Already Japan’s top domestic manufacturer of large synthetic resin blow-molded products, Kodama Plastics is expanding its range of high-purity containers to overseas clients.
Can you share with us your manufacturing philosophy and the strengths of your company that make you a competitive option operating overseas?
Our monozukuri spirit comes from our customers and their expectations. Most of the products that are produced at Kodama Plastics aim to increase the quality of those of our customers and improve the standards of the final users, which are the chemical compound manufacturing companies. I’m sure you can imagine that this industry demands high-quality standards in the containers that transport or keep chemicals. This is the way we approach our manufacturing and this is how to demonstrate our monozukuri spirit; by introducing the best quality possible.
As a result, our company has gained an overwhelming market share only because of the standards that we set for ourselves. We are truly capable of providing the kind of high-quality products that our customers expect from us. In other words, it is a mutual activity to reach high standards of quality whilst also working side by side with customers. Those customers are the ones that foster our skills and the ones that push us to always try for the next level. This results in fantastic products, and I think that our Hype Pure Series of bottles is a good example of these achievements.
One of the main emerging needs we’re seeing now when it comes to plastics and containers is sustainability. For example, your Tamakan bottle, which is the first of its kind to be made with biomass-derived polyethylene. Can you tell us more about your company’s approach to sustainable manufacturing?
There are several points that must be covered in order to reach sustainability. Companies like ourselves that deal with plastics have to be very keen to tackle this sensitive issue and preserve the environment. Plastics by definition are a very hard material to handle. The first thing we do is collect the scraps coming from manufacturing, and we have created a sort of recirculating process from within the factory. Additionally, all of the plastics that we use are 100% recyclable.
With Tamakan, we have developed a plastic container manufactured by blow molding high-density polyethylene B as raw material which originated as biomass. Obviously, this means that it is very good for the environment. That itself was just released by our R&D center last year, so the market hasn’t responded that much yet. We are still getting evaluations from the customers, but we are putting our best bets on this type of plastic container and hopefully, in the future, this will become a star product for Kodama Plastics.
You cater to many different industries, from semiconductor chemicals to construction, agriculture, and food. Do you have a particular client base that you consider your main focus or one that you are trying to cater more towards going forward?
I would say that the answer to this question right now is the users of the plastic containers used in the semiconductor industry for handling or transporting chemical compounds used in the manufacturing of semiconductors. We are escalating our investment inside the factory in order to introduce more equipment units that can produce products for semiconductor manufacturing. It won’t be in the existing facility. What we try to do is to separate our facilities by industry. Basically, what we are trying to do is to create new production lines that are tailor-made for a specific purpose.
There is a huge global move towards increasing semiconductor production capacity in the wake of COVID-19 and an ongoing global chip shortage. How has your firm responded to the rising demands from chip makers and semiconductor-related companies?
That is very true, and the industry itself is currently experiencing a lot of ups and downs. These days there is a significant shortage of chips with an overwhelming demand for semiconductor materials. Obviously, chemical products are in the category of raw materials used in semiconductor production, and the demand for these materials as well as a method to store and transport them is increasing day to day. That being said, we must be cautious as we are not able to accurately predict the future. The industry itself is in a state of flux on a day-to-day basis, so it is very important that before we go ahead and make a final decision to go all in on any particular industry, we must listen to what the customers are saying, and what their expectations for the future are. Hand in hand with the customers we analyze the market, listen to their projections, and develop a strategy from there.
This situation isn’t just covering the semiconductor industry, for example, we recently have been in talks with lithium-ion battery manufacturing companies. There are liquids inside of those batteries that must be properly contained and properly transferred to the final user. This is something that we are also getting involved in.
Could you tell us more about some of the distinguishing features of your Hyper Pure Bottle, and how this product separates itself from conventional clean bottle products?
First of all, as you mentioned the bottle is produced in a clean room, meaning that one of the key features of the bottle is its overwhelming cleanliness. It is made in a class 100 clean room, which is a certification group. A class 100 cleanroom is a soft- or hard-sided wall-manufactured structure that utilizes High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filtration systems to maintain air cleanliness levels of a maximum of 100 particles per cubic meter of the inside air. Class 100 cleanroom purification systems must provide filter coverage of 60-70% and a minimum of 300 air changes per hour. The standard air flow rate for a Class 100 clean room is 36-65 CFM per square foot.
We have developed a blow-molding machine that doesn’t disperse oil mist. The reason is that the components in the bottle are low, and through data collection, we utilize only 0.2 micrometers in 11 spots per 1cc. This results in an excellent product called a pure bottle. The difference between a standard pure bottle and our Hyper Pure Bottle is the number of particles we use while producing inside a bottle. What I mean by particles is actually the resin particles and the size of the particles, which as I mentioned earlier is 0.2 micrometers in 11 spots and this is per 1cc. This is why our Hyper Pure Bottle meets the quality standards of our customers, and those customers appreciate that our product utilizes as few resin particles as possible.
For regular applications such as detergent or other standard chemicals, there is no such standard like this. We have no idea how much lower the usual standard is, and conventional plastic bottles or containers do not regulate the number of impurities or contaminants. It is a totally different scale from what we are doing here at Kodama Plastics.
The production in the clean room started in 1995, and at the start, the standard for particle size was 0.5 micrometers. The number of particles allowed in this product was 25. This is the beginning of standards being applied to clean bottle manufacturing. It was a departure point, and there was a switch to even stricter certification measures quality levels, and what we feel we have achieved at Kodama Plastics has passed even those strict regulations. We have exceeded the standards and that is why we call our line Hyper Pure Bottles.
Demands are pretty much coming from the semiconductor manufacturing industry and ultimately the standards are dictated by those firms and customers. The level of demand is getting higher as the need for cleanliness and precision continues to increase. It is hyper-competitive and in order to compete in the market, companies must continually raise their quality.
What is the current focus of Kodama Plastics R&D efforts?
Our IBC container is a large-sized container that can hold approximately 1,000 liters. The container itself is not anything new, and in fact, we introduced it around 20 years ago as a plastic container, but recent demands, as we have discussed today, are coming in for more clean and pure products. Basically, the idea is to take those clean room products and increase the size without compromising the cleanliness and purity.
We are currently investing our finances into increasing our production facilities with new equipment that can produce clean types of 1,000-liter containers. The demands are coming in from the semiconductor and chemical compound manufacturing companies.
What are some of the challenges of producing such large-scale containers with that level of purity?
Basically, there are two challenging points when producing something on this large scale. Obviously, the first challenge is the size, and it is quite difficult to produce something so large in a clean room environment. This comes down to the clean room environment being a confined space and it being difficult to handle the larger proportions.
The second issue is related to choosing the proper quality raw materials, because not every type of raw material can be applied to all chemical compound and semiconductor manufacturing companies. The materials need to be chosen very carefully for the required standards.
Do you ever collaborate with companies in terms of your production or your development, whether that be domestic companies here in Japan or overseas companies?
Yes, we do quite a lot. We have conducted co-creation with many affiliate partners. The triggering point was way back in 1995, and everything created by our company was formed back then from scratch. During that time we had to cooperate with many affiliated raw material and manufacturing companies, and we continue to do so today. Producing our Hyper Pure Bottles requires the selection of the correct raw materials, and the oil mist prevention barrier also requires a form of collaboration from companies that are able to produce this. The clean room environment itself had to be built by an affiliate, and this kind of bottle in a clean room environment was the first of its kind. Of course, we still face challenges day to day, so being flexible and working with others is a must in our industry. This kind of co-creation is key to upgrading our production and making an even better product for our customers.
Are you interested in other countries or international companies in terms of international collaboration?
Unfortunately, our company is quite oriented towards the domestic market and chemical compound and substrate manufacturing companies that are based domestically here in Japan. Of course, we do have a function within the semiconductor industry, but this is more of an intermediary role because we are not producing the actual chemicals used in the manufacture of semiconductors. In fact, in Japan itself there are very few semiconductor companies, and I believe it is as low as 3 right now. It is tough to expand our business beyond what we already have here, but from another perspective, we are already in foreign markets as far as our customers that use our containers have already expanded overseas. To summarize, basically, we have already expanded overseas through our customers, but our core business does not hardly directly export products to foreign customers. This isn’t to say that we don’t do this, quite the opposite in fact, but I would say that it isn’t our main focus. In fact, there are Singaporean, American, Taiwanese and Korean companies that we export our products to.
What makes Japan an interesting option in your opinion to open fabs?
We believe that the reason behind the decision from TSMC to partner with Sony and build a fabrication plant in Kumamoto was that there are so many chemical compound and chemical substrate manufacturing companies in Japan. There is an infrastructure that is beneficial and lucrative for semiconductor manufacturing production here. This is a strong point of the industry, and this is where Kodama Plastics can come in to serve our best support containers for this industry.
Imagine that we come back on the very last day of your presidency and interview you all over again. What dreams and goals would you like to have achieved by then and what would you like to tell us during that interview?
The most important thing I would like to outline is the spirit of our founding father. He was my grandfather, and back in 1927 the company was established, so currently, it is standing tall in its 95th year of existence. We are very close to 100 years, which is quite exciting for the company. Our founding father had his own principles and created the company’s motto. As the 4th generation of Kodama at the helm of the company, it is my responsibility, and pleasure, to carry on the spirit and take this company to 100 years and beyond.
We now live in a world of constant change and turmoil, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine being things that from a global perspective are changing everyone's lives day to day. We have to be adaptive to all the changes in the world and continue to create new products that our customers demand from us. The one point that I always come back to, however, is that it is vitally important to never forget your roots. And with Kodama Plastics those roots were planted by my grandfather; the founding father of Kodama.