Mitsubishi Heavy Industries: From ships to satellites

Jonny Williamson reports on his trip to Japan and the three days he spent touring the operations of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Group.

MHI’s H-IIA launch vehicle completed its first 100% commercial mission in 2015 - image courtesy of MHI.
MHI’s H-IIA launch vehicle completed its first 100% commercial mission in 2015 – image courtesy of MHI.

As last year drew to a close, I had the enviable opportunity to travel to Japan and tour several of the facilities within the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) Group.

MHI has global operations covering power systems, industry & infrastructure, and aircraft, defence & space. The organisation is fond of saying it provides solutions “on land, at sea, in the sky and in space”.

Well known throughout the Asian region, the 134-year old company has a long relationship with Japan’s domestic media, but far less so with more international publications.

That’s surprising considering that MHI employs over 83,000 people worldwide across the group’s more than 300 companies.

An urge to redress that balance, coupled with the fact that more than half of MHIs total sales (54%) now originate from outside of Japan, was how I found myself landing in Tokyo on an unseasonably mild November morning.

My packed three-day itinerary took in the group’s headquarters in Tokyo, its engine and turbocharger plant in Sagamihara, the sprawling shipyard, machinery and power systems works in Nagasaki, its liquid natural gas (LNG) carrier assembly line in Koyagi, its gas turbine and combined cycle power plant in Takasago (Kobe), an overview of its aerospace business in Tobishima (Nagoya), and culminated with a tour of the then recently opened Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) Museum.

All in, it took two international flights, three domestic flights, 14 buses, two taxis and two trips on the famous Shinkansen (bullet train), not to mention some of the best sashimi I’ve ever had.

The distances travelled combined with the number of planned stops meant that our time at each facility was often whistle stop. Nevertheless, our hosts did their utmost to pack in as much information and demonstration as possible, while ensuring the complex agenda ran – rather unsurprisingly – like clockwork.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries

The innovative group has been responsible for numerous Japan and world firsts - image courtesy of MHI.
The innovative group has been responsible for numerous Japan and world firsts – image courtesy of MHI.

MHI has undergone a bit of a transformation during the 21st century to date, a feat achieved thanks to its strong history of innovation and adaptation.

The group can trace its roots back to 1884 when it leased the Nagasaki Shipyard from the Japanese government. Three short years later, it launched the country’s first steel steamship.

Other Japan and world firsts care-of MHI include: container ships, supercritical pressure boilers, suspended commuter monorails, dry-cut gear systems, integrated coal gasification combined cycle (GCC) systems, hybrid forklifts, and unmanned, fully-automated rail systems.

However, the group had been almost too successful, commanding almost market saturation within Japan for much of its activities. This led to a group-wide ‘stagnation’ – in president and CEO Shunichi Miyanaga’s words – and provided the impetus to adopt a different approach.

Since 2000, a far greater emphasis on exports and diversification has seen MHI experience significant growth in sales and revenue, especially from its power generation and aerospace divisions, and the group is increasingly exploring – and successfully entering – markets around the globe.

Self-service

Equally important is MHI’s shift from offering standalone long-tail products – many of which operate within long-tail purchasing cycles, to a more holistic, solutions and service-based portfolio.

With an increasing number of high-value assets deployed across a diverse range of environments, MHI has embraced the power of data, IoT connectivity and analytics to offer 24-hour remote monitoring and advanced energy management.

Wraparound services such as these not only provide an additional revenue stream for the group, they also feed into its centralised research and innovation programmes, ensuring its design and manufacturing processes are constantly improving.

The remote monitoring centre (RMC) I saw at the Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS) in Takasago for example provides 24/7 real-time monitoring of almost 60 plants worldwide comprising 145 separate units and generating more than 30,000MW combined.

According to recent studies, more than 80% of businesses have experienced at least one instance of unplanned downtime over the past three years (the average number is two). Each instance typically lasts four hours and costs around $2m.

MHI’s remote monitoring of its gas turbines covers upwards of 2,000 data points per turbine, refreshed and stored every 60 seconds - image courtesy of MHI.
MHI’s remote monitoring of its gas turbines covers upwards of 2,000 data points per turbine, refreshed and stored every 60 seconds – image courtesy of MHI.

The issue is compounded by the more than two-thirds (70%) of businesses which lack full awareness of where and when their equipment is likely to fail or due for maintenance/repair/upgrade.

The data and insights gathered via remote monitoring enable RMC technicians to recommend – and in some cases, even take – preventative activities to help minimise downtime, and therefore help clients achieve the best reliability and lifetime cost performance.

Help from afar

MHI’s remote monitoring of its gas turbines covers upwards of 2,000 data points per turbine, refreshed and stored every 60 seconds.  Real-time data is stored on a web server, whereas historic data is stored on servers and passed across to the R&D team, creating a closed feedback loop.

Real-time monitoring has already helped reduce the need for on-site troubleshooting by technicians, allowing those teams to focus on additional, more value-added activities. Furthermore, the insights gleaned from pattern-monitoring over long periods has made it easier to establish thresholds and, crucially, more swiftly identify when optimum parameters have been breached and action taken.

The task has been aided by the development of MHI’s proprietary diagnostic system, which provides operational abnormality detection and cause identification. Since the system was adopted in 2008, the number of average call-outs per machine system has halved and asset reliability has almost doubled.

Thanks to machine learning, the diagnostic system is continually getting better at fault indication detection, performance analysis and optimisation calculation, which should in turn lead to further efficiency improvements in a virtuous cycle.

Business sense

A world apart from mass-manufacturing, each of the divisions inside the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Group mostly produce low-volume, high-value, complex manufactured products – think 15MW industrial diesel generators or H-IIA rockets used to launch satellites into geostationary orbits.

The largely automated production of a turbocharger at Sagamihara may be completely different to the understandably more human-driven production of a 300 metre, 180,000 cubic metre LNG carrier, yet there are several universal threads running through each of the plants I visited.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Yes, as you would imagine from the country which pioneered the concepts of Lean, Kaizen, Kanban and 5S, everything was incredibly well organised, laid out and maintained. There was a logical flow running through every aspect, with a huge importance placed on driving down waste – be that material, time, labour or otherwise.

Aside from the 380 tonne modules being swung into place and riveted together to form one of MHI’s immense LNG carriers – a truly breath-taking sight, one of the things that made a lasting impression was the high level of flexibility and responsiveness on display.

Several of the assembly lines I saw were simultaneously making similar products of different specifications, requiring a strict system to be in place to ensure each item was correctly fitted with the corresponding parts and assemblies – and for the correct parts and assemblies to be precisely where they were needed to be and when, of course.

Everything is meticulously colour-coded, barcoded or otherwise tagged, the level of signage and instructions displayed was on another level to what I’d seen previously, and everyone knew exactly what had to be done, by whom and in what sequence – both in terms of their own responsibilities and the entire team’s.

Such a system may have been difficult to embed, but now that it has been, lines can be swiftly ramped up or down depending on market demand, and move seamlessly from one product to the other according to the orders coming in.