Automated Systems

Japan has a long history of using mainframe computers for central processing and control activities that facilitate productivity. Japan's computerization blueprint, developed in the mid-1960s, was specifically directed at improving productivity. According to Masaru Murai, president of Compaq (Japan), this blueprint has since been implemented.

Prior to the Olympic Games and the introduction of the shinkansen bullet train in 1964, there was no computer-based automation in Japan. Hitachi introduced computerized ticketing systems and scheduling controls for the shinkansen. The steel company Yahata purchased the 1964 Olympics' mainframe computer to build an automated mill with computer-controlled processing. It also bought IBM's sensor-based 1710 process computers. At about the time steel firms started using computers for automated production control systems, Toyota started using computers to control just-in-time production systems, and banks started using computers for ATM and savings account automation. Today, Japanese electronics companies have fully automated factories. Every aspect of manufacturing, from product design to shipping, except maintenance and some limited assembly activities, is computer-controlled.


In 1985, the International Robotics and Factory Automation Association was formed in Japan for the purpose of developing factory automation software. The objective was to develop a standard language for use in computer-integrated factories. General Motors' "MAP" protocol was used as the basis for this effort. By 1992, a full-scale integrated factory was demonstrated at the Japan Exhibition Center in Makuhari Messe, near Tokyo. All equipment makers in Japan had standardized new advanced equipment around "mini MAP," Japan's approach to widespread application of computer-integrated manufacturing concepts. Mini MAP utilized only four of the seven levels of MAP capability. However, this demonstrated the feasibility of the approach and provided a lower-cost language for equipment makers to apply to advanced manufacturing equipment.

Japanese companies continue to apply productivity-based tools like CAD/CAM/CAE software, to speed the time for product development and production start-up. Sharp's new ViewCam utilized full application of CAD/CAM software in the development of the product and its manufacturing system.

Information Systems

While Japan may be a leader in automated production and control technologies, it is behind in information network developments. The deregulation of the telecommunications industry has been slow and has limited the availability of advanced communication systems. At Hitachi, e-mail systems were available at the time of the JTEC visit, but access and use was limited by the absence of a computer-based infrastructure; there was only one computer for every eight engineers. At NEC, a corporate-wide e-mail system was planned for 1995. Insufficient office space has kept Japanese firms from installing computers on every desk. JTEC panelists noticed that most computers were in a location separate from offices.

Instead of relying on information systems, Japanese firms continue to rely on human-based communications through teamwork, fax communications, and face-to-face interactions. Because most individuals live within three hours of Tokyo, meetings continue to be the dominant form of communications. The world's major corporations have offices within a 45-minute commute from central Tokyo.

Collaborative team-building activities have helped to build Japanese economic strength. Companies like Sony hold monthly meetings between researchers, laboratories, and corporations to discuss and share research results. As a consequence, results are widely disseminated. Conferences are used for industrywide problem-solving efforts that spur continuous technological improvements. There is little duplication of effort, as progress is regularly shared between industry players. As JTEC panelists visited companies like Hitachi, Oki, Matsushita, TDK, and Nitto Denko, they heard similar descriptions of technical problems and found a high level of agreement between competitors as to potential solutions. Widespread industry consensus in Japan was a major panel finding.

Building a national information infrastructure, recently announced as a U.S. objective, was also adopted as a national objective by the Japanese government in 1993. As companies adopt the new vision of an information superhighway, they are expected to invest heavily in multimedia products. Japan recently established the Hi-Vision Promotion Center, the Hi-Vision Promotion Association, and a museum of the Association for Promotion of Hi-Vision, all for the purpose of coordinating and communicating HDTV developments in anticipation of future multimedia and interactive environments. Japan's forecasts for the year 2000 show HDTV being the number one consumer electronics product of the future. Sony is considered the leader in multimedia technologies and is attempting to position itself to take advantage of the information superhighway.

Published: February 1995; WTEC Hyper-Librarian