The world looking in

9 December 2019

At the time of my visit to Japan, rugby fans where filling up the Rugby World Cup stadiums around the country, while Emperor Naruhito officially proclaimed his enthronement before dignitaries from about 190 countries. The spotlight is still on Japan, as the country is preparing to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

The truth is that the island country doesn’t need big events to capture the world’s attention; it has achieved that with decades of being in the forefront—among other things—of technology and manufacturing. In the crane industry, Japanese manufacturers have earned a strong reputation in terms of the quality of their products and innovation. Cranes originating from the country are operating in all the continents.

The manufacturers I spoke to have a clear ambition to boost their export sales and increase their global market share. Tadano's leadership has not been shy with their target of export sales reaching 80% of its total and of becoming the world’s number one lifting equipment manufacturer. An example of the increased focus on international markets can be seen through the recent opening of independent offices by Kato and HSC in the Netherlands.

In their home market, manufacturers are enjoying a significantly high market share, as unit sales of international brands are low. This is in part due to the number of unique crane types popular in the country: tower-type crawlers; roadable rough terrains; short-boomed heavy duty telecrawlers; and a distinctive approach to tower crane design.

Walking around the different plants, well-established and new, the level of organisation and expertise is evident. The working culture is different to other markets, due to the Kaizen principle. Kaizen is a strategy where employees from all levels of a company work together proactively in order to realise continuous improvements to the manufacturing process. While this strategy—or elements of it—have now been adopted by manufacturers globally, Japan has decades more experience of it.

All the people I have chatted with have been working for their company for a long time, most of them even started their professional career there. This is another sign of the working culture in the country and also how the local manufacturers are investing in their people. In terms of recruitment, the Japanese manufacturers are facing similar challenges to European and American manufacturers, as their experienced workers are ageing and they have difficulty attracting young talent. They are all providing extensive training and are developing strategies to tackle that problem. An example is that Kobelco hosts an open day at the Okubo plant where it invites the local community to visit and become familiar with the brand and the industry.

I want to thank all the Japanese manufacturers for welcoming me at their premises and their hospitality. I look forward to visiting more manufacturers and crane users in 2020.