What core strengths do you think you have that sets you apart from regional manufacturers?
Mutoh Industry was established upon the development of the Drafter®, which is a platform used for designing. The Drafter allows you to create architectural designs by placing your paper over the top. That was our starting point, which led to MUTOH becoming a holding company.
Mutoh Industry, founded in 1970, has grown tremendously over the last 70 years. Actually, this Drafter has been named by Mutoh as our registered trademark．Commonly it is known by its generic name; a drafter. Previously, we held 50% of the market share for drafting stations and drafting boards. However, with the advent of digital technology and computer assisted design (CAD), this has all but disappeared. Drafter and other drafting stations have not changed with the market.
In order to keep up with the digitalization trend, we developed a product that prints CAD designs. A new inkjet printing technology was also introduced to Japan. So we integrated this into our printers in order to create our unique line of printers. Inkjets initially printed in 2D. However, we’ve evolved the technology so that they can now print 3D.
What is the software part of your business? And what synergies can you create between the printer manufacturing and software development businesses?
You have already mentioned that we are both hardware and software manufacturers. Our main product is a large format printer which integrates multiple technologies. We can accommodate any ink type, whether it is water-based, eco-solvent, UV or other. We also have a technology based on micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) in printer heads. The head also contains 1600-3200 nozzles. This nozzle is used to dispense the desired chemical. A thin membrane covers each individual nozzle. The head is vibrated at approximately 25,000 vibrations per sec. Our products are unique because we have developed a special algorithm to match the waveform of vibrations. This allows the thin membranes to move efficiently, allowing for an efficient application of the ink.
When printing, the print head positions itself on carriage and then moves to the left or to the right. There is a 0.5-1.0mm space between the media, and the head as the head moves. The gap between the media and the head must be the same as the head moves, or the ink won’t be applied accurately. More precision is needed the larger the gap between the media and the head. Our technology is able make very fine adjustments to this 1.0mm difference as the head moves right or left. It is important to always land at the same point in order to print consistently high quality prints. Combining the strength of Japanese chemical manufacture with the strength of Japanese mechanical and electronic expertise, we are able combine the two. The elements must be tuned to perfection to get the most out of a large format printer.
You must have spoken to many companies about the essence of Japanese business. monozukuriJapanese have a unique ability to fine tune. monozukuri. When you had a Japanese television, it was probably a tube-style TV. The tube TV used a complicated wiring system to allow electronic magnetic waves. In the automotive industry, while anyone can build a car’s body, it takes advanced technology, such as that of Japanese companies like Toyota and Honda, to create complex engines. This situation allowed Japanese automakers to excel. Now, the industry is changing with EVs.
What I have just explained is the amalgamation of Japanese “fine-tuning technology”, and for products such as printers the technology needs to be precise without leeway. Japan’s ability to fine-tune will allow it to remain a leader in the world. Let’s take a product like our large format printer, and let’s say that it takes 10 hours to manufacture in the factory. You might wonder what we do with those 5 hours that are left over. We use this time to fine-tune and check things like the cartridge, the head and the gap. This fine-tuning takes a lot of time. This is the reason why we only have factories in Japan. Our production would have been possible if we had only assembled the cars, but it requires a level of engineering expertise available only in Japan.
What are the advantages of your printers over conventional, ecosolvent printers in terms both of their environmental friendliness as well as their performance?
Solvent inks are generally not eco-friendly. They contain volatile organic compound (VOCs), and they emit a chemical vapour when they dry. Solvent ink is the most popular choice for printing large signs or displays. It’s because of its high resistance to sunlight. If you have an outdoor advertisement and it only lasts a week or two, quite frankly that isn’t good enough. This is why solvent inks are preferred, but there is also eco-friendly ink that has the same performance.
A new ink we are looking at is UV ink. This ink dries immediately and is stabilized by UV light after printing, making it eco-friendly. However, it doesn’t have a strong resistance against sunlight so we have yet to utilize it for printing signage. It is possible to print on a limited number of media with water-based eco-friendly ink. Normal paper works fine but magazine paper with a sheen will not absorb ink and therefore cannot be printed on. Each ink is unique. Sakata Inks Corporation and DIC Corporation are just two of our many ink partners. This isn’t limited to just Japanese companies, and we have partnerships with overseas ink manufacturers. When we receive new inks, we change our printers’ waveform and ink to ensure that they can spread the ink effectively. For the next 2 to 3 years, it is planned to use mostly eco-friendly printing inks.
Could you please tell us more about how important international collaboration is to your business? Are you looking for ways to partner with companies overseas?
We are always open to new partnerships and we’re always on the lookout for them. We have many partnerships, which I can’t go into details about. However, we do work with a Florida-based American company called STS and produce OEM products for it. STS manufactures Direct-to Film (DTF), also known as Direct-to Garments or DTG. We have OEM agreements in Europe with our partners and we have an agent in Europe who sells on behalf of us.
3D printers have been creating a lot buzz in the industry due to their high potential for growth and the fact that they could be powerful tools in the hands. monozukuri Manufacturers that are interested in a production model with a higher mix and lower volume. Could you tell us more about the role that your 3D printing machines will play in business?
As of now, 3D-printing is considered a boom in the industry, but it’s not that profitable yet. In fact, our company is an agent of a large American 3D-printing company. Unfortunately, right now we don’t see much utilization of 3D printing in Japanese manufacturing sites, and I think there is little incorporation because the quality and precision are not quite there yet. It isn’t high enough to cater to the demands of Japanese monozukuri. We are a 3D-printer dealer and we do use 3D printers for the production of less complex parts. We are not focused on large-scale 3D printing, but instead focus more on mid-to-small scale printers.
The ML/MF Series is our 3D printer line. A unit costs between JPY 1-2,000,000. It uses solidifying technologies to cure ink using light. Our small-scale printing machines range from JPY 500,000 up to JPY 100,000. These units utilize filament technology that melts and compiles the resin. We will be launching a low-scale, new model this spring that uses cutting-edge technology.
Tell us more about the UV lamp dimming technologies you have developed. What are some key applications that this technology can help your customers unlock?
The UV LED dimming technology allows for the control of the UV lamps at the printer head. You can change the time it takes for the resin to cure by changing the number and intensity of the lamps. By adjusting the curing period, we can either spread out the resin or cure it more quickly. Our printers can now print braille. In the US, it is required that every hotel has braille. We can extrude this substrate by changing the curing of the ink. We are now trying to add value to our products through the integration of VerteLith software, which helps our customers in their workflow.
By using VerteLith, and image processing via our UV printer, we can create braille dots. In the US, car wrappings are also popularly done using our VerteLith program. You first print the design on polycarbonate with eco-friendly solvents, and then laminate it to hide the print. It is customary to wait for the eco-solvents to dry completely before laminating. If you hurry, the solvent will emit gas during the drying and you will have small bubbles or gaps on the surface. We can reduce the drying time by using our UV printers and software. In essence, we can speed up the process of wrapping a car.
Tell us about your current international strategy.
At the moment, we are focusing on North America as well as Europe and Australia. Each location has a Mutoh representative. These are Mutoh America; Mutoh Europe; and Mutoh Australia. We focus on developed countries because we don’t just provide printers; we also supply ink. When we sell to Asia to countries like China, they tend to purchase only the printer and not ink. They are trying to save money and will therefore buy inferior ink. This business style is not for us.
Imagine that this interview will be repeated in 4 years. What goals and aspirations do you have for the next 4 Years?
Firstly, I can’t assure you that I will still be the president in 4 years’ time. Mutoh currently ranks 6 in the world for printer manufacturers, while Hewlett Packard (the US manufacturer) is number 1. We understand our position and that we can’t compete with the big players on every level. Therefore, our strategy is developing unique technologies to solidify our position and gain loyalty from our customers. We believe we can meet our customers’ needs by integrating cutting edge technology and using our expertise in fine tuning.