Explore the roots of development of machine industries in Japan
Last month I visited the “Industrial Technology Museum” in Saitama prefecture in the Nippon Institute of Technology which is widely known for its practical and advanced engineering education. In the museum, a variety of machine tools and historical machinery since the Meiji Period are preserved and exhibited that had been greatly contributing to the development of Japanese mechanical industry. And in addition, it displays the latest industrial machinery such as advanced NC equipment, engines, energy-saving and gas turbines too. It is also interesting that the figures of old town machining factory in Meiji is reproduced to able to see the real situation of basic machine industry in Japan at that time as a foundation. I felt that it’s a prominent facility to able to learn the history of mechanical industrial development history. Among the whole collection, more than 270 items of preserved machines and facilities were designated in 2018 for the “Mechanical Heritage” as precious industrial heritages. The following is an expression of this visit.
Aim and Outline of “Industrial Museum”
In the museum, more than hundreds of historical machine tools since the Meiji period, either imported or domestically produced, are displayed in line categorized by the year of production. Generally, machine tools are classified roughly into a sort of lathes, drilling machines, milling machines, grinding & finishing machines, process working machines, and digital machining centers. The museum’s collection covers all of these machines.is diverse.
For example, the museum preserves and exhibits a “Hand-turned lathe” (constructed by Ikegai Works) of the Meiji era, Pratt & Whitney’s “General lathe 131NCHB” in the early Showa, and a universal milling machine from Frieddeckel (Germany) , Yoshida Iron Works’ upright pole board (1950s), Ship Co. (Switzerland) “Jig boring machine 3R type”, Multi-function machine tools, Kelney’s “Machining Center Eb type” (US , 1970s) ), Hitachi Seiko Co., Ltd. “Machining Center MBN-330” (1970s) and many other historical machine tools.
Besides these historic machines, various old looms used in the Meiji Taisho era, the recent high-performance gas turbine demonstration plant (designed by a private technical research association in 1987), glass mercury rectifier (1961, Nippon Batteries Co.) are on display. In addition, British steam locomotive “Dub 2100 Model” that had been operated during the Meiji era (1891) was also found there in a good condition.
Utilization and production of “machine tools” starting from import as seen in the exhibition
<Background of development of machine tools in Japan>
Japan’s industrial machinery technology now marks the world’s top class as seeing in the industrial robot technology. When we look into the history, however, the introduction of modern machine was just started a century ago and and extremely difficult to master them in short time because its technology base was very poor, particularly regarding iron machines at that time. So most machine tools using in the modern manufacturing firms had to be imported quite long time before the domestic production technology was finally established in the Show period, especially after the World War II.
But in this process, thanks to the tireless efforts of engineers, Japan has finally succeeded in developing adequate technology suitable for Japanese advanced manufacturing sites. That has been attained through long successive process in the development observed in history like, as the first step, import the model machines importing, then operate them and learn the mechanism and structure, begin to produce them imitating technology, and then develop own machine technology and apply them to the practical manufacturing. And, finally, machine producing technology in Japan could put forward to achieve the present position being paralleled with the Western advanced manufacturers. The museum has extensively tried to trace this long historical process and apply them for education and research works by the dynamic display of actual machine used in the factory.
The first modern machine tools in Japan was introduced around 1857 in the end of the Edo period and the Shogunate imported them from the Netherlands.
Meantime, a number of shipyards and military arsenals of Japan were rashly built to promote industrialization since Meiji era trying to catch up to the advanced countries. However, the Japanese modern machine technology was quite poor at that time, so their move had to completely depend on the imported machines from abroad. Good examples can observe in the Yokohama and Nagasaki Shipyard where had engaged in the repair work of ship and railway were much rely on the imported technology and machines. But, the experience of using machines had provided Japanese workers a precious chance to learn their structure and functions. Through this process, many engineers gradually mastered the technology to create this machine tools by themselves.
Under these learning process, a town factory of mechanic tools (currently “Ikegai Mfg Co.”) was established in Tokyo in 1889 and its owner Shotaro Ikegai had successfully made two hand-turned lathes for personal use. This is said to be the first modern machine tools domestically produced in Japan. The similar examples might be existed in various locations across Japan. But Ikegai would be a typical successful firm and their business is continuing until now as a giant machine producing company. This is a reason that the museum is proudly exhibiting this first lathe machine as memorable item to memorize its significance.
On the other hand, prior to this machine tools actually there was a “planing machine” marked a chrysanthemum emblem which had been manufactured for training purposes at the Akabane Works under the Ministry of Engineering in 1872. This machine is now preserved in the “Meijimura Park” in Nagoya. These are all precious machines that is conveying the reality of Japan’s machine industry in the. early days. Some of them are exhibited in the museum too.
After that, around the 1900s, several leading machine tool manufacturers, launched their business, such as Niigata Iron Works (1894), Oiso (1903), Karatsu Iron Works (1910), and Hitachi Seiki (1910). But the domestic products were mostly limited to be imitation from the Western models and the quality was not yet satisfactory to practical use as well. Then, most of the machine tools that contributed to the Japan’s modern machinery industry had to be imported from the major manufacturers in UK, Germany, the United States for a long time even until 1950s after the War. However,
Examples of these imported machine tools in the museum are Craven Borthers’ “Axle Lathe” (1905), Brown & Sharpe Mfg. Gleason Works “”Casa gear cutting machine ” (1910) etc. and others. Even though, as representative domestic products, the museum dared to display the Otsuki Iron Works “Turret Lathe” (1920) and the Karatsu Iron Works “Radial Drilling Machine” (1929).
<Reproduction of machine factories during the Meiji and Taisho periods>
Even in this poor circumstances, several independent machine factories were actively running in town level to support the foundation of Japanese machine industries. One of them was Uehara machine factory in Meiji period which founded by Eisuke Uehara in Mita, Tokyo in 1907. The museum exhibits the reproduction of this factory as it were in the collection. This Uehara’s factory has been manufacturing various machine parts for over sixty years until 1950s using domestic lathes made by Ikegai Iron Works. It is precious that we can see the state of the machine factory in its original form.
(The description relies heavily on the Museum of Industrial Technology Collection Exhibit Guide)
By the way, the economic conditions of World War One in the 1910s became a tailwind blow for development of Japanese machine tool manufacturers. The import of machine tools from the US and Europe to Japan had suddenly been ceased because of War, and this gave to a fortunate chance for rising of Japan’s domestic machine industry. For example, it prompted Ikegai Iron Works export lathes machines to the UK and Russia for the first time. Also, since the 1930s, the machine industries were beginning to show the new development. Toyota has started to engage in production of machine tools in expecting new development of automobile industry in future. Nissan was also followed suite in launching new machinery production with looking for expand of the automobile market.
However, the real popularization of full-scale machine tools production in Japan had to wait until the period of high growth after the War since 1960s. In the post-World War II, the rapid economic and industrial development had started. And it caused the huge demand to the advanced machine tools and strongly stimulated production of domestic machines. Despondingly, the domestic machine tool manufacturers, that were still technically unmatured, tried to develop their technology in the measure of focusing on technology partnership with leading European and American companies. As a result, the technical level of Japan’s domestic machine tools has improved dramatically to the level of world standard. Among them, the significance would be found in the exert development of electrical discharge machines and the aggressive introduction of NC equipment for domestic machine tools. In particular, the introduction of NC is said to have dramatically improved Japan’s competitiveness in the machinery industries.
The museum displays a variety of imported machine tools and machines produced by domestic manufacturers in the exhibition. For example, Kearney & Trecker’s “Machining Center EB” (1970), Lees-Branner’s “6-axis bobo HD-40”, Matsuura Machine’s “Program Control Milling Machine S-2” (1962), Ikegai’s “Numerically Controlled Lathe LX” -20N “(1978), Hitachi Machining’s” Machining Center MBN-330 “. It would be the best collection to inspect the development of Japanese machine tools.
Recent progress in machine technology and sophistication of machine tools
Japan’s machine tool manufacturing technology have achieved and surpassed the world standard in the 1970s. And Japan’s manufactures have overwhelmed the United States and became the world’s greatest producer in machine tools in the 1980s. The greatest contribution to it has been the development of advanced NC equipment and technological progress. These greatly accelerated the development of Japanese automobiles, electrical and electronic equipment, and various machine industries in the 1970s and 1980s.
Also, since the 1990s, the industrial robot technology was emerged particularly in the sophisticated manufacturing industries and led to promote of production of industrial robots in various purposes. Among them, you can count several advanced companies have grown fast ,such as FANUC, Yaskawa Electric, and Amada, and they account for now a large share of the world. Today, these industrial robots are widely used in automobile assembly and painting, and for also electronic parts production sites. On the other hand, Yamazaki Mazak, Mori Seiki, Okuma and other makers are playing an active role in the machine tool production, especially NC related equipment too. However, unfortunately these recent mother machines and industrial robots were not seen much because the museum seemingly try to focus on historical exhibits whatsoever.
On the other hand, the collection of other industrial equipment are quite outstanding, such as actual models of high-efficiency gas turbines in 1980s, hydrogen engines, new rotary engines, are broadly exhibited in the museum. These seem to show us significance of Japanese recent technological trends in the machinery industries.
After the museum visit
The Museum of Industrial Technology was established as one of the commemorative projects for the 80th anniversary of the Nippon Institute of Technology. This was aimed to prompt practical education and research work for students, but it also purposes to promote science and technology in the machinery industries among general people. I was just amazed how it was possible to collect that many historic machines systematically in the museum.
In addition, the uniqueness is that many of them are preserved in the condition of operational condition, so we can actually check the functions by moving them. I felt that this museum is a really valuable facility for verifying the historical fact how machine tools have been used and contributed to industrial development in Japan. In particular, the reproduction of the town factory during the Meiji era, the first domestic lathe in Ikegai, and the exhibit of high-performance gas turbines were impressive.
In addition, although it was not possible to actually see due to time, it is attractive to see the 1890s, British steam locomotives that are actually running in the university. Anyway, I felt that it was a unique museum that can synthetically link the dynamics of mechanical technology evolution and engineering education in the university.