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2008: “3D Manufacturing Innovation” Explains the Japanese Quest for an Alternative to PLM

The Japanese are ready to embrace 3D in manufacturing. But they have little interest in the Western top-down, design-driven linear approach to 3D design—especially as implemented in PLM. A new book just translated from Japanese sheds light on why Japan has rebuffed PLM for years and why it is nonetheless ready to embrace 3D for manufacturing. It’s all about monozukuri, the quasi-spiritual team exploration of excellence in manufacturing. Originally published in CADCAMNET June 12, 2008.

By Randall S. Newton

A review of “3D Manufacturing Innovation,” by Dr. Hiroshi Toriya; translated by Yukie Ito.  Published by Springer-Verlag, London, 2008. ISBN 978-1-84800-037-7

June 12, 2008—To greatly oversimplify, in Western countries design engineers create a plan or model that becomes the guide for manufacturing; “CAD the Master” is not an uncommon phrase. In Japan, by contrast, design engineering create a plan or model that becomes an intriguing starting point for a team of manufacturing engineers and craftsmen who take responsibility for giving the original ideas a physical reality.

The Japanese have a name for this philosophy of manufacturing, monozukuri. The literal translation, “product making,” only hints at the true meaning. As Prof. Kozo Saito at the University of Kentucky writes, “[Monozukuri] has overtones of excellence, skill, spirit, zest, and pride in the ability to make things very well. Monozukuri is not mindless repetition … monozukuri is an art rather than science.”

Prof. T. Fujimoto of the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Economics says, “Monozukuri is the transcription of design information onto media.” For example, an automobile body is the transcription of design concepts of a vehicle onto an 0.8mm metal sheet. Monozukuri teaches that satisfying a customer is delivering the design information, not the sheet metal.

In the past the “transcription” of design onto media started with 2D drawings. Japanese manufacturers were not initially keen to move to 3D for design, but as of 2007 67% of Japanese manufacturing firms had invested in 3D CAD. The use of 3D design enables designers to define 3D models precisely and to convey shape accurately. To look at it, there is nothing vague about a 3D model, so in Western countries the 3D model is viewed as the conveyance of all information needed for the downstream  manufacturing process. This “CAD the master” attitude, which places highest esteem on design-side creativity, is the opposite of monozukuri.

In Japan 2D drawings or 3D models are for designers to relay design details to production engineers, who then examine the documentation, try to understand the underlying design intent and then work on the production process that will give physical instantiation to the designer’s original idea. As Kentaro Kiziki, Monozukuri Editor at Nikkei Business Publications, writes, “This creativity at the production side is what strengthens the foundations of the Japanese manufacturing process. … It is the invisible competitive edge created by innovation of design and production processes.”

3D Models Risky, Disruptive
In practice, the Japanese have found it risky and disruptive to directly substitute 3D models for drawings. As Kiziki writes, “the meanings of drawings and 3D data are totally different in production engineering.” In Japan design review is a bottom-up approach where optimization is a trial-and-error team exercise. PLM, Kiziki argues, is a top-down, all-at-once approach to design optimization where attempts are made to manage and use the information. It is the concepts of “trial and error” versus “manage” that form the heart of the conflict between Western PLM and Japanese monozukuri.

Thus the Japanese have searched for a way to marry their monozukuri philosophy to the market dominance of Western 3D CAD. In the new book “3D Manufacturing Innovation: Revolutionary Change in Japanese Manufacturing with Digital Data,” Dr. Hiroshi Toriya describes how leading Japanese manufacturers have incorporated the use of lightweight 3D data viewers into their manufacturing processes. The book describes how such leading companies as Sony,  Toyota, Nikon, and Casio have used lightweight 3D data to improve specific manufacturing processes and how they are now moving into more general uses of 3D data throughout the manufacturing environment, in a bottom-up, trial-and-error approach to innovation that adheres to the spirit of monozukuri.

The very nature of 3D CAD, Toriya says, is part of the problem:“3D CAD is often found to make things much busier at the design site, contrary to its initial aim. It is tough to actually make 3D CAD work in operations, and this process often imposes a burden on design engineers.”

Toriya is CEO of Lattice Technology, but it would be a mistake to view this 155-page book as marketing collateral for Lattice3D, the lightweight  XML-based 3D viewer at the center of most of the book. The book discusses in great detail how leading Japanese manufacturers use 3D data in downstream processes, how the required IT infrastructure was implemented, and gives insight on the specifics of the trial-and-error behind each situation.

Early in the book Toriya argues that the introduction of 3D CAD has been largely driven by a need for faster product development cycles—a common CAD sales pitch. But Toriya goes on to say that  “adverse effects of speedy development” are starting to appear. Manufacturing sites are too busy, personnel are exhausted, few have enough time to think about next generation technologies. The very nature of 3D CAD, Toriya says, is part of the problem:
“3D CAD is often found to make things much busier at the design site, contrary to its initial aim. It is tough to actually make 3D CAD work in operations, and this process often imposes a burden on design engineers. It seems that despite the tremendous efforts to create 3D data, the resultant data can only be used for a narrow range of applications. In other words, the value of the data is not as great as the labor to create it.”

The success stories in this book center around the use of the XVL file format as a common repository of manufacturing information as contributed by all the departments which also consume the data. With the exception of the chapter on Sony, all the case studies in “3D Manufacturing Innovation” describe specific departmental innovations. (The Sony case study explores creating an IT infrastructure to best deploy 3D data.) Examples:

  • Toyota uses 3D data for design review;
  • Nikon uses 3D data as a communications pipeline;
  • Casio uses 3D data to develop and share injection molding processes;
  • Alpine Precision uses 3D data for mold review;
  • Tokai Riki uses 3D data to define and share operational data;
  • Casio uses 3D data to create customer manuals;
  • Kval uses 3D data to convey maintenance information on complex machinery;
  • Man Nutzfahrzeuge AG uses 3D data for design but 2D drawings for communication, then merges the two in an XVL file.

The Subtle Message Behind this Book
In the 1980’s Generic CADD was one of several retail 2D CAD products on the market, before Autodesk introduced AutoCAD LT on Windows and cornered the market. Generic CADD sold quite well in Japan, for a very specific reason. While Generic’s competitors sought out resellers and tried to push the product into the marketplace, Generic was introduced to the market by a respected existing Japanese software developer, Tokyo Electric Company. TEC, in turn, was respected because it was known to be the respected junior partner of industrial giant Mitsubishi. When customers saw the TEC logo on a Japanese box of Generic CADD, they were instantly reassured of its quality because it carried the tacit endorsement of Mitsubishi.

The Western reader of “3D Manufacturing Innovation” will read the case studies and think they are interesting and possibly worth duplicating. Japanese readers will have a very different take-away: they will understand that these titans of Japanese manufacturing are endorsing lightweight 3D data tools and specifically XVL from Lattice3D, making it OK for smaller firms to adopt them.

First-mover advantage in Japan is granted not seized; it is based on esteem, not innovation or speed to market. It is why, despite having hundreds of thousands of smart programmers, the list of successful software products from Japan is very small (we exclude the game industry, where a different cultural norm—story telling—reigns.) For Japanese readers, the introduction of best practices in this book is not just a handbook for innovation, but a formal introduction that bestows esteem and gives the reader cultural acceptance for adopting 3D data tools and implementing the required business process innovation. Japan-based Lattice3D, one of their own, is now accorded the esteem necessary to be short-listed by manufactures. (There is muscle behind the privilege; the new version of Lattice3D can display the complete 3D model of a full-sized jet, with every assembly and part in place, on a typical business-class laptop at surprising speed.)

The book is dense, detailed, and pricy ($119 at; where the book has been enabled for “Look Inside the Book”) but worthwhile for CAD vendor management, who may understand for the first time why PLM has been such a tough sell in Japan. This book is also recommended to anyone high enough in a manufacturing firm to be thinking about design and manufacturing process change (which means most CADCAMNET readers).


About the Author:

Randall S. Newton is Managing Editor of GraphicSpeak. He has been writing about engineering and design technologies for more than 25 years.

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