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The cutting edge of PCB testing technology

Interview - January 25, 2023

Since its introduction in 1994, MicroCraft’s “EMMA” brand bare board PCB tester continues to be the global standard in board testing innovation.


What is your monozukuri? What are the strengths of your company that has enabled you to succeed and have such dominant market shares for your products?

Monozukuri is almost like the glory of Japan, and MicroCraft is basically a monozukuri company. Monozukuri is something usual for us, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. However this kind of craftsmanship is something Japanese companies really excel at.

Japanese people are not really interested in the financial market, and this may be a problem with the Japanese mindset. Whereas Western people might make investments right now because the interest rates are so low, Japanese people will continue to save their money in the bank. They will continue this even with the current rate of 0.02 interest, and this mindset doesn’t really make sense to me. We Japanese need to emphasize financial skills, and this is my honest opinion.

Our company is very good at monozukuri, however, we lack the experience needed in financial markets. The next generation of MicroCraft may need to explore this area for options, and therefore there needs to be an improvement in financial skills and understanding.


Cultivating financial skills to go along with your strong manufacturing culture is clearly a challenge that you are setting forth for the next generation of your company. What has been your approach to addressing this challenge?

I believe that cultivating financial skill has same meaning as survival in a fiercely competitive environment and thus, comes down to keeping up with our competitors. As you can imagine there are many different competitors from all around the world. There was a big competitor in the United States and we fought long and hard over the PCB bare board testing market. Finally, our company won and we gained a big market share in the industry. Having a big market share obviously equates to being able to make money. I think the key point I’m trying to make is that beating your competitors is the most important point for us. In order for us to beat our competitors, we need to make nice machines that are recognized for their quality. I don’t think this is isolated to just our market alone, and every industry is the same.


Your EMMA series are fixtureless flying probe continuity testers that conduct continuity and isolation tests to both the top and the bottom sides of a circuit board. Your high-speed model can test around 10,000 points per minute, and your standard model can test around 6,000. Can you tell us a little more about the development history from its inception to today?

When we started to sell the EMMA machines, we had a major competitor in the United States as I mentioned. Their probe machines were almost the same structure as ours, a four-probe vertical machine, and the key was that they had the biggest market share in the United States. When we started out, the US was clearly the biggest market on the planet, however, I wouldn’t say that it has that position today. Since 2000 the American market has shrunk as a lot of business has shifted to China.

Another competitor was selling a horizontal machine out of Europe and we competed with this company for the European market. We started producing horizontal machines and won the market. Recently our competitive drive has brought us to the Chinese market, where our machines are faster and much more accurate. Without this edge, I think we would have lost already. Only one can survive and to the victor go the spoils, but in order to get that victory, we must be strong and develop new functions as well as improve on existing functions.

You mentioned there how only one can survive, and in order to be that one, you must continue to develop new functions and improve incrementally on existing functions. Could you give us an example of a new function that you have brought to the sector or an existing function that you’ve improved on dramatically that best illustrates the strength of your company?

One example I can give is smartphone manufacturers and automotive manufacturers who have asked us to support them with features that enable high-voltage and high-speed testing. We have about 20 competitors in the world, and everyone can make this kind of feature, but the difference lies in the functions of the circuit. Our machines are around 2-3% faster and more accurate than all of our competition, meaning this market is very tough and there are very small margins. I’m sure there are other markets and industries that are similar in the fact that there is very little difference between competitors. Everyone is focusing on the functions and investing large amounts of money, as well as time to develop their machines, only for them to discover that MicroCraft is doing the same thing but better. This is why our company can continue to not only survive but thrive.


As you have said, many manufacturers can make these machines, but they are not going to be at the same level, and they are not going to be able to sustain a similar level of manufacturing for as long a period as your company has. Why do you believe that your company has succeeded where others have failed?

Our investigation capabilities are much stronger than our competitors’. When we develop new features we investigate the functions of our competitors, perhaps by purchasing the components they are using, or by researching their techniques. We take all of that data and research, and then use it to make a much better machine. Basically, it comes down to analyzing our competitor's weak points and then turning those into our company’s strengths.


As an SME in Japan’s rural prefecture of Okayama, what has been your response to Japan’s super-aging population? 

To be completely honest, my answer is that it doesn’t affect me. I’m not trying to think so close-minded, as our market stretches across the entire globe and is not only limited to Japan. Sometimes the Japanese population may go down, the Indian population may go up, and so might the African population too. This is the way of the world, and MicroCraft has a much more global perspective on things.


Can you provide us an overview of your CraftPix Printer line, a two-in-one system capable of both printing and curing?

If you take a look at a smartphone; when you open that smartphone up you can see a printed circuit board (PCB), as well as some other semiconductor components. The PCB itself is a top key component, and that is made through printing technology. When learning how to make PCB boards you learn how important the printing process is to this technology. Conventionally they don’t use an inkjet printer in this process, rather they tend to use silkscreen method or plotted film. Photo Mask method .The unique point of our machine is that it can print any type of ink. For example, if you really wanted we could print a magazine with it, it's only the ink that differs from application to application. Traditional printers struggle when printing different types of ink, and it comes down to the viscosity. We have been working with inkjet printers for a very long time now, and we have a treasure trove of experience with these types of machines.

I think a key point is for us to decide which market, and which application is good for us. It comes down to which market is going to enable us to make money at the end of the day. We are focusing on the resin printing market, and the next generation from our point of view is conductive printing. You could say that we are currently at the first stage.

You mentioned you have identified semiconductors, photovoltaic cells, and touch panels as examples of potential future markets for CraftPix. Can you tell us more about your strategy for how you are going to introduce this product to those markets?

Everybody is now talking about SDGs, and the conventional method for these industries uses a lot of water. The method for substrates involves putting on the film and then using a lot of chemicals and water. When you use an inkjet printer you use ink, and further you just use an additive method rather than a subtractive one. This is very good for the environment. The price is a little bit higher than conventional methods, but customers understand that it is the better and more desirable method. Obviously, a lot of customers are considering costs in this market right now due to the worldwide situation, and in that respect, the conventional method is cheaper. One thing to consider however is that everyone is talking about SDGs, so at some point, these companies will need to change their mind and go with the more environmentally friendly option.


The past couple of years have been challenging in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, in terms of both managing human resources overseas, and the logistical challenges of shipping your machines. Can you tell us a little more about the impact that the pandemic had on your operation and what your continuity plan has been to ensure a steady supply and careful after-sales to your clients during the past few years?

The COVID situation worked out well for us because many people needed to use smartphones, therefore there was a greater need for data centers. Those data centers needed high-speed servers and this is great for the type of equipment we manufacture.

Of course, as you have alluded to COVID-19 had some negative effects on procurement, and as you know the Chinese government locked down Shanghai for 3 months, and this had drastic effects on the component and semiconductor markets. Nowadays it is very difficult to get hold of semiconductors, and there is a global shortage in key components. As a result, prices have skyrocketed 10-fold, or in some extreme cases 1000-fold higher than they should be. Some big companies have postponed their production schedule in order to build new factories to create local semiconductor production. We have purchase orders (PO) but our howver our customer’ factory in China isn’t are not ready to take our orders receive the product yet, and this is having an effect on our business. Mainland China and Taiwan have huge market shares in semiconductor production, and we don’t know if China can settle their COVID problems quickly, or if this will continue to drag on.


Your company has a very wide distribution network and also a very wide presence. Are there any other markets besides China and Taiwan that you have identified as key going forward?

We are expecting the Indian market to be huge, and the population there will be much bigger than mainland China. In fact we already have established an office in Bangalore. I think in the future we will solidify a plan, but for the meantime it is still very much in the planning phase.


Do you ever collaborate with other companies and combine the expertise you have with others? Is this something you have ever done or are interested in?

We have worked with a US based software development company, and I think I personally find the software development capabilities of the US to be much more advanced than Japan. The education method is different, and I find the Japanese method to be much better suited to training people for government positions rather than the flexibility that is allowed within the American education system. The software capabilities of Japan are quite low, therefore it is essential for our company to establish relationships and collaborative efforts with US based companies instead. In 2019 IGI licensed all electrical test software, inkjet printing software, and related software to MicroCraft.  MicroCraft has merged with IGI a US based software company.


Let’s imagine that we come back on the very last day of your presidency and have this interview all over again. What would you like to say in that interview, and what are your hopes and dreams for MicroCraft that you will have hoped to have achieved by then?

I have actually already am almost retired, and I’m here today to check that everything is okay. I want to help the company resolve some problems, and as you know, when you run a company new problems present themselves almost every day. There are many methods for troubleshooting, but the key is to pick the correct method for the correct problem. The new management has to feel which is the correct method, and rather than coming directly from me, they need to learn and understand by themselves. I can guide those in charge in the right direction, but I cannot carry them to the end location, they need to learn to walk there by themselves.