Masahiko Mori, president of Mori Seiki Co. Ltd., the Nara, Japan-based machine tools manufacturer and recognized technology leader, says manufacturing executives must focus less on adapting old products and more on reinventing the manufacturing process. Here's how.IW: You've talked about "intellectualizing manufacturing," "raising manufacturing to a science," and "becoming a knowledge manufacturer." How, specifically, are you doing this at Mori Seiki?
Mori: There is a tendency in our industry to achieve incremental improvement through adaptation of what already exists. Too often, past successes act as blinders, obscuring potential for growth through innovation. At Mori Seiki, we work very hard to avoid this. The current rate of technological change allows for constant improvement, which can be approached in two ways. The more common method involves building on current technology to improve an existing product platform. The second approach involves stepping back and challenging existing technology to determine the best possible means of accomplishing a goal, without the imposed limitation of current methodology. The latter method sparks true growth and innovation, and for Mori Seiki, involves an unmatched scientific approach that combines world-class engineering talent with the latest hardware and software. For us, this represents the difference between improvement versus innovation. To achieve true innovation, we have focused on research and development. Our efforts have resulted in a highly prolific design team comprised of 450 of the industry's brightest engineering minds. IW: Why do you feel the need to urge other manufacturers to pursue these goals? Mori: Manufacturing is the foundation of today's economy, and a strong economy works to the benefit of all those participating in it. By working more consistently toward improvement, manufacturing can strengthen the health of the economy and minimize the effects of downturns caused by other factors -- this is true for builders and manufacturing companies alike. Current technology offers unprecedented potential for increased efficiency and quality. As the future brings more and more advancements, the benefits of 'intellectualizing manufacturing' now will become even greater -- not the least of which is the ability to stay competitive. For this reason, it is imperative to the future health of the economy that the workforce match advancements in technology through training and continuing education. A skilled, knowledgeable workforce is the foundation for a strong, competitive economy. IW: I understand that during the recent downturn you went out of your way to protect the wages and jobs of Mori Seiki engineers, who obviously play a large role in R&D. What other strategies help you pursue these goals? Mori: The knowledge base shared among our team of engineers represents one of the most vital assets of our company. We go to great lengths to maintain competitive salaries for our employees, even in conditions where other companies have frozen or decreased wages. When market conditions necessitate cutting costs, we look to areas other than our investment in people and have found long-term success in doing so. For example, by minimizing waste and emphasizing quality not just in our final products, but within our processes as well, we achieve efficiency and maintain cost control and even reduction. We also exhaust our technological resources throughout the design stages to ensure that very little, if any, adjustment is required when we begin physically building a machine. Finally, we have reduced costs through more traditional channels. Specifically, our purchasing department has achieved established goals for lowering materials expenses without sacrificing quality. Together with a focus on sales, these strategies have enabled us to remain financially sound, and avoid sacrificing growth and innovation for survival.