March 27, 2014 12:00 am JST

Push-button production: Case 2 Komatsu

YUTA TSUNASHIMA and TORU SUGAWARA, Nikkei staff writers

TOKYO -- Komatsu's construction and mining equipment is widely used around the planet. The Japanese company's plant in Osaka Prefecture is one of its major hubs for turning out large and midsize machinery. Last October, a sprawling new facility at the site began producing something else: advanced manufacturing expertise.

     The Manufacturing Engineering Development Center is tasked with sharpening Komatsu's machining, casting, heat-treating and welding processes. For efficiency's sake, the center amalgamates research and testing facilities that had been scattered in multiple locations. It has about 10,000 sq. meters of floor space, 2.5 times the combined total of the old research bases. It has a staff of 250, slightly more than double the size of the company's previous development team.

     Komatsu believes competitiveness starts on the factory floor. By honing its manufacturing methods, it aims to not only reduce costs but also make more appealing products. New techniques developed at the Osaka center are to be shared with other factories in Japan and overseas, as well as subcontractors.

     Akio Iwasaki, the manager of the Osaka plant, emphasizes another motivation for pursuing high-tech manufacturing: nimbly responding to fluctuations in global demand. 

     "Keeping our production lines geared to peak demand would be costly," Iwasaki says. "If we can find ways to increase productivity, we can ramp up output when conditions call for it."

     The manager dubs Komatsu's goal quick-response capability. 

Robot wonderland     

The Osaka center has yet to bear fruit on the production line, but the philosophy behind the development drive is nothing new. Komatsu has been reaping rewards from process improvements for years.

     Its global robotic welding system is one example. In 2010, the company standardized robots for each machine part. These systems, which can be installed relatively inexpensively, ensure uniform quality regardless of where parts are produced.

     Komatsu also developed software for controlling fast-moving articulated robots -- contraptions with rotary joints that allow a full range of motion. Thanks to the software, the robots produce high-quality welds 30% faster.

     Also found inside the robot wonderland of a Komatsu factory: a system in which four welding machines coordinate with one another. Iwasaki says robots handle 90% of the welding at the company's domestic plants.

     Yet another cost- and time-saver is simulation technology. This entails using computers to visualize how, say, molten steel will flow and harden. These simulations reduce the need for physical tests. And using 3-D models to calculate how much strain a part can handle makes it possible to shape components into the strongest, lightest possible forms.

     In machining, the company simulates how steel chips will be created during cutting. If the chips end up joined together, rather than broken into small fragments, it means the machining is less precise and the cutting tool will have a shorter life. Vibrations, tool temperatures and resistance are also analyzed. All this allows Komatsu to choose the optimum tool shapes and machining techniques.

     Based on the data, numerically controlled tools -- those that have been preprogrammed -- can make automatic adjustments. Machining time can be slashed by 10-30%. 

     At a hydraulic shovel plant in China's Shandong Province, production manager Koji Kishi points to robots, saying, "We're putting the expertise we've built in Japan to use."

The human element

The facility, Komatsu Shantui Construction Machinery, is a joint venture with a Chinese company. It is located in the city of Jining, best known as the hometown of Confucius. 

     The robots perform arc welding with a high degree of precision, making joints in steel plate more uniform. Komatsu Shantui installed this automation technology three years ago -- two years after its Japanese parent did. The 15 robots have boosted productivity by 20-30%, cushioning the venture against China's rising labor costs.

     Still, automation is not everything. "The reliable skills of our employees sustain the (Chinese) plant," says Tsugunori Yamamoto, Komatsu Shantui's vice chairman.

     Yamamoto previously served as president of Komatsu Shantui. In 2010, the venture set up a training center to help employees improve their manufacturing skills, starting from the basics. Ten ace technicians work as instructors. 

     The training proved useful immediately -- the facility had a sudden surge in production that same year. Demand for construction machinery spiked as a result of economic stimulus measures from Beijing. According to Kishi, Komatsu Shantui raised daily production capacity to 60 shovels for six months, which meant the 150-meter assembly line had to speed up by a factor of 1.6.

     Engines, hydraulic devices and other parts are assembled on moving carriages. The space between the carriages was reduced by 10% to 5.7 meters. The line speed increased from 45cm per minute to 78cm. Employees drew on the skills they had learned in training to work faster with less room to move around.

     The big rush is over, but the Chinese factory still turns out 20-25 units a day. Last year, the plant won the Deming Prize for quality control -- a major award created in Japan in the 1950s. Call it a testament to Komatsu's approach of using cutting-edge automation with some well-trained humans.