Japan Inc. & High Precision Machining

I have never been to Japan, but I really want to visit Japan. In October 1938, my grandfather, Harry Livingston, arrived at Ellis Island under difficult circumstances. He left his homeland, Germany, at a time of incredible tragedy, wrought by man. Over the past week, Japan has gone through tragic suffering because of a natural disaster. My grandfather went on to found Horst Engineering in 1946, just after World War II. Japan was at the advent of restructuring and was just beginning its great transformation.

65 years ago, Germany and Japan were the United States’ two biggest enemies. Today, those two countries are two of our biggest allies. The industrial might of the three is massive. The U.S. leads the world in GDP, Japan is 3rd, and Germany is 4th. The rapid industrialization of the three countries contributed to the escalation of World War II and also aided the recovery of all three, particularly Japan and Germany, which experienced catastrophic destruction on their own soil.

So, I have never been to Japan, but I work with Japanese products every day, and am thankful for it. When thinking about Japanese products, most people consider cars and cameras. At one time, Japan was dominant in all electronics, but China, the world’s second largest economy has long since leapfrogged Japan, at least in terms of the manufacturing of those products. The U.S. and Japan still design some of the world’s best gadgets. At Horst Engineering, and throughout the precision machining industry, our business is fueled by Japanese technology. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to make the precision parts that we do.

Japanese brands surround me at our factories in Connecticut and Mexico. We have Citizen-Cincom Swiss screw machines with Mitsubishi drives and controls. We have U.S. built Hardinge lathes, but with Fanuc drives and controls. We have Wasino lathes with Fanuc drives and controls. We have Italian built Eurotech multi-axis turning centers with Fanuc drives and controls. We have Fanuc RoboDrill vertical machining centers. We have Matsuura vertical machining centers with Yasnac drives and controls.

We even have a manual Okuma engine lathe that we purchased new in 1966 at a time when Japanese products were really frowned upon, especially in New England. My grandfather placed an order for a U.S. built Monarch engine lathe. My father says we were about to pay more than $28,000, but a salesman invited my grandfather to come look at this new Japanese product that he was selling for $6,800. He canceled the Moncarch order and bought the Okuma. Monarch, like so many other U.S. machine tool builders, survives today only in name. Okuma, on the other hand is a machine tool powerhouse and our Okuma is the only remaining engine lathe that our company owns. I don’t think we would ever part with it.

With his new U.S. centric nationalistic pride, my grandfather swore off German products and he had a strong distaste for Japanese products, but he couldn’t ignore the value in the Okuma. Since those days, we have owned many other Japanese machines, tools, and gauges. My father and uncle came to terms with their superiority and today, we prefer it. From Ikegai lathes to Mitutoyo micrometers and Olympus microscopes. The precision machining industry became high precision when CNC technology disrupted the machine tool markets in the 1970’s. Fortunately, we were early adopters. Though in the 1980’s and 1990’s, we favored Elmira, New York built Hardinge machines (with Japanese built Fanuc drives and controls), we couldn’t ignore the fact that Japanese technology had surpassed U.S. technology in performance, quality, and longevity.

The Japanese are known for high precision machine tools and instruments. At Horst Engineering, we depend on them every day. I’m hopeful that the same standard of quality that the Japanese put into their precision products will lead them to a strong recovery from this terrible earthquake and tsunami tragedy.

1 Response to “Japan Inc. & High Precision Machining”

  1. 1 hereislacey 28 April 2011 at 9:38 pm

    The Japanese certainly have their machine shop and tools figured out. Their technology really is quite advanced! I also hope that it will help them in these next months/years ahead.

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