Japanese Yaskawa transforms into top automation consultant
KITAKYUSHU, Japan – Yaskawa Electric, one of the world’s four largest factory automation companies, makes industrial robots and other products that automakers and chipmakers need. In order to diversify its offering, the company now provides automation consulting services to a wide range of industries, including food and healthcare.
In the fall of 2020, Hiroshi Ogasawara, the 65-year-old president of Yaskawa Electric, took advantage of a lull in the coronavirus pandemic to visit a customer, an electronic parts maker in Tokyo. A manager there asked Ogasawara about supply chains and how to improve factory lines and improve production.
Uncertainty due to US-China trade frictions, the coronavirus pandemic and global competition is growing. Yaskawa customers in the electronics and automotive industries feel that they cannot continue to make “improvements” as they have in the past.
Increasingly, the company finds itself responding to demands for automation and improving the efficiency of the production line. After launching its consulting business, the company provides advice on industrial robots based on machine tools.
Yaskawa’s main products are still servo motors, widely used in robotics field to control the movements of devices. The company has shipped 20 million units to date, making it the world’s largest supplier with a 17% global market share. But competition with other companies is intensifying.
In March, the company held an online demonstration of a new type of servo motor. “To our knowledge, this model has shown the best performance in the world,” said the engineer in charge. However, two years earlier, Mitsubishi Electric had launched a similar product. Industry insiders believe Yaskawa’s new engine is only slightly better than Mitsubishi’s.
Since superior product performance is not enough in today’s business environment, Yaskawa wants to turn his knowledge of factory automation and efficiency into a new business. The company is the only major factory automation equipment manufacturer in the world to sell servo motors outdoors, making it almost second nature to offer automation solutions covering the entire factory. , including machine tools from other companies.
However, to make her consulting business work, Yaskawa must show that she has a great track record. It starts with demonstrating efficiency on its own production lines. In 2018, the company added a new facility at its factory in Saitama Prefecture, near Tokyo, to collect and analyze data on servo motors and industrial robots to improve production.
Machine tools from other companies equipped with Yaskawa servo motors are also scanned on site, with robots grabbing and transporting parts processed by machine tools to check whether a task can be completed within a given time frame and whether a component is reliable. Yaskawa then makes recommendations based on the analysis.
Since 2018, officials from around 300 electronics and food companies have visited the facility. “Our customers want us to raise the standard of the entire production chain,” said factory manager Satoru Shiraishi. “This includes machine tools from other companies.”
Yaskawa has recently received many inquiries not only from long-time customers in the automotive and electronics industries, but also from food and healthcare companies. One of them is Lotte, a large confectionery company with a factory near the Saitama factory. “We consulted [Yaskawa] to help us evolve into a smart factory, ”said a Lotte production engineer.
Detecting and sorting out faulty products, such as unevenly cooked pieces in his snacks, is crucial for Lotte. However, until recently most of the work was done manually. To automate this process, Lotte consulted with an IT company in the Yaskawa group about a year ago. He then introduced an inspection system based on artificial intelligence. Lotte is also considering using Yaskawa robots to identify faulty products.
Yaskawa’s robots are also used in food factories that produce rice balls and other items for convenience store chains. “We are receiving an increasing number of consultations on food factory automation,” said Junji Tsuda, 70, president of Yaskawa Electric. “Everything from large corporations to small lunchbox stores.”
Attracting customers in food products and other industries has been a strong surge. In 2018, Yaskawa set up a subsidiary to automate vegetable factories, but the equipment delivered to a large convenience store operator had a major flaw.
“In the end, we lost hundreds of millions of yen,” said Takuji Morita, 46, president of the branch. When Morita reported the loss, Ogasawara just said, “It’s a learning experience.” He asked Morita to replace the faulty equipment with something that works to regain confidence. The new equipment is still in use at the factory.
“Doing things differently from other businesses and continuing to let customers win will lead to long-term growth,” said Ogasawara.