My work involves contract manufacturing liquid crystal displays for smartphones and cars. The LCD module of a smartphone is made up of a liquid crystal display, a touch panel and a glass cover. A display manufacturer subcontracts the assembly of the LCD modules to us and to our Chinese manufacturing partner in Dongguan in the Pearl River Delta. Our partner’s factory turns out 150,000 LCD modules every day. That’s one and a half modules per s.econd.
The Mitsui team has 18 people in Tokyo and 24 in Hong Kong and Dongguan. As well as being deputy MD of MBFC, our Hong Kong entity, I’m general manager of the LCD division. I supervise every aspect of the business. Whether deciding on business plans or capital investments with the Tokyo head office, keeping things running and doing everyday troubleshooting, or communicating with our Chinese partner—I have to keep an eye on everything. I’m based in Hong Kong but usually spend half the week at the factory in Dongguan.
Sheer unpredictability is the toughest thing about this job. Problems are always catching you by surprise. Maybe a warehouse elevator breaks down and you can’t get the pallets down, maybe there’s a power outage in the cold storage unit. You can’t draw up a manual for every eventuality. You’ve got to make decisions on the fly.
What you’ve got to avoid at all costs are production line stoppages because they mess up the shipping schedule. Any single problem has multiple knock-on effects. We need to detect problems early, decide what to do and do it. Problems will occur, but we can minimize or eliminate them.
At the same time, successfully overcoming those problems is probably my biggest source of satisfaction. Here’s an example: in 2015 we changed our approach to the bonded system. Sticking with the old way of doing things would have driven up costs by around $20 million. That was enough to put our whole business at risk, so we decided to apply for a more advanced bonded-processing license. It was tough; we had to rebuild our whole system from scratch. But by working closely with our Chinese partner for around a year, we managed to get the new license in time and keep the business ticking over.
It’s funny. I’m in the so-called advanced materials business, but to make “advanced” materials you need a support structure that’s quite simple and down-to-earth. Being smart isn’t good enough. If you want results, you’ve got to solve all the different problems as they occur at the factory or warehouse. As you build up experience, you’re better prepared and you can take things to the next level. That’s how I see it.