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Sharp mask factory aims to go from 'out of the blue,' into the black

Business thrown together with help from Foxconn boosts efficiency with automation

When Japan was experiencing a mask shortage last spring, Sharp decided to step in, starting production in an idled clean room.    © Reuters

OSAKA -- A clean room at Sharp's display panel plant in Mie Prefecture, east of here, is a factory that never sleeps.

Inside its pristine walls, nine production lines operate 24/7, churning out 700,000 surgical masks per day.

In a room boasting the same level of air purity as a liquid-crystal display plant, a machine spits out three layers of nonwoven cloth, which are glued together with a nose wire, to be shaped into pleated rectangles.

After ear straps are attached, the masks are inspected and packaged. The constant rumble from the machines is a far cry from the silence that filled the room almost a year ago. 

The electronics maker's mask production started in March last year as a corporate responsibility project of sorts as Sharp stepped in to alleviate a national shortage amid a pandemic. It has since grown into a major operation, with cumulative shipments reaching 100 million in November. Now, as coronavirus cases spike in Japan, Sharp is trying to improve efficiency to turn the operation into a viable business that generates profit. 

"The plan emerged out of the blue," said Eiichiroh Nishimura, a deputy general manager of panel production at Sharp Display Technology. He learned of the company's move into mask production from a news report at the end of February last year. "I never thought I would be put in charge."

Nishimura's expertise is in display panel production, having helped launch panel production at the Mie plant, as well as at the Tenri plant in Nara Prefecture. He had no experience in mask manufacturing, and neither did anyone else he could find at Sharp. To add to his challenge, Nishimura was given just a month to have production lines up and running.

Sharp has dedicated part of a clean room at its Mie plant to mask production.

Masks were in short supply around the world at the time. The challenge began with securing production equipment. One Japanese company informed him that it could deliver the equipment "in a year." Undeterred, Nishimura sought help from Taiwanese parent Hon Hai Precision Industry, the iPhone assembler also known as Foxconn, to secure two machines by the production start date of March 24, 2020.

After the equipment was installed, it required multiple adjustments. "I didn't have time to fret over anything. I just kept moving forward."

Sharp arrived 26 years ago at the Mie plant's home in the town of Taki, known for the Matsuzaka brand of high-end wagyu beef. Now, part of the plant has been reborn as a mask-making base. 

Capacity expansion continued through June, with two new lines added each month. The once-empty clean room, located in a part of the factory farthest away from the main entrance, became filled with equipment. As production reached capacity, new equipment was brought in. Production finally started going smoothly in July.

One more line was added to create the current nine-line system. But with efficiency taking a back seat to urgency, the effort relied on human labor. Even Nishimura was recruited to the production line to help box masks. 

Now the company is moving to a "streamlining phase" to "establish a production base that can stay competitive even after mask demand subsides."

An image-based inspection device has been installed to reduce the three to four inspectors who previously handled quality control. The process of bagging finished masks has been automated, and the final stage of putting them in boxes will soon be handled by a robot. The plan is to reduce the number of production personnel by 40% from its peak by the end of the month. Production-line engineers have been brought in to work on automation.

High customer demand crashed Sharp's website when the masks were first released. 

Japanese rival Iris Ohyama has highly automated manufacturing lines that boast far higher production volumes. Sharp will strive to build facilities that match them.

Japan's acute shortage seen last spring has eased, and now masks are sold at prices that amount to less than 10 yen (10 cents) each.

Sharp's masks, costing about 55 yen each, fall in the high end of the price range high-priced range. To build a sustainable business, the products need to be competitive in terms of quality and price. Sharp has cut prices on its masks. It has also started a new service in December to deliver masks periodically to subscribers.

There are challenges on the marketing front. When online sales began in April last year, customers flocked to the site, crashing the portal. The problem spilled into services for connected home appliances, which use the same system. Sharp switched to a lottery system to allocate masks but the subscription service temporarily stopped accepting new customers in December. It is crucial to build a reliable system that can seamlessly handle orders and shipments.

"Instead of customers turning to Sharp's masks because there is nothing else, we want customers to seek out Sharp's masks," said Nishimura. The mask straps were improved after complaints from customers, a signal that Sharp is in for the long haul. 

Along with education and smart homes, Sharp positions health care as a core business. Following masks, the company also launched production of face shields. In addition to home-use health devices, Sharp plans to expand the offerings of medical and nursing-care equipment. 

Mask production, positioned as a "social contribution" by CEO Tai Jeng-wu, has burnished Sharp's brand image. Now it is time for the business to start making money. 

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