In the lab for pharmaceutical products packaging, you will find tablet packaging machines identical to those
at customers' plants. So, if a problem occurs on a customer's production line, technicians can expedite the
search for a definitive solution by recreating the same environment in the lab.
Our destination is Sumitomo Bakelite Co., Ltd. “Bakelite” in the company name goes back to the early days of plastics, referring to phenolic resin developed by Dr. Leo H. Baekeland in the U.S. in 1907. I was fascinated to learn that Sumitomo Bakelite Co., Ltd. was the very first company in Japan to produce plastics. Currently, the company has three businesses: Quality of Life Products including packaging materials for pharmaceuticals, foods and medical devices; Semiconductor Materials including epoxy resin molding compounds for encapsulation of semiconductor devices; and High-performance Plastics including phenolic resins for industrial use, such as those for friction materials for automotive components. Each business accounts for about one-third of the company's revenue.
We visited the company's Amagasaki Plant, having heard about the Films and Sheets Division's Packaging Innovation Center (PIC) that opened there in November 2021. The PIC is renowned for its successful use of online communication in doing business, a capability it rapidly developed as the COVID-19 pandemic made it desirable to curb face-to-face encounters.
The PIC is part of the Films & Sheets Research Laboratory, the R&D unit for packaging materials for pharmaceuticals and foods, cover tapes and dicing tapes for industrial processes, mold release films, and so on. The company has an astonishing 70% market share in Japan for press-through packaging (PTP) materials for pharmaceuticals such as tablets and capsules. It also has the top market share in Japan for films designed to preserve the freshness of vegetables. Moreover, it has the top share worldwide for cover tapes used for packing semiconductors and electronic components. Amazing!
Why are the company and its products such firm favorites around the world? Mr. Ken Takeuchi of the Films & Sheets Research Laboratory says, “I think customers select us because of our meticulous technological support. We have been putting ourselves in customers' shoes and emphasizing a face-to-face approach for product development and resolution of their issues.”
The lab's efforts are certainly painstaking. They use numerous illustrations at the initial development phase so that the customer can grasp what the product to be developed will really be like. And for prototyping, a production facility is set up in the lab using equipment identical to that of the customer. The lab also encourages customers to visit and hosts private seminars so they can immerse themselves in the development process. Through this scrupulous approach, the company has earned the trust of customers while helping them expedite their business development.
But ever since the COVID-19 pandemic raised its ugly head in 2020, the company has been compelled to find ways of demonstrating its capabilities while dramatically reducing reliance on face-to-face communication. “So, we opted for a hybrid approach combining the best of face-to-face and online communication, taking full advantage of the PIC. Customers who cannot visit us in person can still visit and view our R&D workplaces via livestreaming that achieves a palpable realism. For instance, we are holding live demonstration webinars. Customers ask questions in real time and we operate equipment in accordance with their requests during these webinars.”
Mr. Shingo Yoshida of the Films & Sheets Research Laboratory was our guide for the PIC.
The first floor of the PIC has two prototyping and evaluation labs: one for pharmaceutical products packaging materials for PTP and the other devoted to food packaging films. This is a great improvement on the setup prior to inauguration of the PIC since R&D of pharmaceutical products packaging materials and of food packaging films used to be done in the same lab, which was inconvenient because it was not possible to have customers from the pharmaceutical and food industries in the lab at the same time. In the PIC with its two zones, this is no longer an issue. Moreover, the layout is optimized for livestreaming.
In the food packaging lab, I was shown skin packaging, which is a focus of attention nowadays. Like a skin, the special film sticks to a cut of meat in an instant. This vacuum packaging prevents drips and helps keep food fresh much longer.