Japan's small and medium-sized plastics processors and mold makers are struggling with both a record-high Japanese yen and competition from low-cost countries, but some said they see technology and greater international involvement as key to future growth.
Japanese automotive injection molder and mold maker Meiji Gosei Co. Ltd., for example, said it has developed technology with a partner in the chemical industry to use lasers to improve the bonding of plastics and other materials. The technology requires less surface area than before to join the materials together.
That innovation opens up more possibilities in designing plastic parts, and will be an important part of the company's growth strategy, said Imai Nobuyoshi, head of sales for the Osaki City, Japan-based company. The firm has 80 injection molding machines and 125 employees.
“In general terms, the Japanese economy depends on exports, and with the appreciation of the yen, business is decreasing,” Nobuyoshi said. “It is also very important for Japanese companies to reduce prices to compete with the Chinese, [but] it is very difficult to do that.
“In our case, we are presenting a new technology — using lasers to bond plastics,” he said.
One application the company is targeting with the bonding process is designing better plastic sensors in radiators, steering systems and other automotive systems, Nobuyoshi said. About 80 percent of Meiji Gosei's business is in Japan's car industry.
The company was exhibiting in a pavilion of 43 plastics-related small and medium-sized Japanese firms at the International Plastic Fair, the country's largest plastics show, held Oct. 25-29 in Tokyo.
Many smaller manufacturers in the country face a shrinking domestic market and need to reach global markets, according to Shigenori Nada, a senior manager for overseas sales and marketing for the Organization for Small and Medium Enterprises and Regional Innovation, a Japanese government agency. The agency organized the IPF pavilion.
“These kinds of small and medium-sized companies, when the yen is strong, it is very difficult for them,” said Yasuo Hiruma, also a senior manager for overseas sales and marketing in the Tokyo office of OSMERI.
With the yen hovering at a post-World War II high of 75 yen to US$1, large Japanese firms that have gone overseas can shift production to the most cost-effective country, but smaller firms have more difficulties doing that, Hiruma said.
One molder and mold maker that exhibited at IPF has expanded overseas, and said it is pursuing higher technology like making molds used in lens manufacturing and biochemical products.
Nagatsu Precision Mold Co. Ltd. employs 120 at two factories in Japan making molds. It also employs 700 people at two joint venture molding and assembly factories in China, where it has 51 Fanuc injection molding machines and 23 Sumitomo machines, said Kiyoshi Yamanoi, chief operating officer.
The Kawasaki-based company is trying to broaden beyond its main business making components for cameras and mobile phones, and into medical, automotive and nano-related markets, Yamanoi said.
It's important for the company to expand into new technology and, in a term used frequently by Japanese executives at IPF, “cost down” its operations, Yamanoi said.
“In Japan the future of making molds is not good, because the mold user in Japan goes to the global market, to China, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam, so the need in Japan is decreasing,” he said.
It's been a tough year for some of the companies. Nobuyoshi said Meiji Gosei's automotive-related business is only at 70 percent of the level it was before Japan's March 11 earthquake and nuclear crisis, which stopped much of the auto production in the country for more than a month.
Despite the challenges, Nobuyoshi said he believes Japanese manufacturing can remain competitive.
“Manufacturing companies do have a future in Japan, but of course it depends on the production of new technology,” Nobuyoshi said.