World-Class Ultra-Precision Technology
An “ultra-small ball bearing” has broken a Guinness World Record with an outer diameter of a mere 1.4978 mm. You may not have heard of ultra-small ball bearings before, but they are an essential part of electronic devices we use every day. The Takumi Nippon Project is a project sponsored by the Guinness World Records aiming to highlight outstanding Japanese craftsmanship. The Minebea Co., developer of this record-breaking bearing, is the first company to be featured by the project for its cutting-edge bearing technology. We sat down for a talk with the president of Minebea, Yoshihisa Kainuma.
How do you feel about your company’s ball bearing breaking a Guinness World Record?
We are extremely honored. After all, our mission statement is “Passion to Exceed Precision.” Achieving a world record shows exactly how dedicated we are to this mission. By precision we imply two things ? one is to not let the attainment of precision get in the way of achieving our goals. At the same time, we strive for ultra-fine precision. Having our manufacturing technique be recognized as a Guinness World Record is the perfect opportunity to introduce our capabilities to the rest of the world.
We don’t hear a lot about precision-engineered ball bearings in everyday life. How exactly are they used?
They’re used in all kinds of moving parts. If ball bearings disappeared from the world tomorrow, computers would stop working. Train tickets wouldn’t pass through ticket gates. Also bank ATMs ? each one uses over 800 of these bearings. I assume you’ve never had the wrong amount of money come out of an ATM? This is thanks to the precision-engineered parts inside. They’re hidden from the eye, but play a vital role in the world around us. That’s the job of the bearings we manufacture.
What sets Minebea apart from other companies that produce ball bearings?
Minebea can take these extremely precise ball bearings and manufacture them in large quantities. We’ve developed an assembly line that produces parts consistently superior in quality. Furthermore, we are able to continuously operate our assembly line while maintaining technological standards. These are things that set us apart from the rest. Take the backlight unit of a smartphone screen, for example. It’s made from a thin plastic sheet that any company could create if they wanted to. But could they mass-produce 20 million a month? We are able to successfully fulfill this need that other companies can't.
The Guinness World Record specifies that your product is “commercially available.” How are you able to mass-produce this component without sacrificing accuracy?
This is thanks to the efforts of our workers ? not only the management, but our entire team. Our team’s strength has been well established for a long time. This time we set out to create something that happened to be extremely small. Our engineers then brainstormed ideas to make it into a reality, and it all developed from there. Before taking on this challenge, we were already manufacturing watch bearings that were 2.2 mm in diameter. From there, we had to come up with new ways to go even smaller. One idea led to the next. The less than 1.5 mm bearing that broke the Guinness World Record is a result of our engineers wanting to challenge themselves. This is in contrast to our previous 2.2 mm product that was produced for clients’ use. This time there was simply a passion and desire to make an existing part even smaller. Fortunately, we found a need for our newly developed bearing in watch parts, and naturally this led us to mass-produce. We start out with “one product, one idea,” and that paves the way to the next step. If we ever get stuck, there is always someone working to find a solution. The key to our success is definitely found within our people.
All manufacturing companies, especially those that employ cutting-edge technology, must unite each employee’s abilities, craftsmanship, and opinions as a group. How do you encourage teamwork in your company?
Everyone is given the freedom to work within a framework. We each have our individual ideas while working toward a common goal. Those individual ideas come together as one to shape the product.
So everyone is free to express their ideas?
Yes, definitely. The clients who use our parts often come up suggestions. Many times it’s the engineers calling the shots, but with bearings it’s more likely the clients who get the last word. The clients will have a suggestion, and the engineers follow up to turn that into a reality. The current system works out very well for us.
You have bearing plants around the world. How do you communicate your technology and ideas to employees outside of Japan?
To tell the truth, we don’t do anything in particular. Our international engineers come to Japan for training and use that knowledge to recreate the exact same product in their own country. At least, that’s how it started it out. Nowadays, our subsidiaries abroad come up with even better ideas and those end up getting implemented back in Japan. The management in our foreign bases understand the Japanese way of thinking and often come up with new ideas to improve our products. This isn't how we operated in the past. Ideas always stayed within plants and were not taken outside. But that's inefficient; things that can be improved should be communicated because we share a common goal. Regardless of place and culture, we are usually on the same page when it comes to our work.
To wrap things up, can you tell us what Japanese technology in particular can bring to the world of manufacturing?
Anyone can have great ideas. Our strength in Japan is that we are able to take those ideas and put them into action. We use our hands to create actual parts. That kind of passion is what makes Japan so great at manufacturing. Not only that, but we are completely dedicated to quality. Japanese people are always trying to improve, and this is reflected in our products and service. That's what makes Japanese technology what it is.Thank you for your time. I hope the world's smallest ball bearing can continue to benefit the lives of people not only in Japan but all over the world!