NTMA Members Share after Japan Manufacturing Tour

U.S. shop owners and managers comment on the plants they visited, automation and culture, and the value of getting to see manufacturers far away in the company of other shop leaders.


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Machine shop owners and managers, NTMA leaders and representatives of the host companies all toured Japan together for a week, visiting advanced manufacturing facilities as well as one small shop.

Last month, I spent a week in Japan touring manufacturing facilities with a group of machine-shop owners, managers and leaders who are active in the National Tooling and Machining Association, or NTMA. Mazak, Big Kaiser, Memex and Blaser Swisslube all hosted the trip. The U.S. group toured various Mazak machine-tool production plants near Nagoya, Japan, as well as the Big Daishowa production facility on Japan’s Awaji Island that is the source of tooling products supplied by Big Kaiser. Memex and Blaser Swisslube gave technical presentations. NTMA has taken to organizing international trips such as this on an annual basis. (The destination last year was Switzerland, and many of the travelers in this group had been on that trip as well.)

I was privileged to get to go along. Usually, I visit manufacturing facilities on my own or in the company of other media people. This was better. Typically, I report on what I see and learn by trying to view it through the imagined perspective of a plant manager or shop owner, but on this trip, I had direct access to that very perspective. At the end of the trip, I asked my fellow travelers to share their take-aways. Here is a sampling of their observations of Japanese manufacturing, spinkled with some of my own observations of the travelers’ reactions to what they saw:

Grady Cope of Reata Engineering & Machine Works had his eyes opened by the extent and success of automation at the toured facilities. He wrote me to say:

“The use of automation at both Mazak and Big Daishowa was incredible, considering that both companies are high-mix, low-volume manufacturers. Many times in the United States, we have the thought pattern that high-mix, low-volume shops can’t automate or can’t justify automating. Of course, multitasking machines and linear palletizing lines [like we saw at Mazak] are making their way into high-mix shops in the United States, but we still haven’t seen the level of multitasking machines served by versatile robots that we saw in Japan. I have no doubt that many of us visiting Japan made note of this, and I would expect that over the next five years, you will begin to see more use of robots in U.S. job shops.”

He also made an observation that hadn’t occurred to me, but that I recognized as true as I read his words. He said (emphasis mine), “As a result of this automation, I noticed that manpower allocation was somewhat different than you see in the United States. In the businesses we visited, the machining areas had the fewest people, with assembly and inspection having considerable more, while it appeared that most of the workforce was working at an engineering level, directing the automation process.”

“That was one the more impactful take-aways for me,” he says. “This feeds right back to the need for a much more highly skilled manufacturing workforce in the United States.”

One of the production facilities we toured was a Sumitomo plant in Kyoto producing cutting tools. Heidi Baney of Wagner Machine enjoyed this, for the simple reason that it helped her understand the beginning and creation of a product she encounters routinely.

“I am always handling the receiving of the tooling,” she says. “To actually see how everything was made was eye-opening.” In her conversations about this just after her return, she says she was able to instill in her shop’s sales representative and plant manager something like her own new appreciation for tooling.

She experienced something similar in getting to meet Marc Blaser, CEO of Blaser Swisslube (see below), a company supplying a product Wagner Machine regularly uses.

Big Daishowa
One of the treats for the NTMA group was touring the Big Daishowa plant. This group was made up of machining professionals and machine-shop owners, and the production of Big Daishowa’s core product (toolholders and toolholding devices) consists largely of machining. The company uses many different machine tool brands and types throughout its plant, because it needs to “spread the wealth” among machine-tool builders in the interest of maintaining good relationships with all of them. But many (and perhaps most) of the machine tools the group saw during its extensive tour of the plant were fed by FANUC robots.

Big Daishowa also showed the limits of automation. For a rough grinding operation on precision toolholders, the grinding machine is robot-loaded. But for the finish grinding of the same holder, a skilled machinist performs manual loading and operation of the grinding machine in order to achieve the company’s specification of a 3-micron tolerance on runout.

Andrea Wosel of C&R Manufacturing said, “Their commitment to quality as shown by 100-percent inspections, extremely clean and well organized shops and attention to detail was inspiring.”

John Zmuda of Moseys Production Machinists offered, “They do not have to go to the level of fine aesthetic appearance in their shop to achieve the results they advertise, they simply choose to. This is a level of pride in craftsmanship that we at Moseys try to fold into our evolving culture and I found it motivating to see it in action.”


The tour of Big Daishowa also included demonstrations of some of the company’s products. Big Kaiser’s Jack Burley (shown) oversaw machining demonstrations including comparison cutting with and without a damped toolholder for vibration control, as well as comparison cutting between two otherwise identical machining centers with and without dual-contact toolholding via the company’s Big Plus system.

Blaser Swisslube
This company’s CEO, Marc Blaser, is a gracious, soft-spoken and personable man. At one point, I happened to observe him give his thanks to his Japanese hosts in an expression of gratitude that seemed fully genuine rather than just polite. He is also an excellent public speaker, and I had the feeling some members of the group must have seen give some version of his presentation before, but they gladly sat through it again out of regard for him.

The message of the presentation he gave is that coolant accounts for only 1/2 percent of the unit cost of a typical machined part, but the choice of coolant has a dramatic effect on the performance of other, far more significant sources of cost in the process such as the tool, the machine and even the employee. As a result, there is little money to be saved by economizing on coolant, but significant value to be obtained by searching for the coolant that performs best.

Mr. Cope later wrote, “Blaser brought home everything we were seeing about attention to detail. If you don’t pay attention to the little things, then it doesn’t matter how much you spend on hard technology. The machining process truly is a system, and if you’re going to invest in technology, then this requires that your commitment go all the way down to the tool and the coolant/lubricant interaction.”

Chuo Ironworks
One of the facilities the group had the chance to see was not a highly automated facility, but instead an example of a small Japanese job shop. The extent to which a small independent shop in Japan resembles a small independent shop in America was one of the more interesting (even reassuring) observations to many of the visitors.

Courtney Wagner of Wagner Machine says, “Chuo Ironworks is similar to my small 30-man job shop in Ohio. It even smelled like home.” Here most of all, she saw the extent to which manufacturing prospers in Japan. “Walking through the facility, I saw how in Japan, the companies buy Japanese equipment, Japanese raw materials when possible, Japanese tooling—there were Japanese products everywhere.”

Something else struck here in this shop, an idea to which the hosts at this shop made reference. She says, “The owners spoke about monozukuri, and how this means ‘making things,’ in the sense of devotion to manufacturing. Specifically Japanese manufacturing. This reminded me of the ‘American Built’ idea that Titan Gilroy is promoting. In the United States, the ‘American-made’ trend gets traction sometimes. But the similar idea is really ingrained throughout the culture of the Japanese people.” As, she realizes, the idea is ingrained in her.

“I love bringing non-industry people through my shop,” she says. “Like this shop, I love explaining how we ‘make things.’”

Meanwhile, Jonathan Veteto of Cogitic noted this detail: “The shop was obviously busy with lots of material stacked up at each workstation. There were work instructions everywhere (I took pictures of some of them), but not a computer to be seen.  I think that goes to show that a well-run shop depends on good instructions, but less so on the actual ‘technology’ used to deliver them.”

Dave Sattler of Sattler Companies said, “What struck me was when the manager of this shop was asked, ‘What’s your biggest challenge?’ His response, which is my response and that of all American manufacturers, was ‘A skilled labor force.’ Workforce development is not just a problem in the U.S., but around the world.”

The small shop was not exactly identical to an American small shop, because all of the facilities we saw on the tour, large and small, had something in common that was distinctively Japanese. In part, this came down to focus and lack of distraction among the employees. In no shop or plant, for example, did we find a radio playing.

John Belzer of TCI Precision Metals says, “The heads-down attention to the task and the physical acknowledgement of the guest on the shop floor was amazing. If only we could approximate that kind of behavior here. Don't misunderstand, 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.”

Mr. Zmuda describes it further: “One take-away from this event for me would be the attentiveness of the employees in the factories. It seemed that they really focused on perfection and looked happy doing it. I did not see anyone sweating or frantically running around, just simply and purposefully performing their tasks.”

The extent of this machine tool builder’s production resources within its home country is vast. The NTMA group spent a day and a half touring three Mazak plants to get a sample.

Herb Homeyer of Homeyer Precision Manufacturing observed, “Mazak is committed to employing the new manufacturing techniques that they are selling to their customers. We saw firsthand some of the largest pallet systems used for lights-out operations, and automation in all aspects of their production. This technology is utilized not just for cost savings and quality, but also as a solution to the skills gap.”

Mazak’s production is so extensive that the members of the tour group invariably siezed on different details here and there as particular interesting. Ron Wosel of C&R Manufacturing gives this example: “The take-away for me at Mazak related to the workpiece storage racks and the conveyers they used. They held many parts and were easily converted to the next job. I would have liked to have known more about their in-process measuring. If they can machine the components of their own CNC machines unattended, then we ought to be able to machine most any parts unattended at comparable accuracies.”

The promise that machine shops see in machine monitoring and data-driven manufacturing was apparent in the high level of interest given to Memex CEO David McPhail when he gave the group a presentation on this topic and fielded questions (of which there were many). The majority of the trip members who responded to me cited this presentation on the use of data in manufacturing as one of the notable points of interest on the trip. Mr. McPhail gave his talk at one of the Mazak plants, because Mazak uses Memex software to monitor and improve its own operations.

Mr. Cope wrote, “Managing highly engineered shop floors [like those we saw] calls for some kind of monitoring and feedback system. The Memex presentation couldn’t have been more timely. Without a basic tool like this, a shop might either be blind or chasing the wrong problems. These digital feedback and monitoring systems will in many cases be the next level of productivity improvements for shops. Big Data is here. We now need the tools to parse the data and present it in a way that lets us make decision on the changes we need to make to improve our processes. ‘What gets measured, gets done.’”

Another valuable aspect of the trip consisted in the other travelers also on the trip. Mr. Belzer says, “My best take-away wasn’t a direct result of any of the tours. It was, instead, what I learned along the way in conversations with the other participants. Although the windshield time seemed a bit much, it allowed me to get to know some people better and to understand how they run their shops and why.”

Ms. Wosel adds, “Dinners with the executives of our host companies were great experiences—just to be able to sit down and speak with them directly in a casual setting. Networking with them as well as our own NTMA members is valuable. Great stories and advice were exchanged during the bus rides between our different stops.”

International travel can be exhausting. It’s also hard to accommodate, because we are almost always too busy to comfortably schedule in the trip. Mr. Cope summed up the value of making the effort.

He said, “I have never been on a trip like this before. Not only does it let you see how the different parts of the world process products, it allows time with colleagues to reflect on what we are seeing. I think for NTMA and their presenting partners this trip shows how working with customers and members is evolving. We are in a global economy that will eat us up if we don’t take the time to learn how everyone is changing and thinking differently about manufacturing. To keep U.S. manufacturing moving forward, we have to participate, innovate and evolve. The rest of the world pays attention to what we do; we have to pay attention and learn from them as well.”