The Japanese supply stream

August 5, 2008
By: Eric Lundin

Hidetsugu Masuda revels as a tour guide.

The president of KantoSeiko Co., Ltd. Group, in Fuji-Gun, Shizuoka Prefecture, isn"t your typical Japanese shop manager. The shop"s main meeting room is lined with photos of customers and other shop managers from Japan and, indeed, around the world who have toured his facility. Each tour is usually a learning experience both for Masuda and his guests.

Last week I was lucky enough to be one of those guests.

KantoSeiko was one stop on a media tour hosted by Amada. While Amada"s fabrication equipment can be found in many shop floors here in the U.S., the company dominates Japanese sheet metal fabrication, holding a remarkable 70 percent market share. Amada"s headquarters campus, in Isehara, southwest of Tokyo, has a massive showroom, an even larger area where customers try out machines, and a conference center with several floors of hotel rooms for customers and guests.

Last week"s tripwhich I"ll cover in detail in a future print edition of The FABRICATORshowed me two things.

First, Japanese fabricators share common challenges with their U.S. counterparts. They have seen high-volume work go off their shores, while short-run, high-value sheet metal jobs have become the norm. Japan has an aging population, so companies need to find skilled labor to fill the ranks of a retiring work force.

Second, differences abound, and many of them spring from Japanese culture. Japan is very much a we society. In interviews with Amada executives and their customers, not once did I hear the phrases I did, I launched, I coordinated, and so on. Instead, everyone described how we serve the customer.

As just one example, KantoSeiko fabricates sheet metal covers for Makino machining centers. The company doesn"t just receive a print, give an estimate, and start a job. The supply chain"s tighter than that. KantoSeiko works off a general concept from Makino and designs those machine covers from the ground up. This isn"t really design for manufacturability (DFM), but instead a comprehensive design and engineering service.

This makes the whole process more efficient for everyone. Kanto"s design engineers know the company"s manufacturing capability, so in a sense there"s no need for DFM; from the start, products are made with Kanto"s manufacturing in mind. Masuda, through an English translator, told me he calls his company an assistant maker. His employees don"t just make parts and ship them away; they design and integrate parts into a larger product.

Amada, with its huge market share, serves thousands of these shops throughout the country, and most employ fewer than 50. Though many are small, they"re not isolated. Amada keeps in close touch with customers like KantoSeiko, just as KantoSeiko keeps in close touch with its own customers and material suppliers.

The system isn"t perfect, and not every metal fabricator in Japan is like KantoSeiko. But from what I gathered last week, I was impressed. The companies I visited acted not so much like metal fabricators within a supply chainwith links that can be brokenbut like companies within a stream, with the free flow of products, data, and value.

And I have to admit, it was eye-opening last week to see the stream flowing so smoothly.

Eric Lundin

Eric Lundin

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8262