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Tanaka a technical expert turned top executive

There were no video games nor cellphones when Hideo Tanaka was a boy in Japan.

"I preferred to repair my bicycle. I loved to do that," recalled Tanaka, who would become a technical expert and a top executive of Toshiba Machine Co. Ltd. "That's the reason I got into motion control."

Tanaka, 69, is going into the Plastics Hall of Fame. His entire 42-year career was spent at Toshiba. He retired in 2013 as president of Toshiba Machine Engineering Co. Ltd., handling after-sales support for injection molding presses and die-casting machines in Japan.

"Hideo Tanaka successfully launched Toshiba Machine Co. as a global machine supplier," Gunther Hoyt, who nominated Takana, wrote in his submission. "He stands out as a technical and commercial leader in the global plastics industry." Hoyt runs an international consulting firm, Gunther Hoyt Associates, but he used to be vice president of Xaloy Inc., where he had contact with Toshiba.

In high school, Tanaka loved to tinker with all kinds of electrical and mechanical stuff.

"I loved to know how to control mechanical things," he said.

When it was time for college, Tanaka picked Tokyo Denki University. The school was founded in 1907 by two young engineers who dreamed of transforming Japan into a technology-intensive nation — hard to imagine today when the country is a global leader in technology.

Tokyo Denki has a reputation as a place to get a practical education.

When Tanaka started college in 1967, plastics machinery was not a major industry in Japan, he said. Machine tools got the big emphasis at engineering schools — and offered the jobs. "Machine tools were maybe 10 times bigger than the plastics industry," he said.

But while at Denki University, Tanaka visited Toshiba and got interested in plastics equipment. He joined the company in 1971, the year he graduated with an engineering degree.

His first job was working on a team researching a nylon blown film machine. Toshiba never got into blown film, instead focusing on the bigger markets of injection molding machines and extruders. But it made an impact.

"I buried myself in this study and what led me to start getting involved with plastics was working with this project," he said.

Soon, he was moved to the design department for injection molding machines for a big Japanese customer — the maker of Kirin beer. Kirin was still using wooden crates to ship its beer but wanted to convert to plastic. Other breweries also were interested.

The young engineer worked on a team that developed an 800-ton press to mold the polypropylene cases. The machine was designed with a high plasticizing capacity and a homogenous melt, with good color dispersion.

Hideo Tanaka Tanaka at NPE in 1975.

Toshiba launched U.S. sales in 1974, hiring Jack Criffield to run Toshiba Machine Co. America. Toshiba is believed to be the first Japanese injection molding press maker to set up a U.S. operation. Nissei American started three years later.

Tanaka said winning U.S. sales was an uphill battle. American ​ molders liked familiar U.S. brands like Van Dorn and Cincinnati Milacron Newbury, he said. Potential customers thought machines from Asia were poor quality.

"To overcome that, Toshiba Machine made a strong effort for not only the best quality machine, but also best after-sales service capability. I always promised my detailed and speedy response," he said.

Tanaka came to Toshiba America in 1977 and stayed in the United States for five years as chief technical engineer for injection presses. The first office was in Skokie, Ill., outside of Chicago, then it moved to Elk Grove Village, Ill., where the company sold injection presses and machine tools.

The decision was made to move the injection molding division to Florence, Ky., just south of Cincinnati. Tanaka said Florence was picked because Toshiba decided to focus on the Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky region, which was home to lots of injection molders, and Toshiba customers. But then the injection molding division moved to New Jersey, closer to the port where the presses came in by boat, where they were equipped with U.S. screws and barrels.

Toshiba America's injection molding headquarters ended up back in Elk Grove Village, where it remains today. Tanaka thinks the Chicago area is a good central location. He shared a report from the consulate general of Japan that in 2016, the Midwest was home to about 1,400 Japanese businesses providing nearly 140,000 jobs.

Tanaka, who said he was not involved in all the relocation decisions, closed the Florence office and moved back to Japan, where he began a series of increasingly bigger corporate positions at Toshiba.

But he learned a lot in at the fledgling Toshiba America — setting up a network of suppliers for U.S.-made components such as Xaloy screws and barrels, Wexco bi-metallic barrels, Barber-Colman Maco controllers, Vickers hydraulic valves and Watlow heaters. He said many U.S. customers requested the domestic components.

Takana had to change measurements from metric, which was a big headache. He is surprised that, decades later, the United States still has not gone metric.

Hideo Tanaka Tanaka at the 2015 Plastics Hall of Fame reception. Returning to Japan

Tanaka built on that sourcing knowledge gained at Toshiba America back in Japan, in executive positions where he established a global procurement, securing parts from the United States, Thailand, China and Italy. Later, as Toshiba president, he continued that effort, signing up the MuCell process, Herzog shutoff and Rex TCS barrel heaters.

When he moved back to Japan from the United States, he was in his early 30s, still a young man. He had gained an international mindset, an important skill for a Japanese machinery executive. He could speak English. (Tanaka recalled that when he arrived in the United States, he spoke zero English. And he didn't sign up for lessons. He said he read the newspaper, trade magazines and watched television.)

At Toshiba Machine headquarters, Tanaka worked in press development, where he helped develop a new Injectvisor controller in the late 1980s, with a then-pioneering touchscreen. He worked on new series of presses. He also led collaboration moves with Battenfeld and Autojectors, customizing their injection molding machines for the Japanese market. Toshiba partnered with KraussMaffei to develop KM's all-electric AX machine.

He moved up to become general manager of the injection molding engineering department in 1998, then on to general manager of the entire injection molding division from 1998-2003.

Tanaka was promoted to managing director, adding responsibility for die-casting and hydraulic equipment. Toshiba continued to improve its all-electric machines. Another big action: Implementing a new Oracle Enterprise Resource Planning system (ERP). At the same time, he was president of Toshiba's operations in China, including the construction of a second factory there.

Tanaka's last position was president of Toshiba Machine Engineering, from 2009-2013. He developed that after-sales business, continued to boost global procurement and established a 24-hour call center, which he said was the first for an injection molding machinery manufacturer in Japan.

He currently is a member of the Japan Society of Polymer Processing. He is past vice chairman of the Association of Japan Plastics Machinery.

Tanaka is a big supporter of a global supply chain, when it makes sense, "to achieve efficiency and optimization in global management structures."

And for Hideo Tanaka, it all started at Toshiba America.

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» Publication Date: 04/05/2018

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