Home of Technology Olympians
Artisans of the Future
Aichi Prefecture is an industrial empire that has achieved dramatic development by changing with the times. Leading industries in this region include textiles, automobiles, and aerospace. Aichi's economic development has been supported by two major assets: an avidly entrepreneurial spirit, and artisans who have passed their skills on to succeeding generations. Aichi's first-rate technologies have helped make the prefecture number one not only in shipments of machine tools but also in manufactured goods for 20 consecutive years. About 50 Aichi-based companies have their own technical schools to transfer their know-how and technologies to succeeding generations of workers. No other prefecture has such a large number of companies with in-house training centers.
Aichi Prefecture made an excellent showing at the thirty-fourth Olympics in Technology, held in July 1997 in Switzerland. At this event (officially named the International Vocational Training Competition), people aged 22 and under compete in various technical skills. Japan won two gold and four bronze medals in 1997; of these, both of the golds and three of the bronzes went to participants from Aichi Prefecture.
This, however, should not be a cause for complacency, cautions Yasuhiro Suzuki, director of Aisin Seiki Co., Ltd., a leading auto-parts maker: "It's true that 6,700 of our company's 11,000 employees are certified technicians. But because the automotive industry is subject to the vicissitudes of the economy, the number of new people we hire varies from one year to the next. Lately, our work force of engineers has been aging and our technical core is hollowing out. That's why it's urgent that we get our highly skilled employees to pass their expertise on to younger generations of workers".
In order to give more employees the skills needed to run its plants and to produce top-quality, high-value-added products that are internationally competitive, Aisin plans to expand its employee education programs. For instance, it will increase the number of students at the Aisin Technical Training Institute, which offers a one-year training program for high-school graduates. Starting this spring, the company says it will increase enrollment by about 20% from the current number, 103.
The company also plans to increase female enrollment at the institute. (It began admitting women to the school in 1993). The institute's director, Masahiko Kitaoka, explains that with the number of young workers declining as families have fewer children",We want to make full use of women's abilities". Besides, he says, "our female graduates have gone on to make significant contributions at our plant for prototype machinery and elsewhere.
Furthermore, Aisin has established a training center at its Kariya plant, where employees of overseas subsidiaries and client companies can spend up to two years mastering such key skills as the "just-in-time" method of inventory control (developed by Toyota Motor Corp.) and auto-parts manufacturing techniques.
These are just a few examples of the kinds of steps Aichi industry is taking to develop human resources to arrest the hollowing of its technical labor force.
Artisans of the Future
Shun'ichi Tanoue is an instrument-making "coach" for the Technical Skill Development Section of DENSO Corporation. He was born in Aichi Prefecture in 1975. At the 1997 Olympics in Technology, Tanoue won the gold medal in precision machinery assembly.
There is an interesting story behind Shun'ichi Tanoue's gold medal. It was the third day of the competition, and he was working on the final assembly of his project. Then he ran into trouble. The hole on one part did not match the diagram, no matter how many times he checked. On the fourth day, he approached the judge and suggested that the diagram might be wrong. Never before in the history of the Olympics in Technology had a competitor made such a protest.
Tanoue's intervention shocked the judge and threw the hall into disarray. But Tanoue turned out to be right. There was an error within the set problem. And Tanoue, having distinguished himself by finding it, won the gold medal.
Tanoue was well prepared for the Technology Olympics, having received broad technical training. After graduating from a middle school in Aichi Prefecture, he spent three years in a technical high school course at DENSO Technical College, then polished his skills at the school's technology development course before making his Olympic challenge.
Commenting on his experience, Tanoue said, "The 1997 event was my fourth Olympics. I had advanced each year from fourth to third to second place. I had confidence in my skills. What enabled me to catch that mistake and win the gold was that my teachers and coaches had always taught me to think down to micron-level tolerances." Tanoue says he can determine the degree of finish down to the micron just by looking at scattered metal shavings.
According to Masao Yamawaki, the DENSO Technical College president who has overseen Tanoue's development over many years, "A machine, no matter how precise, has to be programmed by a human. The responsibility for making our company's products rests entirely on the shoulders of our highly skilled technicians".
Masashi Yamaoka works in the human resources development division for Toyota Motor Corp. He was born in Aomori Prefecture in 1975. At the 1997 Olympics in Technology, he won the gold medal in die-making.
Masashi Yamaoka comes from Aomori Prefecture. After graduating from a middle school in Hachinohe, he came to Aichi Prefecture and entered the three-year high school program at Toyota Technical Skills Academy in the city of Toyota, where he gained a basic technical background. Next, he trained for the Olympics by acquiring specialist skills..
According to Shuichi Kondo, a senior expert in Yamaoka's division who guided the young Olympian in his endeavors, "When I told British engineers that Japanese companies have their own educational institutions, I just got puzzled looks. In Europe, people usually attend a technical school to learn a specialty field before getting hired by a company".
Toyota has a long history of educating engineers. The company opened what later became the Toyota Technical Skills Academy in 1939. And it recently created a department to oversee a one-year training program for high school graduates. From here, motivated students can advance to the Toyota Technological Institute.
Yamaoka's field, die-making, involves making the forms used to stamp parts out of sheets of material. Die-making is one of the fundamental steps in pressing, an essential part of high-volume manufacturing processes, such as the production of car bodies.
The main operations in the die-making competition at the Technology Olympics were milling and hand-filing. Competitors used the milling machine to finish the die to a tolerance of one-fifth of a millimeter, then used the hand file to finish it to the micron level.
"Die-making involves hand-filing," says Yamaoka, "so your hands get covered with calluses. And since you're working in a hunched-over position, you need basic physical strength. To train for the Olympics I ran three kilometers a day and did push-ups and sit-ups everyday".
Next, Yamaoka says he would like to guide young people to engineering careers. He hopes someday to do this overseas if possible.
Makoto Kobayashi works in the main office of Inuzuka Stone Works. He was born in 1975 in Yamanashi Prefecture. At the 1997 Olympics in Technology, he took fifth place in stoneworking and was awarded a diploma of excellence.
The city of Okazaki, in Aichi Prefecture, is known for its granite mining and processing industries, which go back over 500 years. Stone artisanship lives on today in Okazaki; the city has 33 traditional stoneworkers and 181 vendors of stone products.
Okazaki has an educational institution that supports the development of stoneworkers, as well as technicians who work with other building materials such as sheet metal, wood, plaster, and tile. The school is the only educational institution in Japan that produces a new crop of stoneworkers each year. As a vocational school for people who work with stone, it is in a class by itself.
Training at the school confers top-name cachet on a stoneworker. For this reason, the school attracts aspiring artisans from all over Japan, who range in age from just out of middle school through their thirties. The students spend three years working at a site designated by the school while taking classes three nights a week.
Kobayashi is one of the many stoneworkers who have gained a solid background in this skill. "Our family business back in Yamanashi is also working with stone," he says, "so I came to Okazaki after high school to get the training I needed to go into the business". Although Kobayashi took fifth place at the Technology Olympics, he says he found the Swiss sandstone that was used in the competition difficult to work with.
According to Kobayashi, "The sandstone used as a building material in Europe is softer and more crumbly than the stone I usually work with, which made fine cutting difficult. I didn't know how to handle the material. The tools used by competitors from other countries were different, too. They had the kind of broad chisels that were suitable for working with that type of stone".
But Kobayashi overcame this handicap and demonstrated just how solid his skills are. His efforts earned him a diploma of excellence. Despite this achievement, Kobayashi's attitude is one of humility: "In stoneworking, you have to use all five senses to get a feel for the stone. This craft takes years to master. In that sense, I'm still a novice".