Ben and I recently had the good fortune of attending an NTMA-organized trip to Japan. The purpose of the trip was to expand our point-of-view (outside of the U.S.) and to understand how technology is implemented in manufacturing operations in Japan. We attended a similar trip last year in Switzerland, which was very informative and a motivating factor for participation in the Japan trip.
Our primary goal when attending these in-country plant tours is to understand how technology and processes are being applied. In reality, manufacturing in Japan is not so different from the U.S.; much of the technology and equipment brand names are the same. But there are subtle differences and for us this helps fuel innovation on our own shop floor.
The trip was sponsored by NTMA Associate Members Mazak, BIG Kaiser, BIG Daishowa, Memex, and Blaser Swisslube and organized quite well by the NTMA staff.
In the plants we visited there was plenty of automation in use, but there was also a heightened sense of craftsmanship and focus. It’s as if the workforce had been redistributed to focus on engineering, quality and attention to every detail. The heads-down attention to the task at hand and the physical acknowledgement of us as guests on the shop floor was amazing. If only we could approximate that kind of behavior here. Don't mis-understand, we have excellent and capable people, as well. I suppose, really, it's all about deep cultural differences. We experienced somewhat the same in Switzerland last year, just in a little different way.
Perhaps my best take-away came from our day-long visit at BIG Daishowa on Awaji Island. Understanding the 10 operations that it requires to produce tool holders with consistent run-out of no more than 3 microns with 100% inspection provides great context for the meaning of “precision”. There is an extraordinary attention paid to quality at the micro level. On some of the tight work we all see, that could make all the difference. That and all of the unattended machine tools with dancing FANUC robotics created the clear impression that, as Grady Cope of Reata Engineering and Machine Works noted, manpower was drastically shifted from the production side to inspection and assembly.
Equally important as the plant visits was what we learned along the way in conversations with the other participants. Although the windshield time seemed a bit much at times, it allowed us to get to know some people better and to understand how they run their shops and why. Being able to walk out on the plant floor in Japan and immediately reflect with others on what we were seeing, not only compared to our own shop but from the perspective of our peers on the trip, was priceless.
Photo - Paul Sapra, Upland Fab (left) with Ben Belzer, TCI Precision Metals.
Pete Zelinski, Editor, Modern Machine Shop magazine was along on the trip as well and has provided an excellent accounting in his recent blog:
Thanks for reading!