TOKYO -- China has become NSK's second biggest manufacturing base after Japan. The Japanese bearing maker entered China ahead of its rivals and now produces 80% of the parts it needs for that market at plants in the country.
Among the challenges NSK deals with in China is a high employee turnover rate. To ensure quality, the company is turning a China plant into what it calls a "mother factory," where the necessary skills will be taught to inexperienced workers.
At a Kunshan plant in Jiangsu Province, automated assembly lines operate around the clock, turning out hub unit bearings, key components in any car's wheels. "In the past, it took 10 people to do the work," an NSK representative said. "But now, we only need two workers."
Initially, NSK's Chinese engineers would manually assemble parts. A few years ago, some of the production was automated. Now machines similar to those used in Japan have been installed at NSK's Chinese factories.
NSK uses the automated lines for making so-called third-generation bearings. Moreover, it is automating assembly lines for older-generation bearings in stages.
The Kunshan plant went online in 1997 and is the oldest of NSK's 12 China factories. Even though the company has plants equipped with new machines in other parts of China, it has decided to introduce automation into its oldest factory for two reasons.
One reason has to do with its intention to standardize assembly procedures. By utilizing automated lines and work flow charts, NSK aims to prevent discrepancies in product quality and production speed when new workers come onboard.
In China's manufacturing industry, "people come and go quickly," said Masahiro Matsuoka, vice manager of the Kunshan plant.
The Kunshan plant has a relatively low turnover rate compared with nearby factories. Even so, Chinese workers often leave for higher-paying jobs. The result is that the Japanese tradition of older workers passing down know-how to new hires cannot really take hold in China.
To appeal to brand-conscious, young Chinese workers, NSK displays its products along with photos of automobiles that use them at its factory entrance. This kind of horn-tooting is not common back home in Japan. "If our Chinese workers know they are making products used in such and such a car," an NSK representative said, "we hope the knowledge will make them want to keep working here."
The second reason for automating its oldest plant is that NSK intends to turn it into what it calls a "mother factory" -- a hub for all its plants in China. While NSK has already transferred technology to China, now it wants to create a system through which its China plants can share technological know-how.
For instance, NSK in 2012 launched a new factory in Anhui Province replete with the latest automation technology. Think of it as one of the mother factory's children. It follows the same quality-control and other procedures as the Kunshan plant. It is also headed by a Chinese national, and NSK has taken other steps to make the place more Chinese.
NSK's China production is likely to rise. To boost production efficiency, the company is trying to eliminate the need for sending defective products to Japan for verification. To that end, NSK's Kunshan workers regularly receive training in Japan. "We can complete the whole process here in China," said Cheng Jun, an NSK general manager.