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Obituaries

Fanuc founder Inaba, king of industrial robots, dead at 95

His charismatic management propelled the robot maker to the global stage

Japanese robot maker Fanuc's founder and honorary chairman Seiuemon Inaba died on Oct. 2.

TOKYO -- Seiuemon Inaba, the charismatic founder of Fanuc, who turned a fledgling startup into a global manufacturer of industrial robots, died on Friday from natural causes. He was 95.

Inaba graduated from the University of Tokyo with an engineering degree and joined Fuji Tsushinki Manufacturing (currently Fujitsu) in 1946. As an engineer, he led the development of the first numerical control device, used in machine tools, by a Japanese company.

The NC device has made possible the precise maneuvering of cutting tools and enabled advanced metal processing, contributing to the modernization of Japanese manufacturing. The company's machining center, Robodrill, is used to make metal casings for Apple's iPhones. 

In 1972, Fujitsu Fanuc was founded as a spinoff of Fujitsu, with Inaba as managing director. He became president in 1975.

With its main base in the village of Oshino, Yamanashi Prefecture, Fanuc was instilled with Inaba's unique management style, which colored everything from research and development to production. He offered high salaries to graduates of top colleges willing to work day and night and housed them in dorms built at the foot of Mt. Fuji. Some called the practice "bizarre" but Inaba shrugged off the criticism.

Inaba pursued original product development while streamlining of production. Fanuc grew globally, thanks to its industrial robot business, but it also streamlined the manufacturing industry and contributed to its automation.

Under his leadership, the company developed an extensive network of maintenance and repair services overseas, which helped Japanese automakers and machinery manufacturers make inroads into foreign markets. By setting up joint ventures with General Motors and other foreign manufacturers, Fanuc aggressively cultivated overseas clients. It currently claims 50% of the market for computer numerical control (CNC) devices and holds a hefty share of the robot market. 

Famously loath to incurring debt, Inaba let the company accumulate cash on hand, a stance often derided by investors. Boasting his own "strict" and "obsessive" management style, he paid attention to price changes as small as a penny. That spirit still lives on at the company. Fanuc's operating profit margin stood at 17.4% in the year ended March this year, a respectable level for manufacturers.

Inaba stepped down as president in 1995 and left his director post in 2000.

When the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, he was no longer on the front line. But with the devastation causing supply-chain disruptions, Inaba single-handedly declared that Fanuc would "fulfill its supply obligations without delay."

Unable to procure the semiconductors that go into CNC machines that are mounted on machine tools, Fanuc appeared as though it would be unable to deliver promised products on time. A shortage of machine tools, dubbed the mother machine, would hit automakers and smartphone makers -- including iPhones -- across the world. 

Alarmed, Inaba instructed engineers to change the design of CNC devices so that they could be manufactured without the missing semiconductors. When that strategy worked, Inaba proudly said: "We have really good researchers."

After making repeated gaffes, Inaba stepped aside from the center stage at the urging of his son in 2013. It was not a glorious exit, but that reluctant retreat showed Fanuc truly was his life.

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