Press Release

Interview with NSK President & CEO Akitoshi Ichii: Industrial machinery business to drive growth, continuing to hone bearing technologies

(Article by: Rie Tanaka, originally Published in Toyo Keizai Magazine)

Akitoshi Ichii, NSK Ltd. President & CEO
Akitoshi Ichii, NSK Ltd. President & CEO

NSK is the largest manufacturer of bearings in Japan, and one of the largest in the world. However, as internal combustion engine vehicles are replaced by electric vehicles (EVs), the number of bearings per car is expected to decline. We talk to President & CEO Akitoshi Ichii about NSK's mid to long term growth strategy.

—— It appears that you are shifting away from a focus on automotive applications?

For the past 10 years, resources and investment have been focused in the automotive business. This was due to business environment factors such as increasing global automobile production and the growing Chinese market. In the next decade, we will be in a stage of gradual recovery from the effects of the global pandemic, and beyond that, the electrification of the automotive industry and more. In the long run, demand for bearings for automotive applications will not grow at the speed that we had previously thought. We will continue to invest and develop new products in response to the shift to electrification, while also working to improve the efficiency of our existing production systems.

On the other hand, profitability in our industrial machinery business is stable, and new technologies and innovations will continue to be widely adopted related to automation, IoT (Internet of Things), robots, and the environment. In order to capture this growth, we would like to shift our resources from a focus on automotive to industrial. Since the basic design requirements for bearings remain the same for both automobiles and industrial machinery, it is easy to transfer people and skills between business divisions. We also want to see what new ideas and synergies might arise by mixing things up in this way.

—— Which areas of the company will you grow?

Within 10 years, we want to grow sales of the industrial machinery business to more than 1.5 times the current level, accounting for 50% of total sales. One-third of the growth will be in small motors, for which demand is expected to increase due to electrification. In October 2020, we established a new department that specializes in bearings for small motors. We are becoming more agile in terms of technological development and investment decisions. We want to provide products thoroughly backed by strong supply capacity.

Another third of the growth will be related to green infrastructure. Demand in wind power, railway, and new energy-related products will continue to grow. This includes demand to replace aging infrastructure with more efficient and eco-friendly products. Some European manufacturers are already increasing their requirements regarding environmental impact. This is not yet enough to affect procurement, but we need to accelerate our efforts to differentiate our products moving forward.

—— Where do you see your technological strengths?

Three areas: low friction, long life, and light weight. We are aiming to become the top leader in these areas. A core bearing function is to reduce friction, and their use in machinery, equipment, and automobiles always contributes to the environment, but they do not have zero energy loss. We will further pursue technologies to reduce energy loss. Developing technologies that contribute to carbon emission reduction related to materials and manufacturing processes will also play a role here. As well as increasing new product proposals for EVs.

For the remaining third of the growth, we will develop new value-added services such as condition monitoring and diagnostic services. This is an area in which we cannot propose new solutions without advancing our technology base. If there is affinity with our technology, we can form alliances, pursue open innovation, mergers and acquisitions.

—— In March 2021, you acquired B&K Vibro, a condition monitoring system business.

Originally, we were able to develop individual diagnostic and analysis technologies, but the question was how much we could monetize them as a business. We are now discussing how we can propose new value to our customers by utilizing BKV's expertise. As an immediate measure, we have begun to deploy BKV's devices and software through our own customer channels.

—— In the automotive business, how will you respond to the shift to EVs?

In EVs and other areas of electrification, bearings are required to reduce energy loss. The reality is that the number of bearings will decrease, but we will increase our market share by improving our technology.

In addition, we would like to increase the number of proposals we make for full modules and units. If we can propose modules and units to customers ahead of time, they may ask us, "It will take too long to develop it ourselves, why don't you do the whole thing?

—— What is the key to strengthening NSK's ability to make new proposals?

In the area of technology development, we are focusing on digital twin (reproducing the real world in a virtual space). Until now, both our customers and ourselves have been testing and iterating using analog technology, but by using the digital twin, we can reduce the number of prototype iterations and shorten the development time required. In addition, we can use digital twin to drive the further optimization of not only bearing design itself, but also of entire systems or modules incorporating rotating components.

For example, bearings are susceptible to noise and vibration. When a bearing is noisy, it may be due to the clattering of the bearing itself, or it may be due to a chain of factors such as the vibration of the surrounding motor. By simulating the surrounding environment with the digital twin, it is possible to unravel the factors and investigate the cause.

Our efforts to broaden our perspective to include the way bearings are used and how they fit in the surrounding structure, and to contribute to carbon reduction and productivity improvement, are not limited to the automotive business. The company as a whole will deepen its technology and accelerate development as we pursue growth.

Interviewed: Akitoshi Ichii

President &amp: CEO of NSK Ltd.

Born 1963. Graduated from Waseda University in 1986 and joined NSK. After serving as General Manager of NSK in India in 2012, General Manager of Corporate Planning Division in 2016, Vice President in 2017, and Senior Vice President in 2019, he assumed his current position as President & CEO in April 2021.

Key facts

  • Industrial machinery business to account for 50% of total sales within 10 years.
  • The industrial machinery business currently accounts for 36% of total sales.
  • NSK will focus resources in the industrial machinery business to secure growth and stable profitability.