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September 1, 2001

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The MIM renaissance in Japan

Divide and suffer—unite and succeed." That was Steve James' stirring message to the PIM 2000 conference and exhibition. James is the executive vp and coo of Injectamax Corp. (Escondido, CA), a long-standing U.S. metal injection molder that has licensed its proprietary technology to a successful automotive supplier in Japan.

James called on his competitors to collaborate on marketing the competitive benefits of producing net-shape parts by using metal injection molding (MIM). "Individually we lack the resources to market the technology to the world," James said. "If we collaborate, we do have the resources." 

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The Japanese MIM market bottomed out in 1997 and 1998, but has since rebounded. Expectations for a continued boom this year were to a great degree based on expected gains in the IT sector. Whether or not these gains materialize remains to be seen.



There is historical evidence that such a collaborative marketing effort can succeed. Coincidently, it comes from Japan. Metal injection molding (MIM) began as a U.S. export to Japan in the early 1980s. At first, there was a boom. Almost 100 MIM molders sprang up. With their imported process licenses, feedstocks, and equipment they began competing aggressively against each other, and against more traditional metalworking processes. 

But the only powders they could afford were carbonyl nickels and irons. Alternatives were limited and expensive. Also, traditionalists improved the productivity of their process technologies and fought back hard. The MIM boom became a bust. 

Japanese MIM Industry by End Market, 1999

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The original markets for MIM in Japan, such as watch manufacturing and general industrial equipment, have shrunk over the past five years. However, demand for MIM parts in newer markets like IT and automotive have expanded.



Soon there were only about 10 MIM molders left. They scrambled after limited opportunities in markets like automotive, watchmaking, and sewing machines. The depression lasted for more than 10 years until the survivors realized that the fault was not in MIM technology, but in their own marketing strategy. 

They began to distinguish MIM from traditional processes, focusing on its strength as being a more cost-effective means of producing small and complex high-performance, net-shape parts. The introduction of water-atomization technology for making powders greatly improved the variety, price, and characteristics of raw materials. And MIM molders began embracing the mass-production molding and moldmaking systems driving Japanese plastics injection molders to their position of prominence. 

Japanese MIM Companies, 1999

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This chart shows the latest manufacturers' share of the MIM market in Japan. There are about 20 MIM molders in Japan today. Ten of the highest-ranking MIM molders account for 90 percent of the gross yield. Five account for 60 percent of total output.



Today, the MIM business in Japan is booming once again. There are presently about 20 MIM molders, 10 of which account for 90 percent of gross yield and five of which account for 60 percent of total output. New opportunities are opening up in high-volume markets, like automotive engine parts. And the Japan Society of Powder Metallurgy (JSPM) has begun to develop standards for materials characterization and performance properties. All are working to transform MIM into a traditional metalworking process. 

Editor's note: Information for this article was drawn from a presentation at the PIM 2001 international conference on powder injection molding of metals and ceramics held earlier this year in Lake Buena Vista, FL. The presentation was delivered by Syuntaro Terauchi, chairman of the PIM technical and academic committees of JSPM and president of Osaka Yakin Kogyou Co. Ltd., a MIM molder and vacuum heat-treater based in Osaka, Japan. More information can be found at the following websites: www.osakayakin.co.jp and www.imspowder.com. 

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