I once visited an SME in Ogaki, Gifu Prefecture in October 2014 when I was working as a correspondent in Tokyo. The company was Ogaki Seiko, a manufacturer of ultra-precision molds. Their representative product was a component for hard disk drives (HDD). The component had regular intervals in the middle, evenly spaced at 8nm apart. “To make the component, we need to have the same level of precision as airplanes flying constantly 1mm above the ground. Only four companies around the world, including us, can produce the component,” said Katsuhiro Ueda, CEO of the company.
There is still a technological gap between Korea and Japan. According to the recently completed series “Keep the Golden Time for Manufacturing in Korea,” by The Dong-A Ilbo, Japan is two to four years ahead of Korea in machinery. Last year, Korea recorded a deficit of 28.3 billion dollars (about 31.58 trillion won) in trade with Japan. Most deficits came from intermediate goods in the machinery industry, such as parts and materials.
For a long time, the central government, provincial governments, and machinery associations in Korea have strived to find ways to keep up with Japan. As a result, they have come up with countless measures, such as increasing competitiveness in parts and materials, producing home-grown parts and materials, and establishing support centers for root industries, but still fall behind Japan.
There are several reasons why Korea still lags behind Japan in manufacturing machinery. Japan’s unique culture of immersing themselves in one field, global demand for Japanese high-precision components, and ensuing technological development are the driving force behind its prowess in machinery. On the other hand, it takes time for Korean companies to gain trust in the market even if they produce similar products with Japan. So many Korean companies fail to endure the time they need to build trust.
This reporter would like to add one more reason: manual skills. “High-precision techniques come from manual skills. We respect technicians who have great manual skills. We don’t let them retire under the age limit,” CEO of Ogaki Seiko said. There were a total of 220 employees at Ogaki Seiko and eight of them were over 65. They are allowed to work over 70 because they do not have retirement age.
Mr. Ueda opened their work site to companies in and outside the country. He even received trainees from a mold maker in Korea. When I asked if he was not worried about technology leak, he said, “One or two months of training are far from enough to acquire manual skills. It takes more than decades to master the technique.”
Artificial intelligence is all the rage recently around the globe. And many are concerned that AI may replace humans. But if you bury yourself in one field for more than decades and finally have mastery of manual skills, you will not have to be afraid of AI anymore. Extension of retirement will come as a bonus.