The sun rises in Japan

How appropriate that I should have chosen a book by Kate Atkinson titled, When Will There Be Good News?: A Novel, to read on a trip to Japan in late September. The week prior to leaving, we had been bombarded with gloomy and depressing economic news as the specter of another recession took on more credence. To add to my miasma, two powerful typhoons three weeks apart had hit the coast of Japan, the last just days before my plane left, spreading more misery amongst an already depressed citizenry. Fortunately, neither storm produced a tsunami.

The inhabitants of the Tokyo area, depressed by a government edict to reduce energy, were heartened by an easing of power restrictions that finally allowed the lights of Tokyo to brighten the evening sky. I was returning to my hotel by taxi one night and the driver, gesticulating wildly, was trying to draw my attention to a glowing finger of light that could be seen from the expressway intermittently between blocking tall buildings. The light turned out to be the landmark 1000 foot Tokyo Tower, which was arrayed with bands of colored lights that celebrated the start of the autumn season in Japan. He smiled at me and said, “This is good,” echoing most of Tokyo’s population, I thought.

A mandated cut in power had caused commercial buildings to reduce lighting, raise the air conditioning temperature, stop escalators and a myriad of other actions that reduced power demand. The only effect I noticed in my hotel was that it took six minutes to toast my breakfast bread as the power reduction extended the toasting cycle. Perhaps the most visible impact that air conditioning reductions had was the elimination of ties worn by the typical “salaryman”. Seeing open-collared office workers pouring through Tokyo stations at rush hour was a revelation.

Industrial companies also complied by effecting stringent electrical efficiency measures that allowed their continued operation albeit at a reduced level. I spoke with a number of manufacturers at the LaserTech exhibition I was attending and learned that the measures undertaken during the crisis would for the most part be continued as they found that normal production could be accomplished. One might say that this was the latest in the famed Japanese “lean manufacturing” actions.

This year’s Shinpo report on the Japanese industrial laser market was made available to me while I was there and I noticed that, as usual, it showed optimism. I always look for the sheet metal cutting numbers, as this sector’s revenues account for more than half the total industrial laser revenues. Of note was the FY11 projection in that category, which was about 5% lower than last year’s number, and the optimistic 25% increase expected in FY12. A supplier, Amada, projects a FY11 increase of over 32% and 33% in FY12.

One wonders if the Amada number includes the soon-to-be-introduced 4 kW fiber laser cutter and the newly introduced fiber laser cutter from Mazak. I expect all the talk on the floor of the McCormick Place convention center in Chicago, site of this year’s Fabtech, will be about fiber laser cutters. By our count there are at least 25 suppliers of laser cutters now offering fiber capability in addition to their standard CO2 offerings. This year may mark the beginning of growth in that sector contributed by the fiber laser.

David A. Belforte
belforte@pennwell.com

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