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Innovative filtration technologies: An interview with Takenori Hirohama, President of TOYO SCREEN KOGYO

Interview - February 13, 2024

Embark on an insightful interview with Takenori Hirohama, President of TOYO SCREEN KOGYO CO., LTD., as he unravels the distinctive edge of their innovative Fine Wedge technology and its applications in wastewater treatment, showcasing the company's advancements in industrial machinery. Hirohama delves into the challenges faced during technology development, emphasizing the trio of machinery, talent, and material that shaped the success of their cutting-edge filtration systems. Exploring their flagship product, the Fine-Arc, Hirohama reveals its superior capabilities, sustainability, and global applications across industries like food processing, chemicals, and even nuclear waste containment, exemplifying TOYO SCREEN's commitment to international expansion and addressing pressing environmental concerns.

TAKENORI HIROHAMA, PRESIDENT OF TOYO SCREEN KOGYO CO., LTD.
TAKENORI HIROHAMA | PRESIDENT OF TOYO SCREEN KOGYO CO., LTD.

If we could start with a short introduction to Toyo Screen. What are your company's main competencies and what are the main advantages of your firm that allow you to stand out among your competition?

Our company began with the manufacturing of woven wire screens and perforated metal plates. Woven wire screens were used to separate vibrations in places like quarries and steel manufacturing sites, which continue to this day. We started with woven wire screens and with the evolving requests and demands of our customers we have come to produce something more detailed, sturdy, and durable. It was with these requests that we were able to develop our signature Fine Wedge technology.

The first development with this technology was the Wedge Wire Screen which has slits of over 1 mm. With time we have improved to achieve finer slits which is what we are calling our Fine Wedge technology. The purpose of our wedge screens is to separate solids and liquids, so the finer the mesh the better separation you can achieve. Our latest product has an aperture of 5 microns. This is a technology that our company has only compared to the other rivals.

We not only produce filters as a component but we are also currently developing a separator as well as a concentrator as a device.

 

Your Fine Wedge technology has built upon some of the technologies you've developed over the years. What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome during its development to ensure its quality?

There are three elements to the development of the Fine Wedge technology. Those are machines, talent, and material. The machinery to manufacture Fine Wedge needed to be more elevated or more high quality as well as accurate, so we ran several trials to find the best-suited material. How people managed the material and the machinery determined the final quality of the Fine Wedge product.

 

One product in particular is the Fine-Arc, a product that takes advantage of its Fine Wedge technology. It uses a solid liquid separation screen for sludge collection as well as slurry concentration. Can you tell us more about the Fine-Arc and what makes it superior to some more conventional products on the market?

Our technology for the Fine-Arc originated with the Ultra TN Screen, which is a filter with an aperture of over 0.1 mm. It was used for wastewater treatment of factories, so basically before wastewater is sent out to rivers or reused it goes through this filtration process for cleaning.

In the early 1970s, Japan became highly aware of the environmental effects of releasing toxic wastewater back into the environment, and at the time there were so many cases of water pollution. There were laws passed on sludge and wastewater treatment, so since then we developed the Ultra TN Screen, and we have a sales performance of over 30,000 units.

The way our systems work is you have a screen and a box to contain wastewater. The structure is very simple, with the wastewater being placed in the container, and once it overflows the wastewater goes through this filtration. The solids remain on the screen while the water penetrates through the screen. I think that its simplicity is why our products have been as well received as they have been.

The only energy required is to drive the pump that sends the wastewater to the container, so the system is very cost-effective and requires very little energy. The screen device itself is very robust and durable, with over 30 years of operation being very possible. We've estimated the maximum lifespan to be around 40-50 years.

As you can imagine, with such a simple device maintenance is very easy. That is because the screen is only placed on top of the surface so you can remove it for maintenance or even replacement. However, with this original Ultra TN screen size we can only collect solids above the size of 0.1 mm or about 100 microns. The issue becomes that once you make the aperture smaller it makes it difficult to pass water through the screen. Right now we are seeing a demand in the industry for finer treatment and purification which led to our development of the Fine Wedge.

The Fine-Arc is the same structure as the Ultra TN Screen with the filter placed on top. High-pressure water is run through the screen with the collection of fine particles. I think that adding pressure is the key because without pressure the water will just stay on the surface of the screen. Additionally, we can adjust the angle of the screen to control the amount of water, but this angle adjustment can only be done with accurate machinery.

This is used in food processing for cornstarch, basically to separate the skin, and starch on a cob of corn. All cornstarch manufacturers in Japan use our machinery.


Cornstarch running through Fine-Arc


Is food processing the biggest application for the Fine-Arc? Are there any new applications you are looking to apply your product to?

Yes, cornstarch has a dominant share of applications, but we do see applications in the chemical and automotive industries as well. Chemical and rubber are two new applications we are looking to expand the Fine-Arc further into.

We only launched the Fine-Arc five years ago so we started by entering specific markets and once we have more experience we will look to take a horizontal approach to capture more related markets for future applications.

From an SDG perspective, our durability and sturdiness make our products very appealing to companies. Products can withstand a lot of pressure and cleaning, allowing companies to use them for many years only with simple maintenance.

Many of our screens are used to hold adsorbent of pollutants in the wastewater tanks in many industrial areas. Take for instance the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster of 2011. There is a massive amount of wastewater there in tanks, and in each of those tanks is one of our filters. Our filters were selected for their sturdiness and reliability in dealing with radioactive wastewater. No radioactivity can get out of the tank so the filter retains the radioactive substances within the tank.

We do work with a variety of industries to deal with their requests. Firstly they request what they want separated and then we receive a sample for testing. This lab testing is all done to determine which filter or machine would be best suited to the process.


Tubes


Is this only being applied to a specific industry domestically or is it also being applied in certain fields overseas as well?

Our international strategy is targeting Southeast Asia, and this isn't just confined to Fine-Arc either. We have a trading firm as an agent to do overseas sales for us. We started our overseas business with this Japanese trading agent around eight years ago. The reason why we are not directly going overseas ourselves is due to our size; our firm is quite small and we don't have enough manpower for overseas expansion. Also in terms of budgeting, it is more effective to work with a Japanese trading firm.

Thailand and Vietnam are the major targets in Southeast Asia, and the reason why we've chosen Southeast Asia is because currently, the region is experiencing something we've had experience with. In the 1970s Japan had major issues with water treatment and stringent regulations so we felt we could apply knowledge of this phenomenon to Southeast Asia where there are parallels currently springing up across the region.

Our strategy is to start with the sales of Ultra TN Screen and this is the initial technology that our company started with that I mentioned earlier. This is focused on petrochemicals, paper manufacturing, and food manufacturing industries. The Ultra TN Screen is doing very well in Southeast Asian markets and there’s been demand from customers for even finer filtration. Now we are trying to propose the Fine-Arc technology to customers that require finer filtration.

 

Earlier in 2023 we know that you exhibited your technology at the THAIWATER2023 a Thai international exhibition and conference for water resource management as well as wastewater technologies. Can you tell us how this event went for your firm? Was it a success and are you looking to participate in similar international events in the future?

It isn’t our first time attending the THAIWATER exhibition we have attended several times in the past. As time passes the regulations for wastewater treatment in Thailand are becoming more stringent, so this year in addition to the Ultra TN Screen we also displayed Fine-Arc. As a result, we were able to establish some good relations with some food, petrochemical, and paper-related firms. We are currently in negotiations for a contract in Thailand.

Although regulations have continued to become stricter in Thailand it was only until recently that production sites struggled to keep up with regulations. Recently changes in the environment have caused companies in the locality to more actively pursue and abide by these regulations. Thailand isn’t alone either, and Vietnam, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia in general are all seeing the same trends emerge. If there are any new opportunities for exhibitions not only in South-East Asia but also all over the world we want to actively seek those opportunities, and this mentality is what led us to go to Germany for an exhibition earlier in 2023.

Wastewater treatment in general evolved in Europe, so with the exhibition in Germany, we saw a great opportunity to see for ourselves the types of new technologies our competitors are showing. It also provided our firm an opportunity to further explore and understand the market for wastewater treatment in Europe. We now understand thanks to this exhibition that Europe has lots of very strong companies producing filtration parts and therefore it would be very difficult for a Japanese newcomer to enter the market from the point of view of their high standard price competition.
 

Earlier you mentioned how a lack of manpower is one of the reasons why you haven’t directly expanded overseas, and this is a common problem with Japanese companies. Thanks to an aging population and low birth rates the population of Japan as a whole is rapidly shrinking, creating a labor crisis and a smaller domestic market. What have been some of the challenges and opportunities you’ve seen as a result of this domestic demographic shift and how are you reacting to these challenges?

Mr. Kawasaki is our new head of human resources (HR) and he is the one facing the challenge. As you mentioned, the shortage of manpower is a prevalent issue across Japan, so securing and maintaining talented employees is key. To retain those workers it is important to raise the salary, welfare, and the standards of the working environment. Thus this is affecting the costs and puts a burden on the company. To compensate for the rising costs we are pushing to make Toyo Screen an attractive company in the eyes of society and the eyes of our employees. We want to create value-added products that our employees are proud to work on and sell. The HR department is now facing the monumental challenge of elevating the welfare of employees as well as creating a transparent scheme for salaries and promotions to motivate the employees in the company.

 

Imagine that we come back in 2029 and have this interview all over again. What goals do you hope to achieve by the time we come back for that new interview?

As the company's manager, it is important to envision the growth of the company as well as increasing sales profitability. Elevating the satisfaction of our employees is also a key element and something we take very seriously. My management philosophy is to create opportunities and environments that make our employees feel happy, so much so that they can feel more happiness today and experience greater happiness tomorrow.

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