With a company history dating back 100 years, Takayama Reed is still developing innovative technologies, exemplified by its unique ETp surface treatment for textile needs.
Japan is the oldest society in the world and is rapidly shrinking. Prime Minister Kishida has recently stressed the severity of the situation, and one side effect of this is the labor crisis. There is a smaller pool of graduates coming through for companies to replace their older workers with and pass on their craftsmanship to the next generation. Another effect is the shrinking domestic market, meaning there will be fewer people to sell products to over time. What have been some of the challenges, but also some of the opportunities, this demographic shift has presented for Takayama Reed?
This is a big issue for us and because of this, many manufacturing companies in Japan are looking towards automation, and I think this will become one of the key solutions to tackle this demographic shift. However, having said that we are not pushing ourselves that far toward automation, and the aim really is not to go in that direction either. Our products are 100% order-made utilizing craftsmanship. Those craftsmen in particular play a huge role when defining the quality of reeds produced in our factories. Automation is simply not applicable in our scenario and it will not be something that we will implement in the near future. Everything we have here at our company is owed to that expertise and knowledge, and we cannot turn our back on that craftsmanship now after 100 years of establishment.
Let’s do a comparison between a fully automated company and ours. Of course, automation gives an advantage in speed and efficiency, but it loses the heart and the contributions of the workers. When we employ young people, we feel that employment creates a sense of pride and motivates people to create something completely with their own two hands. When they see the final result and the customer is completely satisfied, it puts a smile on that worker's face. With that pride and satisfaction, the workers then strive to learn and improve more; actively seeking out senior members of our staff in order to continue their own evolution. That cycle in itself creates an important bond between workers and bridges the gap between generations.
This essence of our business is truly a blessing and I think that has led to our company capturing the number one share in reed manufacturing around the globe. We have set up good foundations of human resources here in Japan and then spread these techniques across the globe. The bottom line is that without this expertise, we simply cannot produce good quality products. We owe everything in our business to that craftsmanship spirit.
Another problem you mentioned is that Japan is the world’s oldest society, and of course, we do have a lot of elderly people working in our company. They have been working here for the past 30, 40, or even 50 years, but honestly, I do not see this as a bad thing. It is a positive point to accumulate knowledge and techniques over many decades, and these senior-ranked craftsmen can relay those skills at a place we call the Takayama Academy. It is an educational center where younger employees can learn from the senior management and craftsmen, creating this sense of technology transfer.
For example, we had one employee who joined our company at an early stage of his life and now that gentleman is 81 years old. He has been working for Takayama Reed for the past 65 years, contributing to the company, and he knows almost everything about our production. He has become an individual who goes abroad and relays his technological skills to overseas locations of our affiliates and places where our reeds are implemented. He is still healthy and doing fine, and in fact, he still contributes a lot of his time to the company. I think this gentleman is a shining example of how elderly people can still contribute in significant ways despite their advanced age.
Reeds are an old technology that has played an important role in the history of textiles, and even today, they are still crucial in the manufacturing of fabrics and clothes, however, there are many problems to overcome when it comes to modern reeds, such as abrasion. How do your products help overcome some of these challenges?
Abrasion is a specific problem we are facing, so to avoid any issues and to reach up to a good quality product we need to meet three conditions. First of all, for those customers, we recommend using 420J2 stainless steel which has proven to be trusted and reliable in terms of longevity and durability. Next is understanding the product we are dealing with, and that must come from the customer and the conversations they have with us about their requirements and needs for the final product. There are so many types and consistency of threads out there, so by having those conversations, we can pick out the best reed to meet their needs, providing them with a tailor-picked solution. Additionally, we have ETp, which is our low-friction surface treatment and that is applied when the reed is manufactured. Our Diamond-Like Carbon (DLC) and Super-DLC are used as a coating to cover the dents while also improving the lifespan of the reed itself. These steps in many ways go to solve the problems you alluded to.
Next month, on the 8th of June 2023, we are going to be participating in the International Textile Machinery Exhibition (ITMA Europe) 2023, the world’s largest international textile and garment technology exhibition, which this year will be held in Milan Italy for one week. Now we cannot reveal too much information, but we look forward to meeting many people there and demonstrating our unique technologies to the world.
Can you tell us your history with ITMA Europe?
The last ITMA Europe was in Barcelona in 2019. This exhibition takes place every four years, so this year, Milan has been selected as the host. It is almost like the Olympics as it rotates to different fashion capitals every four years. 2015 was the first year we participated in ITMA Europe, and that year also marked the 100th anniversary of our company. This year will be the third time we participate and we will be celebrating our 108th anniversary.
I have visited every exhibition since ITMA Paris in 1971 and I would think that by now I know pretty much everything about the history of weaving machinery. By attending this exhibition for half a century, I have accumulated a huge amount of knowledge and I would think that I know what is happening in the industry and what the trends are. The company itself has only been putting booths in the exhibition since 2015 and that is because we have been friendly with local reed manufacturing companies in Europe; there were quite a number of them. They are good friends of mine, but I felt I needed to refrain from participating in these exhibitions full-time in order not to spoil the relationships I had with European local reed manufacturing companies. Over the course of time, we saw that many European reed manufacturing companies started closing their doors and getting out of the business, so gradually we felt it would be a good time to start actively participating and putting up a booth every four years. Up until now, I feel it has been successful for Takayama Reed.
You explained earlier how you use a form of stainless steel in your reeds. What advantages does Duraflex have over other kinds of bonding materials?
Duraflex is a combination of two words: durability and flexibility. We became acquainted with Duraflex because of my father, and he went to Basel in 1967 and took part in ITMA Europe. He came into contact with the Danish company that produces Duraflex and successfully signed an agreement, licensing this product to Japan and introducing it to our reed manufacturing.
Duraflex is much better when compared to conventional reeds made of solder, and it is often called a plastic-bonded compound material. When you use solder, there is heat expansion happening which is not good for the process of weaving itself, so to remove this problem, there was a switch to a plastic compound material like Duraflex; this thought was in the minds of many reed manufacturing companies. Takayama Reed was successful in this transition back in the 1960s.
In addition to manufacturing reeds, you also have trading capabilities, handling various testing machines imported from overseas, with examples including the TEXTEST from Switzerland. Why did you decide to diversify your business and add trading to your list of capabilities?
We have long-lasting relations with weaving manufacturers in Japan through our reed business. Since we also have great imported products, including products from TEXTEST which are made in Switzerland (e.g. Air Permeability Testers and Automatic Hydrostatic Testers), we are able to have great relationships with wide textile makers and various other markets in Japan including filter, medical, film, and testing/evaluation companies. There is stable demand for high-quality products in the Japanese market and we are looking for new imported products that may meet other needs of the Japanese market.
Could you tell us the role that partnerships play at Takayama Reed, and are you looking for any partnerships in international markets?
It is hard for us because, in our industry, almost everything is automated these days and especially with our business, we cannot see a scenario where we would be able to cooperate with some foreign-originated reed manufacturing companies out there. The reason it is difficult is that the mentality abroad is different from ours here in Japan. Should we try to localize our production elsewhere, I really could not see it working out. We pride ourselves in maintaining very traditional ways, which would not gel well with many foreign companies.
The way our business works is that we provide our products overseas to weaving companies out there in locations such as Asia and Europe. They utilize our products in producing their own final products which are sold to end users. Throughout the years, we have been approached by a number of reed manufacturing companies and on almost all occasions negotiations broke down at some point or another. There needs to be a solid, mutual understanding for partnerships to take place, and honestly, that is much more difficult to achieve than many would assume. If the basic principles of two companies do not match, then a partnership really cannot take place.
America is big business for us, and although we were not able to match with any local reed manufacturing before, we are now sending a lot of products there. We started exporting to the US 40 years ago and we have been successful so far because of the power of word of mouth. People there understand the meaning of Japanese quality and then they tell affiliated companies about Takayama Reed. Our distributor in the US is doing a fantastic job and because of that, our name is out there in the US. I would consider our American expansion as a key milestone in our company’s history. We started a new sales strategy with this distributor back in 2017, and nowadays, we are exporting more than 50 shipments making their way across to the US just this year alone. Customers in America are willing to pay extra for our products because they know the quality is high and they know the product is going to give them the best features.
This distributor is also handling textile machinery parts and inspection machines simultaneously, which means that they know the textile market overall. They can see things both from our point of view and the end user’s point of view, and I feel they are really doing an incredible job for us.
20% of your products are shipped overseas, so with that in mind, are there any other countries or regions that you have eyed for further expansion into?
At this point in time, we are pretty much everywhere already, and the only continent that we have yet to reach is Africa. At ITMA Europe, we will be keeping our eyes out for any business proposals from Africa, and should the opportunity arise I think that would put the company in a good position.
Imagine that we come back and have this interview all over again on the last day of your presidency: is there a certain goal that you would like to have achieved by then?
I have two sons named Jin and Ken, and I try to balance both of them with different roles in the company. Jin is more related to the marketing team, and with that, he is taking control of the sales and marketing both overseas and domestically. Ken is more technical, meaning he is more on the manufacturing side of things. I try to give them both the freedom to perform their jobs to the best of their ability through their expertise.
When I complete this baton pass to the next generation, I would like both my sons to not forget the foundations of this company and to treasure the human capital we have. The craftsmen we have working for us are so vital to the company that without them there would not be a company to begin with. With these valued staff members, we can continue to reach high standards of quality, and at the end of the day, quality matters. Quality comes first and it is the number one aspect that we would like to emphasize in everything we do here. If my sons can sustain this quality, the company will have a clear path to flourish for another 100 years and beyond.
Interview conducted by Karune Walker & Paul Mannion