How Japanese auto parts makers made masks and beds


In March, Japan’s largest auto parts maker, Denso Corp., was facing the urgent task of how to secure enough face masks for its workers given the mass shortage that was occurring amid the spread of COVID-19 infections.

While the company, located in Kariya, Aichi Prefecture, had sufficient stocks of masks back then, executives were getting worried that if the company ran short, its production might be affected, since each factory worker needs five masks a day.

At an executive meeting March 2, all eyes turned to Yasuhiko Yamazaki, 56, senior executive officer in charge of production, when he said, “How about making them ourselves?”

After returning home, Yamazaki cut a mask he had with a pair of scissors, looked at its three-layered structure with nonwoven material used as a middle layer, and felt certain it could be made by Denso.

The following day, he gathered seven to eight employees who were well-versed in auto parts production technology and were engaged in the designing and manufacturing of machinery and equipment.

The team, none of whom had ever seen a mask production facility, created a blueprint design of such a facility in a week, watching online videos and other materials for reference.

They then built a clean room, setting up plastic sheets across a 60-square-meter space in the firm’s headquarters, and established a manufacturing line to produce masks. The process included stretching three rolls of materials, placing them on top of each other while making creases, inserting nose wires and welding them using ultrasonic waves.

In order to supply masks to all the workers of the Denso group at home and abroad, they set a daily production target of 100,000. This means one mask should be made every 0.5 second, an unprecedented pace for auto parts production.

The quality of the materials procured from China was largely uneven, including crimps in ear loops. The Denso workers adjusted the position of automated robotic arms that pull out the loops by millimeters so that they are set close to where the loops come out by exactly 0.5 mm.

They made use of their expertise in auto parts production, such as spreading rolled materials and welding, and started the mass production of masks in mid-April.

The project was initially intended to avoid buying up masks in the local market, but as production gradually increased, the firm started donating some masks in late June to nearby nursery schools and welfare facilities.

Denso, a Toyota Motor Corp. affiliate, shared the blueprint design among Toyota group firms so that they could also produce masks by themselves.

Denso’s mask production is part of the Toyota group’s effort to support making medical supplies, but is not the only aspect.

Aisin Seiki had been producing beds from the 1960s through last year, and around 10 employees who had been engaged in the business gathered again to design foldable beds that are easy to carry in a matter of weeks.

Such projects were made possible because the firm has traditionally handed down the basic technology related to all the businesses it dealt with in the past, including the ones that it withdrew from, such as production of sewing machines for home use.

While projects aimed at helping those hit by COVID-19 tend to be regarded as a one-time business, Aisin Seiki Vice President Toshiyuki Mizushima, 61, stresses that they are “a part of the firm’s management strategy.”

In the spring of 2019, the firm decided to withdraw from all business unrelated to auto parts production in order to concentrate its resources on efforts to keep up with the drastic changes seen in the automotive industry, such as the spread of electric vehicles and self-driving cars. The firm is still in the midst of a struggle to find the best way to survive.

“We are in an era where auto parts makers also should think about how vehicles can contribute to society,” Mizushima said. “We can’t survive unless we change our way of thinking and come up with ways to utilize parts to solve problems in society.

“We take the same approach for supporting those hit by COVID-19. That’s why we put effort into this.”

Denso is also faced with the challenge of having to constantly roll out competitive products along with the evolving auto industry. Team members who launched the mask manufacturing line returned to their task of exploring new products using digital technology including artificial intelligence.

“After all, the foundation of new technologies lies in craftsmanship,” Yamazaki said. “(The mask production project) gave us the opportunity to rediscover the importance and joy of making things by hand.

“The experience of struggling desperately to come up with something in a short period of time will definitely help us in the future,” Yamazaki said, standing in front of masks moving along a production line amid the rattling sound of piston-cylinders.

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