Innovation and technology Social Responsibility Sustainability

Using renewable energy power for a sustainable future

7 min read / April 23, 2019 / Caley Clinton

Leading the way at Awazu

Since 1938, our Awazu manufacturing plant in Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture has been at the center of local business and industry. The second of nine Komatsu Mother Plants worldwide, Awazu is a standard-setting facility for Komatsu operations. The first bulldozers in Japan were manufactured there, and today it is the lead facility for dozers, transmissions, hydraulic excavators, wheel loaders and motor graders.

Leading the way as an environmental innovator

In recent years, Awazu has taken on broader leadership roles as an environmental innovator and a sustainable community partner. Following the 2011 earthquake that left millions in Japan temporarily without electricity, Komatsu leadership began to look for ways to reduce electrical consumption and become less dependent on the traditional power grid. The decision was made to consolidate two outdated plants at Awazu into one new assembly plant that was designed to cut electric power consumption in half while supporting new business in the community. Construction of the new facility was focused on using renewable energy power for a sustainable future.

The facility far surpassed that. By combining revolutionary design with alternative energy sources, Awazu’s new assembly plant, built in 2014, reduced electrical power consumption by 90 percent. To pull off this exciting feat, Komatsu worked with local business partners – ensuring that success at Awazu meant prosperity for the surrounding community, as well.

Now, customers, suppliers and local school groups frequently request tours to see the facility’s innovative capabilities.

“It’s such a small town, but Komatsu has a big presence,” said local business owner Mr. Itao, president of Itao Iron Works, a Komatsu business partner. “We are proud to have Awazu here.” 

New microindustry created in Awazu for biomass power generation

One of the facility’s primary energy reduction mechanisms, a biomass power generation system, has created a microindustry in Ishikawa Prefecture; sustaining new jobs and the creation of new equipment.

“We created a property that was not only environmentally sustainable, but that could help sustain the surrounding community as well.”

“This was an important aspect of the overhaul of Awazu’s facility,” said Mr. Toi, manager of the Manufacturing Engineering Department, “We created a property that was not only environmentally sustainable, but that could help sustain the surrounding community as well.”

Since entering into an agreement with Komatsu in 2014 to supply the necessary woodchip fuel for Awazu’s biomass cogeneration system, the local KAGA Forest Association has developed a full woodchip production business that supports the area’s forestry industry. The woodchips are burned at Awazu plant’s Woody Biomass Power Generation facility to produce high-pressure steam that generates electricity, as well as hot and cold water used in heating and cooling the plant.

To make space for agricultural use and cut down on the amount of waste timber clogging up area streams and rivers, the Forest Association collects and cuts down trees from southern Ishikawa Prefecture. This work is very important for the health of the area’s natural resources, but at least 30 percent of the resulting timber was unusable for construction or commercial purposes.

30 percent of the resulting timber was unusable for construction or commercial purposes.

Now, that resource plays a crucial role at Awazu, as leftover timber is turned into woodchips that fuel bio generative power.

“The logs that were not used before now have a purpose,” said Mr. Shimizu, senior managing director of the KAGA Forest Association. “They help create energy and also new jobs.”

New equipment developed to support Awazu’s woodchip needs

Komatsu worked with local manufacturing firm Tagami Ex to develop special equipment sized to Awazu’s woodchip needs. Yoshimichi Tagami, chairman of Tagami Ex, said that a large-scale partner like Komatsu was necessary to grow the local forestry industry.

“We are very appreciative that Komatsu is paying attention to the forestry industry,” said Yoshihiro Tagami, president of Tagami Ex. “An entire local industry is benefitting.”

When approached by the company about supplying its woodchip needs, Tagami initially thought they wouldn’t be able to support the level of business Komatsu sought to provide. But the Komatsu teams were passionate about making it work and collaborated with Tagami’s teams to develop the new equipment required. That commitment as not only a business partner, but as a supporter of sustainable technologies, led to mutual success.

“It’s very motivating for us, for our work,” Tagami senior added, “to know the chips our machines produce are used for conservation-related activities.”

Opting to rely on biomass power at Awazu was a strategic decision that involved considerations far beyond ease and cost. But it was a choice that brought the community along on the journey, in keeping with Komatsu’s founding spirit.

Using biomass to reduce energy consumption

“Biomass is very tough to do in terms of operation,” said Mr. Mitani, project manager of the Woody Biomass Power Generation facility. “You have to have a certain level of raw materials to make it work. And you have to think of profitability, too. It’s much easier to just use boilers. It’s tough, but we wanted to contribute to the community and energy conservation.”

In keeping with the communal spirit of the project, younger generations of Komatsu employees led the design, planning and implementation efforts for the changes at Awazu. More senior employees then reviewed the suggestions and they would meet together to make decisions.

Another key way they were able to reduce energy consumption was to only heat and cool the three meters immediately above and below the shop floor. Typical facility design would have wasted energy heating and cooling the entire 18 meter height of the facility. But at Awazu, air is rotated through the six-meter loop above and below the floor using a system of fans, pumps and radiators that leverage the underground water supply and geothermal energy, requiring very little electricity.

Energy-saving mechanics inspired by Komatsu’s hydraulic excavators

Komatsu teams also reduced energy demands by designing the new assembly shop to maximize efficiencies. Productivity per area unit doubled thanks to the inclusion of slowly rotating assembly line floor panels that minimize time wasted moving between tools and areas of the machine. Employees can put their tool boxes on the rotating floor and it will move with them, allowing them to concentrate on their assembly work.

Installing double-sided cranes allowed the facility footprint to be shortened by 30 percent compared to prior designs. The plant’s overhead cranes also contribute to the sustainability effort, generating energy (converted into electricity) with every downward movement. The concept was inspired by the energy-saving mechanics of Komatsu’s hydraulic excavators.

Even the rollers used in the interior testing facility play a part: generating electricity that feeds back into the plant’s power system. Solar panels on the roof add to the self-generated energy that has allowed Awazu to drastically reduce its public power consumption and serve as a shining example of Komatsu’s commitment to sustainability.

Teamwork makes sustainability efforts possible

With its commitment to looking at the big picture, both within the facility and in the surrounding community, Komatsu’s Awazu facility embodies the Monozukuri spirit that is essential to the company’s long-term success. When we speak about Monozukuri, which literally translates as “manufacturing,” at Komatsu we are not referring only to activities within the manufacturing facility. Rather, we define Monozukuri as teamwork activities performed by all members of the Komatsu family, including internal divisions and external partners.

“You cannot limit yourself to your own scope of work,” said Mrs. Nakaizumi, who works at Awazu along with her husband, daughter and son-in-law. “You need to understand the overall flow.”

Nakaizumi said she is proud to work for a company that cares about the environment and takes its role in the flow of a sustainable society seriously.

“The biomass facility,” she said, “has this good cycle of using the trees to support the creation of equipment that then helps take care of the environment.”

These innovative “circles of support” in the way we operate and interact with our community and our environment are what has made Awazu plant not just a Komatsu success story, but a sustainability success story.

“The factory was able to grow along with the people in this community,” said Mitani. “We were able to grow because of them. So we wanted to return that support. It’s our duty. We are a global company with close ties to the community.”

How the biomass facility works

  1. Woodchips are produced from waste timber removed from the forests of southern Iskikawa Prefecture.
  2. The chips are delivered daily from the KAGA Forest Association site to Awazu’s Woody Biomass Power Generation facility. The main silo at the facility can hold 130 cubic meters (equivalent to about 24 hours of use).
  3. A conveyor takes the chips to four sub silos from which chips are distributed to four boiler system units.
  4. The woodchips are burned to produce high-pressure steam that generates electricity, as well as hot and cold water used in heating and cooling the plant.