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Small Factories Work Together to Build Satellite (July 10, 2003)

A seminar on space-related research and development. (Higashiosaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry)
Higashi-Osaka, a town of 510,000 located in Osaka Prefecture, is home to a host of small factories that do subcontracting work for large corporations. These small companies produce and manufacture a variety of parts and have contributed greatly to Japan's economic development. Recently, however, like other small businesses, they have faced a tough operating environment as Japanese corporations shift more and more production overseas. Determined to turn this challenging situation into an opportunity, however, the managers of some of the small businesses in town banded together to undertake a massive project that would inspire people not just in Higashi-Osaka but all over Japan.

Plenty of Technology and Skills in Town
The project involved small businesses contributing technology and funding to develop and build a satellite that could be launched into space, with the goal being to create something new that the people of Higashi-Osaka could be proud of. Some people voiced doubts as to whether companies employing just around 30 workers were capable of creating a satellite, an undertaking that would require cutting-edge technology. The people involved, though, remained confident in the knowledge that the roughly 8,000 small businesses in the city produced everything from toothbrushes to rockets and that the technology and potential to construct a satellite were just waiting to be tapped. Impressed with the can-do spirit of these small business managers, a number of expert astronautical engineers came forward to lend a hand to the project, which by that time was no longer a dream. The goal is to launch the first satellite in 2005.

Mr. Aoki
Toyohiko Aoki, a leading figure in the satellite project. (Higashiosaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry)

The basic plan for building the satellite was provided by Toyohiko Aoki, the president of Aoki Co., a firm that manufactures airplane parts. With just 30 employees, it is a small company, but 10 years of hard work resulted in its being approved as a supplier for US aircraft manufacturer Boeing in 1997. Aoki, though, had grown concerned about the shrinking number of factories and the decline in the tradition of craftsmanship locally. While there were more than 10,000 factories in the area in 1983, the number had fallen to around 8,000 by 2000. Aoki was thinking of ways to give Higashi-Osaka a spark for the twenty-first century when he hit on the idea of creating a rocket.

In February 2001 Aoki's factory was visited by Hisao Azuma, an astronautical engineer and professor at Osaka Prefecture University. Aoki shared with Azuma his idea of reviving the spirit of craftsmanship by building a rocket in Higashi-Osaka and asked the professor's opinion. Azuma replied that it would be too difficult for small businesses to make a rocket but that it might be possible to develop and build a satellite in Higashi-Osaka. Aoki was heartened by this advice, and the plan began to take shape.

Aoki sought out collaborators and received assistance from the local chamber of commerce and industry, which set up a space-related research group. In the end, some 40 small businesses joined together, and the six companies that would do the bulk of the work formed a cooperative.

Experts Provide Assistance
Even though a satellite is not as difficult to construct as a rocket, it is still no easy task. A very high level of technology is needed for the mechanical, electrical, and communications aspects, and there was some concern that this may prove beyond the technological capabilities of the factories in town. To allay these fears, Professor Azuma invited experts from the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA), who had experience developing satellites, to help out. These NASDA engineers volunteered their time to help guide the work. One such volunteer was Shin'ichi Nakasuka, an assistant professor at the University of Tokyo's School of Engineering. He was approached by Azuma while the two of them were attending the same international conference. Azuma said to him, "There's an interesting group of guys at small factories. You're from Osaka, so you should help out your hometown."

Many of the factories located in Higashi-Osaka are the only or the leading maker of a certain product, and the participating factories will be using these strengths in the satellite project. Cluster Technology Co., one of the world's most advanced nanotechnology firms, is responsible for the satellite's altitude-control system. Aoki Co. is the world's smallest manufacturer of parts for Boeing jumbo jets. Japan Remote Control Co., which is highly respected in the world of radio-controlled toys, will be responsible for the satellite's controls. The collective effort of these small and midsize firms to build a satellite is something that has not been attempted anywhere before. Speaking of his dreams for the future, Aoki says, "If it succeeds, this will mean more than just bringing satellite business to the area; by showing the world that the capability to produce a satellite exists in Higashi-Osaka, there is a chance that other jobs may come."

While the companies involved in this project may be small, their undertaking is not. This effort demonstrates the high-level of skill and technology that many of them boast, and it is a testament to the pride these small companies take in their craftsmanship.

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Related Web Sites
National Space Development Agency of Japan

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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