Learn how the highly efficient cleaning company, SHOWA Corporation fully automated their mask production process in less than a year.
SHOWA Corporation is a machinery design group located in Amagasaki, Hyogo that develops and sells commercial industrial washing machines. Due to the novel coronavirus, SHOWA began production of masks in March 2020. Less than a year later, sales from the mask business have become second only to the company's main line of cleaners, and it was automation that made it possible.
Using Efficiency to Diverisify their Business
A hanging scroll greets visitors at the front oentrance of SHOWA headquarters, which reads “sense of speed" in large letters. This is a key phrase that SHOWA Corporation holds as a philosophy for 2021.
"We are no longer in the ‘selection and concentration’ era we used to be," said Toshihide Fujimura, president and CEO of SHOWA Coproration. The core of their business is in manufacturing commercial cleaners and washing machines, but each systems’ design and mechanics are completely different depending on the product being washed. SHOWA washers cover a wide range of fields, from automotive, construction and mobile equipment parts to logistics pallets, containers and tableware. The company operates a broad range of products with fewer than 100 employees, including its group companies.
"If we focus on just one thing, we will be at a deadlock in the industry. So we've always survived by changing our minds and expanding our horizons," Fujimara said. To remain flexible and competitive, SHOWA’s framework has expanded to include businesses other than washing machines. Utilizing technologies cultivated as a manufacturer of cleaning equipment, they decided to begin using robot systems and sensors to their advantage.
In addition, the company has shifted their focus to working on eco-friendly projects. They are developing sustainable processes that minimize environmental burden, such as a new recycling method that converts food loss into organic fertilizer. SHOWA is also establishing an innovation center to help revitalize agricultural businesses, which are currently facing a significant labor shortages. They have learned that efficiency is essential for developing diversified businesses with limited human resources, so they can maximize their impact with less time and effort. That efficiency is reflected in the company's super-fast mask line.
Automation to enable vertical start-up of production system
In March 2020, masks disappeared from stores all over Japan due to high demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Addressing this severe mask shortage become an urgent issue, and Fujimura wanted to get involved.
"At the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake, I donated 10 high-pressure washing machines and funding, but that was the best I could do at the time,” said Fujimura. Although he wasn’t able to provide as much support as he’d hoped for the earthquake relief efforts, this feeling of regret motivated him to produce non-woven masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Once Fujimura has made up his mind, he doesn’t waver. The entire floor of the SHOWA warehouse, located about 10 minutes by car from the head office, was remodeled. They installed manufacturing machinery and peripheral equipment in the facility, and dustproof painting and clean rooms were introduced one after another. Two months later, it was ready for mass production.
"Production started in May. There was no problem with the monthly production of hundreds of thousands, but when the number exceeds 1 million pieces, the number of workers becomes enormous,” Fujimura said. At the beginning of the business, there was a lot of manual work, so lead times and work in process inventory swelled. There was also a large amount of defective product. The production capacity at that time was about 1.5 million pieces a month, but orders for 1 month would easily exceed 2 million. In order to meet the demand, in light of the profit structure, Fujimura came up with a fully automated mask production line complete with inspection and packaging.
SHOWA’s masks are made out of non-woven fabric that must be cut, superimposed and creased. Nose-fit wires and ear straps must also be attached, and the entire mask must be inspected for defects with a camera, wrapped individually in vinyl and packed in boxes for each lot. By automating this process, the company significantly reduced the number of workers it needed for this process and increased their production capabilities to roughly 2 million – 3 million masks per month. As a result of further improvements, the company says it can now produce more than 9 million masks per month. Kawasaki Heavy Industries' high-speed Y series picking robot is in operation on the mask production line 24 hours a day, and the number of transporting staff has been reduced from 10 to 1, further improving efficiency.
"Many articulated robots, including duAro, are used around cleaners and in the field of cooking robot development, but mask manufacturing requires speed. In terms of ability, it was inevitable to introduce a parallel link robot,” Fujimura said.
The parallel-link, Y series robot uses a thin arm reminiscent of a crane machine and can transport items quickly and accurately. This type of robot is used mainly in the food industry and electronic parts factories. However, Fujimura makes decisions based on backcasting. Rather than thinking about the future from the present, he did not hesitate to introduce new robots because he found a solution from the ideal image of the future. Fujimura's vision clearly saw the commercialization of mask manufacturing.
Moving Toward a More Self-Sufficient Society
“I think our company is the one that uses robots the most in the washing machine industry," Fujimura said. He finds the advantages of automation and "universality” of robots attractive because he values the sense of speed due to efficiency above all else. His knowledge of robotics made it possible for the company to achieve unprecedented speed in automated mask manufacturing.
Now, Fujimura is using what he learned from the initial mask production line to start the next phase of this project: creating a manufacturing process that automatically packs the masks into larger shipping boxes. This entire process can be replicated by companies that do not have the know-how to go into mask production, thus helping to improving the nation's self-sufficiency rate.
There is another hanging scroll in the SHOWA office, which holds the following message: “Awareness comes only through practice.” Knowledge and action are one, and knowledge must be accompanied by practice. The knowledge of robots has been expanded in the real world by a practitioner named Fujimura.