Business & Economy Science & Technology Education & Society Sports & Fashion Arts & Entertainment
Top Picks Back Numbers Search

Turning Out Test Products for the World

January 17, 2001
A craftsman inspects cameras at a small factory in Ota Ward, Tokyo. (Jiji)

Ota Ward, in the southernmost section of Tokyo, is known as an industrial district crowded with small factories, but it is also an area where skilled craftsmen routinely demonstrate their mastery of advanced technology. The area's small locally owned factories and workshops, equipped both with proven technology and the agility of the "little guy," have acquired an international reputation for turning out test products, and a variety of manufacturers both in Japan and abroad are seeking their services. While manufacturing has long been the foundation of Japan's economy, the rise of information technology has created an urgent need to integrate manufacturing and information technology. To this end, the small factories of Ota Ward are linking arms and setting up an information network to get the word out to the rest of the world.

Building a Better Can
The development of cans with removable lids, easily opened without the aid of a can opener, made life more convenient but also introduced the risk of injury from sharp-edged lids. Risk led to liability: A court in the United States once awarded 100 million yen (900,000 U.S. dollars at 110 yen to the dollar) in damages to a concert pianist who had sliced a finger on a can lid.

Anxious to avoid such incidents, can manufacturers the world over have competed furiously to develop a safer can. The six employees of a small factory in Ota Ward decided to take up the challenge. Struggling against the odds, they spent five years trying to come up with a better can, working their regular full-time jobs all the while. In the end they succeeded. The new can is designed so that when it is opened, both the edge of the lid and the edge of the can itself are rounded inward, eliminating the risk of cutting a finger on an exposed edge. The creators have secured patents for this new type of can in 17 different countries, and manufacturers both in Japan and overseas are producing the new cans.

Over the course of the development process, factory employees reportedly experimented with as many as 150 different metal molds. This, the factory owner says, was no big deal. "If we had had to order them from someone else, we probably would have gone broke halfway through, but we were able to make them in our own plant, so we just kept going."

The flexibility that a small workshop can bring to bear is all the more important in the production of test products. Metal molds are absolutely indispensable to the manufacturing process, but they tend to be costly to produce. If the job calls for producing just a few test products, there is no point in spending a fortune to fashion dozens of different metal molds. Thus, orders for test products are pouring into the workshops and small factories of Ota Ward, where traditional, less costly techniques using wooden molds still survive. The jobs flowing in include orders for spare parts for nuclear generators, electric-power transmission towers, theme park rides, telecommunications devices, audio and video equipment, and other items too numerous to mention.

In some of these plants and workshops you will see row upon row of commendations and letters of appreciation from manufacturers on display. To a great extent, these operations rely on craftsmen who have quietly mastered techniques and technologies that have been passed on to them, and under Japan's system for recognizing superior technical abilities, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare confers a certificate, plaque, and medal of commendation, as well as prize money in the amount of 100,000 yen (909 dollars), to citizens recognized as an "outstanding skilled worker." While only those possessing truly superior skills are recognized, as many as 150 people have been thus honored in 2000 alone.

[Portions of the preceding were adapted, with the author's consent, from Machi Kojo Sekai o Koeru Gijutsu Hokoku (Technology Report: The Workshop Beyond the World), by Tomohiro Koseki (Shogakukan).]

Getting a Boost from the Internet
There are roughly 6,000 small factories and workshops in Ota Ward, most of them devoted to some type of mechanical processing. Approximately 80% of these have fewer than 10 full-time employees. Each of these nimble little operations has its own area of expertise; collectively they have acquired an international reputation for possessing the advanced technical know-how required to produce test products and the like. Nevertheless, intensifying competition from abroad and an endlessly protracted economic stalemate in Japan have caused a drop in incoming orders. The only thing to do is generate more demand.

In order to give a boost to manufacturing in Ota Ward, the area's small business operators have set about creating their own information network. In August 2000 they inaugurated the Industrial Information Net Ota (known as INO): The organization operates a Website that promotes the technical expertise and product-development prowess of the ward's small factories and workshops, as well as an "international call center" responding to business-related inquiries that it receives from all over the world via phone, fax, and e-mail. Through the Internet, they hope to help solidify mutually beneficial relationships among different local businesses. Only 70 firms are presently taking part, but the organizers hope to eventually get all of the ward's 38,000 businesses plugged into the network.

Back to Main Index

Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2001 Japan Information Network. 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.