“Everyone working in a factory wants to make good products. There is so much work to be accomplished, but they are so busy with their immediate tasks they cannot get to such work.”
These are the words of Go Fukino, president of LinkWiz Inc., a start-up developing and providing intelligent software for the industrial robots used in manufacturing.
LinkWiz is headquartered in Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture. The company is also a tenant of “Inspired. Lab,” a collaborative space in Marunouchi created jointly by SAP and Mitsubishi Estate Co., Ltd.
We asked Fukino about the changes occurring in the manufacturing industry, AI that meets the desire to make good products, and the background behind the establishment of the Marunouchi office, focusing on what DX means for manufacturing companies.
・Escalation of human resource shortages in the manufacturing industry: Desperation on the factory floor led to the business launch
・LinkWiz’s technological capabilities to enhance factory productivity
・DX does not happen on the factory floor: Why LinkWiz has established a beachhead in Marunouchi
・“Silly ideas” opposed by others are the starting point for DX
Representative Director and CEO
Fukino was born in Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture. Fukino joined Pulstec Industrial Co., Ltd. in April 2006, where he was in charge of new business development. He joined a foreign-affiliated toy sales company in April 2008, and became a director of Amelio in June 2012. In March 2015, he established LinkWiz Inc.
Escalation of human resource shortages in the manufacturing industry: Desperation on the factory floor led to the business launch
— First, please tell us how you started this business.
Fukino: LinkWiz was founded in 2015. However, the actual business began 14 years ago when I first entered the workforce. At the time, restrictions on foreign workers were being relaxed, and many foreigners of Japanese descent came to Japan in search of work. Unlike now, there were no shortages of human resources for machinery and automobile manufacturers.
Our business failed at the time because it was more cost-effective to hire people than streamlining operations using robots. However, more than 10 years later, the situation has changed dramatically. Without robots, there is no future in manufacturing because it has become more difficult to secure human resources. I started the business again because I thought there might be an opportunity.
This is how LinkWiz began.
— There has been a reversal in the cost of labor and cost of installing robots.
Fukino: Many foreign workers went back home following the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is no guarantee that they will return even when the pandemic is under control. Huge expenses and resources are needed to encourage them to return to Japan.
In addition to the shortage of human resources, another factor that has raised expectations for robots is the increasing complexity of the manufacturing process. Compared with the past, when fewer varieties of products were manufactured in large quantities, the products manufactured today are more diverse and must be made in smaller quantities.
Even if we make the same quantities in total, small-lot, high-mix products require at least twice as many resources as large-lot, low-mix products. This aggravates the labor shortage.
— Why did you set up your headquarters in Hamamatsu? Was your original business also located in Hamamatsu?
Fukino: Yes, that’s right. You may not know this, but Hamamatsu is home to some of Japan’s leading global manufacturing companies. We have Suzuki, the automaker; Yamaha, the musical instrument maker; and other companies active in the production of automobiles, musical instruments, and medical equipment.
Small- and medium-sized companies that take on the work of larger companies are also here, creating a huge pyramid structure. The city is sometimes called the microcosm of Japan’s manufacturing industry. The prefecture has long ranked high in terms of the shipment volume of manufactured goods.
In the past, when I talked to investors, they would say, “Why don’t you come to Shibuya?” However, Hamamatsu is the best place to develop services for factories because there are factories here. I have seen that many factories are suffering from a lack of human resources, and that motivated me to start my own business.
LinkWiz’s technological capabilities to enhance factory productivity
— Please tell us how LinkWiz’s services help solve the human resource shortage.
Fukino: Our software makes industrial robots easier to use.
When people hear the word “factory,” they probably think about the “line production system” in which production is centered on a production line. In contrast, the “dynamic-cell production system” is a production system that makes full use of robots and AI. It has been discussed in academic papers for about 40 years. There were expectations that this system would raise productivity on the factory floor. However, despite the advancement in digital twin technology, ideal productivity has not been realized.
The reason is that there will always be discrepancies between simulation and the real world. For example, factory floors are not perfectly level. There are distortions and unevenness that are difficult to discern with the eye, and these misalignments create huge differences. If this misalignment cannot be corrected, the ideal dynamic cell cannot be realized.
Our software corrects the discrepancy between reality and simulation and enhances the realization of dynamic cells.
— I understand the difficulty of dynamic cells that use robots, but why is it that your service is able to correct the misalignment?
Fukino: We have technology for processing three-dimensional data at high speed, which is one of our strengths. Conventional robots could only move as they were programmed and could not respond to unexpected events that occur directly in front of them.
Our service is like giving eyes to a robot. Until now, robots have had to perform predetermined movements without eyes, and if there was a problem, someone had to correct the data each time. Now that robots have eyes, they can process what is happening in front of them and move more like a real person.
— This means robots can make their own decisions.
Fukino: We are also applying this technology to our inspection work. Conventional inspection work involves looking for one defective item in every 3,000 units, a task that requires a great deal of concentration and is difficult for people to perform. It is necessary to visually check all items to find one defective product per day.
With our system, this can be automated and humans can focus on more productive work.
— What do you mean by “productive work” in a factory?
Fukino: This work is more upstream. When inspection was being done manually, humans were so busy finding defective products that they could not do anything else. Now that robots can perform inspection work, humans can think about why defective items were produced to begin with, and as a result, productivity can be increased. The same thing can happen not only in inspection, but also in all other tasks. Therefore, high productivity can be achieved with fewer people.
People often say that the use of robots will take away human jobs, but that is untrue. By using robots, humans will be able to focus on higher-quality work. In some cases, conventional wisdom will be overturned. A new industrial revolution is no longer just a dream.
DX does not happen on the factory floor: Why LinkWiz has established a beachhead in Marunouchi
— Please tell us how you decided to establish a base in Marunouchi.
Fukino: We wanted to work in close proximity with SAP.
Our system is capable of capturing various data on the factory floor (“edge”). Therefore, it is a perfect match for enterprise resource planning (ERP) and other business tools. This is why we wanted to partner with SAP. To be able to discuss various issues with SAP in close proximity, we decided to move into Inspired.Lab, which is jointly operated by SAP.
There is another purpose: to find potential customers. There are no factories in Marunouchi. However, many manufacturing companies have their headquarters in the area. If you are in Marunouchi, you will have no trouble finding people considering DX.
In fact, DX does not start at the manufacturing site. On the factory floor, people are so busy with their immediate work that they do not have time to think about DX. DX is created in a conference room, and then transmitted to the factory floor. Our presence in Marunouchi makes it easier for us to become a consulting partner for companies considering DX.
— I can see that DX comes from a conference room. How can you ensure this does become an armchair theory without any practical application? How will it spread to the factory floor?
Fukino: You are correct. In most cases, the people on the factory floor make fun of us at first. They have been working the same way for decades. Therefore, it is not surprising that they regard new systems as a gimmick.
However, people’s attitudes change if you show DX in action by actually operating it on the factory floor. After around three months, the people on the factory floor will understand how DX works. By that time, they will leave the work they have been doing to robots. In this way, the work of humans will change.
Everyone working in a factory wants to make good products. There is so much work to be accomplished, but they are so busy with their immediate task they cannot get to such work.
They will be able to start such work if they use robots, which will increase their satisfaction.
— What do you think will happen to Japan if robots become widespread and manufacturing becomes more efficient?
Fukino: Without a doubt, Japan will become the world’s No. 1 manufacturing powerhouse. However, this will not be achieved with robots alone. We also sell products and provide services to factories overseas. If Japan were to compete based on robots’ performance, the nation would not be able to beat China, which can pay more.
Japan stands out because of its work ethic that emphasizes quality. Toyota’s manufacturing method, for example, is the result of decades of setting rules and creating an “ism.” This is not something an emerging company can quickly imitate.
Once robots are installed and people are freed up, I hope they will spend that extra time communicating and disseminating that work culture. I believe the commitment to quality that Japanese companies possess will create an opportunity for Japan to win.
On the other hand, companies will not win if they believe they can win as long as they use robots.
“Silly ideas” opposed by others are the starting point of DX
— Your Hamamatsu office has a unique look. What is the idea behind it?
Fukino: An office is more than just a box and a computer. It has to prepare the mindset of employees.
When you think about a robotics company in the manufacturing industry, you might imagine an office that looks like a shack next to a factory. But do you think a company that wants to adopt DX would really come to such an office and ask for help? We are changing the way that manufacturing operates in Japan. We built this office because we wanted to convey that thinking.
— What are important things to consider when promoting DX?
Fukino: First, those who promote DX must be idealistic and be able to come up with ideas that may look ridiculous. Only when people say “that’s impossible” can you start DX. This is why the person making the proposal must have a playful spirit.
Being playful requires great mental and emotional capacities. If you want to promote DX, you need great mental and emotional capacities.
— Tell us about the significance of having opposition.
Fukino: Our job is to fight “no.” In challenging existing values, it is important to be able to say, “This is not true” with a smile on your face. DX will not work if you blindly obey customers.
The “challenges” customers bring up are often only “circumstances.” “We want you to do this” is not a command but a wish. We need to unravel what the real issue is based on the customer’s words and provide a solution.
— How do you find the real issues?
Fukino: You need to step onto the factory floor. I visit the factory floor myself, listen to what they have to say, formulate hypotheses, and ask questions repeatedly. Mostly, customers have preconceived notions. Therefore, I ask them, “Is that really so?”
In the end, they will understand what the most effective way to make good products would be, and will consult with us. At LinkWiz, I am the one who says “no” to customers the most. I am also the one who receives the most consultation requests.
・There is no future in manufacturing without robots as human resources become scarce.
・Hamamatsu is home to many of Japan’s leading global manufacturers, making it a perfect place to develop services for factories.
・Ideal productivity has not been achieved even with digital twin technology because of the gap between simulation and the real world.
・The misalignment can be eliminated by technology that processes 3D data at high speed.
・In Marunouchi, it is easy to meet people considering DX because it is planned in a conference room.
・Japanese companies’ commitment to quality will create an opportunity for Japan to win once DX takes hold.