Celebrating rebirth and ensuring consistency

A customer-centric approach has led to SMC growing locally and overseas. Manufacturers’ Monthly explains.

Reaching 60 years of age, in Japan, is an occasion for festivities. At this age, it is customary to conduct a celebration known as a kanreki. The tradition symbolises rebirth, and marks having passed through the full 60-year cycle of the lunar calendar. The anniversary is a time to renew connections and look ahead to the next stage of life.

SMC Corporation, an industrial automation company listed on the Tokyo stock exchange, recently passed this milestone and thoughts of renewal and rejuvenation were not far from the minds of those in the corporation.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of industrial sales businesses that can say they’re 60 years old and continue to reinvent products and actually have skin in the game when it comes to research and development (R&D),” said William Lebihan, head of field sales at SMC Australia and New Zealand.

William Lebihan sees the value in first understanding the customer’s viewpoint.

While reinvention and research may be what is keeping SMC young today, throughout the past six decades, there has been a constant focus on keeping customers central to the business’s ethos. This approach is encapsulated in the three white lines that form SMC’s blue logo. Of course, as Lebihan notes the lines symbolise the airflow that is central to the pneumatic company’s products; but, in addition, each line has a distinct relation to the company’s attitude to customers.

“The first line is to understand our customers’ needs, the second line is to understand what their requirements are, and the third line is to evolve our products accordingly. Those three lines help support our approach to customer centric design,” said Lebihan.

Such a code is present in SMC Corporation’s presence in Australia, the first overseas subsidiary for the Japanese company. In 1969, the Tokyo headquarters decided to acquire an Australia pneumatics manufacturer. SMC has taken this approach to its global expansion; ensuring that local expertise can be augmented with the company’s attitude to customer- responsive growth.

Today, SMC operates in 83 countries, with 28 production facilities and five R&D facilities. In each case, the local particularities and idiosyncrasies were respected, and Lebihan sees this as a constant running through the company’s trajectory.

“Potentially the main reason why we have been around for 60 years, and will continue to be around for another 60, is because customers shape how we approach our products and our service to market,” said Lebihan.

In breaking down what this approach means in practice, Lebihan stresses that SMC representatives do not begin a conversation with a product to sell or a solution to push.

“It’s important for us to understand the customer’s business and what they’re trying to achieve holistically, and then get an understanding of what they want to do,” said Lebihan.

Instead, Lebihan advocates an approach where a sale is not the intended outcome of every meeting.

“You’re essentially there to support them in the challenges they have in their business and therefore learn about how we can further support them going forward, so it takes that pressure off the interaction and customers feel the tension drop in the interactions,” said Lebihan.

These discussions then tend to focus on the particularities of each business and where SMC can be a useful fit.

“It’s easy to turn up with a catalogue and stick it under their nose and say that’s what you need. But we’d much rather come from the customers’ viewpoint and what they’re feeling and get an understanding of how our products can support that.”

Once the application or use-case is determined, the next step for SMC and the customer is to decide what solution is appropriate. Lebihan points out that that solution could be anything from an off-the-shelf product to an engineered solution that draws on the expertise of the 18 local engineers the company employs throughout Australia and New Zealand.

Recently, this sales process was conducted by SMC for a national pallet manufacturing client. The customer, which supplies and repairs pallets for various businesses, wanted a solution that would save them energy.

“Now it may sound pretty straightforward; a company wants to save energy, therefore they’ll save money as electricity continues to go up, but it’s easier said than done,” highlighted Lebihan. “But you have to get an understanding of the customer’s energy footprint. A lot of customers want to save energy but don’t know what they’re spending. So, starting this discussion with the customer enabled an understanding of what they’re spending, and what they’d ideally like to save.”

With this base-understanding agreed between SMC and the manufacturer, the next step is to determine the appropriate solution. “In this instance, we put together an engineering solution – installed on the customer’s site – that was designed, engineered, and then manufactured at our facility,” said Lebihan.

Ultimately, this enabled the customer to find savings of more than 20 per cent.

While not every situation will call for this particular approach of a custom-designed product, what made the solution between SMC and the pallet manufacturer possible
was the range of local assistance that SMC was able to offer. With a major manufacturing facility in the Sydney suburb of Castle Hill, SMC has facilities spread across Australia and New Zealand.

Having a local base also allows SMC to meaningfully engage with their customers, particularly through disruptions and changes to the industry. One way in which this currently occurring is through SMC’s engagement with Open IIoT, which provides customers with a tactile demonstration of the capabilities of Industry 4.0.

“There are so many applications for Industry 4.0, but I think customers across Australia and New Zealand actually want to see it working,” noted Lebihan.

These corporate initiatives are supported by a team of over 80 salespeople working for SMC in Australia and New Zealand – a presence that Lebihan sees as indispensable.

“We do believe that people do buy from people. Customers can pick the phone up and talk to SMC and they can get to see someone face to face, that’s our sales approach.

“We’re here to support local manufacturing and production facilities in Australia and New Zealand because we’re one as well.”