how and expertise that is easily replicable. There are some competitors in China for example, but they are few and do not have the same level of quality. Even the Chinese tool manufacturers tend to buy our products or products from German companies instead of going towards local suppliers. For us, the market will probably increase in the emerging Asian economies as well as in the United States where we have high ambitions. We are planning to open a sales office there in the near future and we are currently looking for the right local partner to do so.

You just released a new corporate video that presents in a beautiful and exhaustive way the activities of your company. You seem to bring a special care to the company communication these days. What is the importance of brand image in your company?

We take branding very seriously. This is one aspect that I really insist on when meeting our employees. The brand vehicles not only the values of our company but gives a first impression of the features of our machines. We make quality machines and it is important that our communication tools reflect these quality requirements. If the brand looks old-fashioned, customers will see our products as outdated. Even if the machine quality is the same, the image and the design of our company will affect people’s impressions. We believe in our machines and we want to highlight their qualities in the best way.

If we had to take this interview again in 10 years in the future, what would you like to have achieved by then?

By then, I hope we will have been able to introduce advanced communication systems such as machine-to-machine connections and Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) to improve the efficiency of our factory. We also hope to have increased our international sales to 50% of our global sales.


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