May 27, 2024

Many Japanese Factories Recover After Quake

The ceiling is still not fixed. But employees are back at their posts, working under temporary lighting and wearing hard hats to protect themselves in case debris falls.

The factory may be a case study for the can-do recovery of Japan’s manufacturing industry. Only seven weeks after the huge earthquake in northeastern Japan collapsed the ceiling, toppled a huge water tank and upended assembly line equipment, the Ricoh factory here is nearly back to full production. And so, for the most part, is all of Ricoh, a nearly $25 billion company that makes copiers and other office equipment.

“The influence of this disaster is not as large as the world thinks,” Shiro Kondo, Ricoh’s president, said in an interview at the company headquarters in Tokyo.

At varying speeds, Ricoh’s story is being played out all over the quake-affected parts of Japan. The pattern suggests that whatever the long-term effect of the natural and nuclear disasters on this country, manufacturing — the most important cog in Japan’s export-oriented economy — might largely rebound within a few months.

Without doubt, things are not back to normal yet. And some sectors, particularly automobile manufacturing, are suffering more than others. Still, almost every day companies are reporting progress on some of the hundreds of factories knocked out of commission by the quake or ensuing tsunami. The government estimates that 7 percent of Japanese factories were in the region heavily affected by the earthquake.

A survey of 70 damaged factories released last week by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry found that nearly two-thirds of them had recovered while most of the rest in the survey group expected to do so by summer.

Shin-Etsu Chemical, a leading producer of silicon wafers used to make computer chips, said last week that it expected to return to pre-earthquake production levels by July. Sony has resumed operations at nine of its 10 halted factories, with the 10th expected to come online in phases from May to July.

Masatomo Onishi of Kansai University, who studied the recovery after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, said that when a disaster strikes, Japanese companies tend to cooperate with one another and workers rally to the cause.

That seems to be the case at the Ricoh factory here. Even many of the Ricoh workers who lost family members to the tsunami came to work. Some whose homes were destroyed or flooded slept on blankets on the floor of a factory conference room. With gasoline scarce, many rode bicycles. And with bathrooms not working because of blocked sewer lines, employees improvised with plastic bags.

Still, the disaster exposed vulnerabilities that simply restoring any one factory’s assembly line cannot fully resolve.

The biggest susceptibility for Ricoh and many other companies has proven to be parts shortages. Although Japanese manufacturers have spread their factories around the world — Ricoh makes 70 percent of its products outside of Japan — many of those overseas plants often still depend on parts made in Japan.

For example, Tohoku Ricoh, as this plant is known, is the company’s only factory making a particular motor used in copiers. When the factory here went down, a giant Ricoh plant in Shenzhen, China — which supplies most of the Ricoh copiers sold in the United States — had to stop production for a full week. (Mr. Kondo said he did not think Ricoh’s sales in the United States would be affected much.)

Ricoh is also dependent on parts from various suppliers in Japan, some of which suffered their own damage from the earthquake.

That is forcing Ricoh to live off its inventory of certain computer chips and connectors. If production of those parts does not resume in the next couple of months, Ricoh might have to slow or halt production.

Another weakness was in emergency planning.

David Jolly contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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