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Date of Issue:20/May/2009

Unique Designs Reflect a Love of All Models
Interview with Kunihiro Suzuki
Chairman and CEO of Fine Molds Corporation


Fine Molds Corporation has established a strong reputation at home and abroad for its production of highly authentic plastic models of everything from Japanese WWII fighter planes to the aircraft featuring in movies such as Porco Rosso and Star Wars. Here we talk to the company founder, Chairman & CEO Kunihiro Suzuki.

Profile: Fine Molds Corporation

A plastic model manufacturer established in 1987 in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture. Uses 3D CAD software and machine tools to develop resin molds in-house as the basis for finely-detailed plastic models. Makes and sells plastic models under its own brand, garnering a strong reputation in Japan and overseas.


Q: Why did you choose this job? What led you to set up the company?

Suzuki: My father was a joiner, and I was brought up to succeed him. After graduation I worked for my father for around a year, and then he told me that I wasnft cut out to be a joiner and should look for a position elsewhere. I had studied architecture at my technical high school, so I made the obvious decision of taking a job at an architectural design office.

But it was then that I realized something important. I wasnft interested in houses (laughs). I worked hard, but when I thought about the future, I didnft really want to be making my living as an architectural designer. Friends told me that I should just go and do what I wanted to, but this was 30 years ago when lifelong employment was the norm in Japan and job-hopping was tantamount to dropping out.

However, I was finding it a real struggle, and it occurred to me that if I liked models, I should become a model maker. At the time, the only approach I could think of was to open a model store. I joined another company to save money to open a store, but I couldnft save enough and after around two years I quit that company too.

At the time, I belonged to a model club, and one of the members worked for a model manufacturer. Back then, model manufacturers had design divisions and assembly lines but contracted out their mold manufacturing, and the mold factory to which that particular model manufacturer contracted was apparently looking for staff, so I took the job. It was a small company, only three people. I was at last working with models. That would have been when I was almost 23.

I didnft know anything when I started. I had never used the machines, didnft know anything about mechanical engineering, and obviously had no specialist education. But I still found working with models really fascinating. My time at the design office had taught me to read blueprints, so I could change the designs and make the models as I liked, and generally became able to have great fun.

After a while, when I was talking to the manufacturer, Ifd often be told that I was a real model enthusiast, which according to the manufacturer, made me a bit weird. Even though I hadnft thought I was that much of an enthusiast myself! If that was the case, though, I started to think that it would be interesting if I could become a model manufacturer myself some day. After four and a half years at the factory, I began working on my boss to let me make my own molds. And the first mold I made was for the Lisa doll that I had designed by Akira Toriyama.

Apparently Akira Toriyama, who is a manga artist, was busy at the time with the start of the Dragonball series, so it wasnft the best time to be asking for a design (laughs). Then I quit the company and started selling the doll together with a friend of mine. Lisa made a great initial hit. Shefs now recognized as the first injection plastic model to have been made by anyone outside the existing manufacturing majors. That was 1985.

The trouble was that when my friend and I worked together, our opinions always clashed and wefd end up stalling. On top of that, we were also having money problems, so after about a year we went our separate ways. The lesson was that you canft have two people running a company, I guess. And then we were young and didnft have a proper business vision-really, we were just imitating what we thought a manufacturer did, playing at being a manufacturer.

So I was on my own again. It was 1987 when I started out in my tiny six-mat room with only 100,000 yen to my name. That was the year that the company was launched. I really went right back to the beginning, making once-off finished models that manufacturers ordered to use as samples. With the money I made on those, I bought a small machine and other equipment, with the company gradually evolving into its current form.

Q: After you made that fresh start, what was the product that made your company known? What project was the real turning point?

Suzuki: I think that would be Porco Rosso in 1999, 12 years after I set up the company. Until that point, I saw myself as operating in a niche industry as a manufacturer that focused on making models of Japanese WWII military hardware, but I didnft like being denoted in model magazines as a especialist Japanese WWII military hardware model manufacturerf. I liked making those models, but I didnft like being labeled as such.

When I was thinking that Ifd like to try making something else, I happened to remember that there were no Porco Rosso models. The movie came out in 1992, but it wasnft until 1998 that I started planning. I got a direct introduction to the director, Hayao Miyazaki, through a model publishing company, and the kit that I produced was Porco Rossofs Savoia S.21. It wasnft until afterwards that I found out that Miyazaki is famous for not giving approvals, so when that emerged there was a lot of surprise.

Miyazaki gave no directions at all about the style of business I should follow-what I should do with the model after it was made, how I should sell it, etc. We agreed that while the look of the plane changed here and there in the movie, we wanted to pick a good representative image as a model. After that, the discussion was all about Italian planes of the 1920s, Japanese planes, and the other topics you might expect of plane enthusiasts. Then he gave his permission and Studio Ghibli gave me the approval. I think that also got the Fine Molds name out there from another perspective.

The next thing was the Star Wars project in 2001. First we produced the X-wing. It was originally a suggestion from a staff member, who proposed over a drink one evening that it would be great if we could make the X-wing. At the time, we didnft dream that we would take on all the spacecraft that appear in the movie. Lucas Films laid down various conditions-I would have to get public liability insurance, for example, and they wouldnft work with an individual. When I was working with Studio Ghibli, I was still operating as a sole proprietor. It had been unusual at the time even for Studio Ghibli to sign a contract with a sole proprietor, but Lucas Films insisted on a company. I met the necessary conditions and the project went ahead.

When the models came out, there was worldwide astonishment. The first movie had been released in the 1970s, so Star Wars fans had already engaged in some very exhaustive research, and no one had imagined that an X-wing model would be put out at this late point. Moreover, the quality was extremely high compared to previous models, with plaudits pouring in from around the world. It was the perfect example of what could be done with contemporary technology. Even though the contract only allowed for sales in Japan, models found their way worldwide. Even when I say worldwide, itfs still a tiny market, of course (laughs), so it isnft as though we were selling millions of models, but fans in the US and Europe also started acquiring them, the reason apparently being the quality of the product.

 

Of course, it was widely known even before then that Japanese plastic models were world-class, but it was great to have a little company like ours attracting international acclaim.

Q: When your company creates a product, what is your top priority? What is the drive behind your uncompromising standards?

Suzuki: Ifm not very fond of the term euncompromisingf, but some idealism is involved. Firstly, there is the reason that I started down this road in the first place, which is that I was dissatisfied with existing models and wanted to pursue my own ideals as to what makes a really good model. Take those away, and it would cease to be my company. Then, the facilities to realize those ideals are absolutely vital. As I said earlier, a lot of manufacturers rely on outsourcing, which means that they donft build up a stockpile of technological knowhow. If youfre making each model yourself, that technology remains. For example, even if we lose money on a product, to the extent that making that product has contributed something to the company in terms of technological knowhow, we can feed that knowhow back into the next product. I aim to value those intangible sales, forms and knowhow.

Why go that far, you might ask. Because thatfs what I want myself. I think it would be wrong to supply to customers with products that I wouldnft want. Wefre still selling our old products, but looking at them now, many seem rather amateur. However, I can say for a fact that all of our products embody the best that we could do at the time. Our approach is to treat advances in technology as opportunities to make even better products. To keep a company going, you need to pay attention to immediate profits, but the most important issue is what you will become in the future.

Naturally, youfre always battling to keep the company afloat. Itfs more than 20 years now since Fine Molds began, but that side of things has never become any easier. Rather than aiming to expand sales or expand the scale of the company, we need to develop our core business even further so that we can become a company that doesnft compete. In the end, our current products are all up for comparison. Cars are the same. You compare one companyfs cars with anotherfs. Even if one company goes under, there are other companies out there so it isnft a problem. In that case, the answer is to become a company which our customers canft afford to have collapse. The company that is the only one that can do what it does, IS the only one that does what it does, and is the only company that makes offbeat products is the company that canft be compared.

Thatfs why wefre making something offbeat again now-plastic models of machine tools (laughs). Plastic models of the machine tools from Makino Milling Machine which process our molds. And smaller models of the same for Hitachi Metals Tool Steel. Wefre making the kind of products that youfd wonder who could possibly want them. The manufacturing industry is currently shaky, but given that there must be an enormous number of people in the machine tools industry, it seems like a good idea to make models for them. With machine tools, you can take your sales campaign out to factories as well, showing them what youfve made. That opens a different market again. And of course we make the machine tool models in ridiculous detail too (laughs).

In other words, models themselves are a fairly frivolous thing, so they have to be made well to have any value at all. Like movies. All you do is watch them and enjoy them. But isnft it good to have them? I think thatfs hugely important.

Q: Young people these days seem to be struggling with the meaning of work. What would you like to communicate to the next generation concerning skilled manufacturing and perhaps work itself?

Suzuki: Thatfs not something for me to tell, itfs for everyone to find out for themselves. I canft do anything as presumptuous as that.

Currently, when people talk about Japanese skilled manufacturing, theyfre only talking about the material side. But if skilled manufacturing was no more than making things, these days youfd only need to put CAD/CAM software on your computer and invest in some high-precision machine tools to have a perfectly adequate system. The result would be device industries. So, do good devices allow you to do a good job? Thatfs an illusion often held about skilled manufacturing. It would seem that with the right devices, you could produce good work anywhere in the world. Why is that not the case? Itfs the difference between cultures-the way people think, for example, and design information, which needs to be converted into three dimensions.

For example, both elementary school students and novelists string letters together. But what enables the novelist to write wonderful, moving passages are the culture and the value of experience that the novelist has woven. This aspect tends to be neglected.

I believe that what is important is that machines can be bought by simply paying money, but people canft be bought. All young people have talents. The first step is to become immunized against failure. You have to realize that itfs alright to fail, that things wonft go well from the beginning. Itfs worse not to try at all. Trying and failing is okay. After all, all our current technology -in fact, everything around us- has been developed through a succession of failures. Why I believe that is because when making a plastic model, I research all the history, the struggles of those involved and the development process -everything- so I can get inside the minds of those who came before me. When you make something, therefs a process of sacrificing your own dignity and going beyond that. Working out the parameters we have to work within gets us fired up. Thatfs why itfs important to learn about history.

To be frank, people are led by their feelings. Business conditions too are sentiment. If a feeling fires you up, you can suddenly see the same thing from quite a different perspective.

Once Ifve given my staff a theme, I try not to get in the way too much. I leave them to do as they will. A deadline is set, and theyfre expected to do their best by that point. In that environment, their skills inevitably improve. When I buy a new machine, I just set them loose on it, and judging from the groans and shouts of glee, they seem to have a really good time (laughs).

Q: What are your dreams and the goals you want to achieve?

Suzuki: I always find that a tough question, and tend to say that in the future, I want to become a strange old man! (laughs). When I watched the Porco Rosso movie, I had no idea that I would make models from it, and Star Wars too I simply watched, so I think you simply never know what will happen next, which is what makes life interesting. Things will occur which were completely beyond your imagination. If you keep walking, youfll see different scenery. People show you things, things that differ from your own intentions emerge. I want to go forward with eager anticipation and enjoyment of whatever life throws at me.

Ifm only doing this job because I like it and want to know more. It doesnft matter what it is-when people feel that theyfve found something theyfre happy with, somewhere where theyfre necessary, thatfs where they make their breaks. And when they find a job where theyfre necessary, thatfs called a vocation. From my own experience, I think thatfs all you can do. Nothing is set in stone. You shouldnft let barriers be put in your way; you should do what you want to do. If you donft, youfll wither away inside. So I believe that you have to take your own dreams seriously.

Fine Molds Corporation Website: http://www.finemolds.co.jp/ (Japanese only)
 
 
 

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