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Applying Japanese craftsmanship to ground improvement works

Interview - March 7, 2023

Thanks to Tenox Kyusyu’s well-developed technology coupled with its intricate knowledge of geology, the company has uniquely navigated the changes in the ground improvement sector.

KOJI MATSUO, PRESIDENT OF TENOX KYUSYU CO., LTD.
KOJI MATSUO | PRESIDENT OF TENOX KYUSYU CO., LTD.

Japan’s last construction boom occurred more than 50 years ago, prior to the 1964 Olympics. Due to the demographic shift that we are seeing today, on one hand, there is less need for newer construction projects, however on the other, there is an increased need for maintenance. As a specialist in foundation work, what is your take on the current state of the Japanese construction market?

I would like to explain the history of Tenox and Tenox Kyusyu, which were both originally the same company until around 10 years ago. Today, we are now a cooperative company and independent of Tenox. They are our collaborative partners. We operate in Kyushu, but R&D is mostly done in Tokyo by Tenox.

We specialize in foundation work, particularly in ground improvement and pile work. As you have mentioned, overall, the work has been decreasing, and especially with COVID, there has been a big impact. People were hesitant to build, and construction work was held back, however, recently there has been a move towards semiconductors. Globally, there has been a shortage of semiconductors, and new facilities have been built in Kyushu, such as the large ones in Kumamoto. There is also another one in Saga Prefecture, in Imari. We have been doing well as a company since the middle of last year. Samco are extending their factory, and we were offered a contract with them. We did the foundation work, and Obayashi is taking over now. Also, last year, Shiseido established a factory in Kyushu and we worked with them. When it comes to civil engineering work, we are doing rehabilitation work with areas that were affected by the Kumamoto earthquake.

The impact of COVID was a short-term thing, however with the decrease in Japan’s population and the low birth rate, Japan’s construction industry will not grow, but diminish.

Every year during the children’s summer vacation, schools would request for refurbishment of existing school buildings, as well as the construction of new ones. Recently, I cannot recall any requests. Before, we always had construction work for schools in the summertime but that is no longer the case.

 

We know that Japan’s population is shrinking and aging at the same time. This presents two main challenges for Japanese firms. The first is the shrinking domestic market. There is also a smaller pool of talented graduates coming through for companies to replace their older more-seasoned workers. With that being said, what challenges and opportunities is Japan’s demographic shift presenting for Tenox Kyusyu?

The shrinking market and lack of labor force is posing a grave threat to our company. Traditionally, Japanese craftsmen, we called ‘Shokunin’, have been very particular about their work, and although we use machinery, it is our craftsmen and engineers who operate them. Japanese craftsmen have the mindset to be better than the others, do more work than the others, and also make the finish more beautiful. This great competitive spirit has led to high-quality production. We are taking measures to retain that mindset and experience to ensure it gets passed down to the next generation within our company. Also, one minute detail for example is that when I went to Singapore and went to use the restroom, I could feel and sense that the light bulb was a little off. Another example is when it comes to tiles, Japanese craftsmen will make sure that all of them fit in the same spot and make sure the joints are beautiful as well. If they are a little bit off, the craftsmen and engineers feel uncomfortable. It is this spirit that allow Japanese companies to make high-quality products.

This is a unique Japanese characteristic. Dekiagari means how they complete something, and Kodawari is how they chase to be over 100%. The shokunin is the person who uses these concepts. While automation and local systems are good, we want to focus on the high-quality details and the craftsman spirit of our engineers to ensure that this continues with the next generation.

 

One thing that we are seeing to combat this aging population is digital technologies and digital transformation (DX), with firms like Tobishima Corporation having DX initiatives. What digital tools are you implementing at Tenox Kyusyu and how do you believe DX will change the construction sector in the future?

Beforehand, the reporting was done on paper, but we have now shifted that to databases. Also, when explaining our proposals and solutions to our customers, we use our own digital technology. These tools were originally created to make things more visualized for our customers. Our craftsmen are good at doing their work, and they provide high-quality services. However, they are not good at explaining, so it is important for us to support them through visualization. Those who explain our processes to the customers also do not necessarily need to be an expert in the field to explain it. This applies to all companies in the construction industry as they are applying DX.

 

When we spoke to Mr. Takamatsu, the president of Takamatsu Construction, he stressed the importance of partnering with tech-focused construction start-ups in overseas markets. Is finding such overseas partnership an area of interest for Tenox Kyusyu?

For the construction site, we already have a QA/QC quality control system. We also have another improved system that we call VCCS which stands for “visualization of construction control system”. That system was developed by Tenox, and we are waiting to see how the market can make use of this technology. Therefore, we already have DX technology and we have been preparing for the future. It is our shokunin who operate this system. Machinery and automation come second. This allows for the shokunin to express what they want to. 

In our company, we have work, and we have a record because we need to control and accumulate our data. We use our Kintone system, from Cybozu Inc, to accumulate all our data from the last 30 years, which we can analyze. If we have a problem, we have an answer. This is one of our strengths and part of our potential for the future. We first cooperate with Tenox when it comes to collaboration for DX and we also develop our own systems. In Japan, high end technology always has a cost, therefore our system cannot be applied overseas. However, we know the essential points and when we look for a local company that has confidence, we then cooperate. We help them to develop a new system that suits the location.



When it comes to going overseas and finding partners, which country do you see as having the most potential for your company?

Finding a local partner that has the right information and is capable of helping us penetrate the market is crucial to expanding overseas. The areas that we are focusing on are areas that we already have links to. For example, in Vietnam, we first established a company there 15 years ago with our partner. However, our partnering local company wanted to secure the Vietnamese market, so they requested for us to send many machines. We did not have the capacity to provide the number of requested machines, so they decided to start their own business and purchase their own machinery. While we are no longer partners, we are still on good terms. Currently, our Vietnamese office is our subsidiary, or our direct base.

For seven years, starting from 2009, we had a construction business in Singapore. However, when it came to Singapore, Chinese and Korean companies were able to expand there due to their lower costs and eventually they took over the market there. That being said, recently, due to inflation, the pricing has returned and our partner in Singapore is calling for us again. We are looking forward to re-entering the Singaporean market.

Since Indonesia is vulnerable to earthquakes, there is also plenty of work for us to do there when it comes to ground improvement work. We have a Korean partner who provides us with information, so we are also thinking of entering the Indonesian market.

It is up to the countries to decide whether they want cheaper, but lower quality that does not last long, or choose to use the Japanese high-quality craftsman-based technology that lasts for a long time. We transfer our technology and knowledge, and even in Singapore, our technology and our knowledge are still retained there.  

 

Japan is a natural disaster-prone country as it sits on the intersection of three tectonic plates, making it prone to earthquakes. We know that Tenox Kyusyu implements an original construction method which is the Tenocolumn, which improves the foundation of buildings. Can you tell us more about the Tenocolumn method? How does it help buildings against seismic activity?

The ground improvement work itself is effective in making the earthquake-prone ground stable. The Tenocolumn method is one of the ground improvement methods and in this method, to make ground improvements, you mix the soil with a cement based solidifying material that is liquified. We call that “cement milk”. When it is well mixed, it solidifies and makes it sturdier and more stable. Our mixing device is very simple, but unique. There is a rotating blade on the front and there is a stable blade that does not move. So, for example, when we mix sticky mud with a mixing blade, it may not be made into small pieces that mix well with the milk. By using the stable blade, we can crush the sticky mud and make it into small pieces which we can then mix.

The ground improvement work is conducted through mixing the soil and the cement-based solidifier, which when mixed well, solidifies the ground. What is unique about this Tenocolumn method is the Tenoblade which allows the soil to be broken down into small pieces, so it can then be mixed well with the solidifier. The engineers must first see the soil and use their expertise to determine what would be the best method. Especially, if it is sticky mud, while it may take more time, it is better to use our Tenoblade. Many companies have imitated our Tenoblade, however we are continuously studying and developing modifications for the blade, which allows us to create a gap between ourselves and the other companies. Also, to keep this as a patent for 20 years, we accumulated our records and technology. We are ahead by 20 years and that is how we can keep our big data. That is a strength of both our company and Tenox as well.

Once again, this construction work heavily relies on the expertise of the craftsman who is the operator. Although people may introduce the same machinery, they cannot achieve the same results.

 

When we spoke to the president of Kawasaki Geological Engineering, Mr. Tochimoto, he explained how Japan has some of the world’s most complex soil and this can make construction difficult. How have you adapted your technology and methods to suit the different soil composition types of international markets?

To accommodate every sort of ground, we do testing prior to the work. This allows us to determine what kind of soil it is and what is the appropriate amount of the cement-based solidifying material to add. Some soil is hard to solidify, so we adjust the amount of cement needed. This allows us to create stable ground.

At Tenox Kyusyu, we have over 30 years of experience, so we have lots of data, especially for the Kyushu and Okinawa areas. If you ask me for a specific location, we can tell what the ground composition is. For example, in Kumamoto’s Aso area, the volcanic region consists of a lot of cinder and ashes, and it can be a little hard to stabilize, where as in the Kagoshima area, it is sandy and therefore easier to fix the ground. The locations can be very different.

When it comes to overseas projects, we receive requests for us to do a test trial run. We use our big data when we do our trials and we then offer our proposals. We never say that we know everything, but with the expertise and knowledge that we have accumulated over many years, we are able to offer different solutions for the customers to choose from.

 

Can you tell us, from all the projects that you have done, which one is your favorite? Which project are you the proudest of?

What remains in my heart are the instances where we failed at first, but we were able to recover. While it is a fun question, there is actually a sad element to it. However, we were able to overcome the challenges that were presented to us. When setbacks like these occurred, we discussed how to fix them, and those processes remain in my heart.

 

Imagine that we come back five years from now and have this interview all over again. What would you like to tell us? What are your dreams for this company, and what goals would you like to have accomplished by then?

Currently, Japan is lacking when it comes to its labor force. In order for the country to continue its growth, it is inevitable and very important that we welcome overseas workers. Fortunately, we have our base in Vietnam and we currently have four personnel from Vietnam working as technical trainees. We would like to increase this number. However, I feel that the current trend in Japan is that overseas workers come here and have one year’s training, after which they must take an exam in Japanese. The exam itself has many tricky questions that can lead to people making mistakes. They are willing to work in Japan, however, these tricky exam questions make it difficult for them to pass. That situation must be changed, and I really hope that by the time you come back for the interview, our company will have more foreign employees working for us and have a more diverse environment.

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