Insulation maker working to meet growing demand


Staff Writer

Mag-Isover K.K., the Japanese unit of French building-material conglomerate Saint-Gobain, is ready to meet growing demand for insulation in the disaster-hit Tohoku region and elsewhere and expects the nation’s energy-saving efforts to continue for years to come.

“Sustainable development (of the market) is not a fashion. It is really a long-term trend,” President Francois-Xavier Lienhart said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Mag-Isover, which has 373 employees, is a leading maker of glass wool in Japan. The wool, made of recycled glass, is used to insulate houses and costs less than other insulating materials.

Despite damage from the March 11 quake at its plant in Akeno, Ibaraki Prefecture, Mag-Isover was quick to recover and is now in full swing providing insulation for the expected surge in postdisaster housing demand. The firm also has another Ibaraki glass wool plant.

“We believe insulation is the cheapest, most readily available and efficient way” to achieve energy-saving, carbon dioxide emission reductions and better living environments, Lienhart said.

To meet the stronger demand, Mag-Isover last month announced it plans to build by 2013 a new plant, the company’s fourth, in the city of Tsu, Mie Prefecture.

“We decided to build a new plant in the west of Japan to be able to supply homemakers for the future generation,” he said. The company will invest ¥15 billion in the project, which will boost production capacity to 150,000 tons from the current 90,000 tons.

The company enjoyed strong sales even before the quake, thanks to the government’s Eco-point incentives and perks for buyers of eco-friendly houses. Sales for the business year to December 2010 were ¥19.8 billion, up 13.8 percent from a year earlier. Due in part to the incentives, the domestic glass wool market reportedly expanded to 200,000 tons in 2010, up 21 percent from a year earlier.

Lienhart said the new plant will not only boost capacity but also diversify the geographical risk of his Japanese factories. It will also help reduce distribution costs in western Japan.

After March 11, it took two months for the company to repair production lines at its Akeno plant. But no personnel were injured.

“We had expected it to take four to five months to totally recover from the damage,” said Lienhart.

Asked why the plant recovered earlier than expected, he said: “The main reason that was affected is the strength of being part of Saint-Gobain group.

“I’ve got a lot of assistance — technical assistance in finding spare parts and also the dedication of the team at (the) Akeno plant,” he said.

Lienhart said the March 11 earthquake broke a furnace that melts glass at 1,600 degrees to produce glass wool.

For the first two days, Mag-Isover’s two engineers in Japan consulted Saint-Gobain in France for advice on how to repair the production equipment and requested spare parts.

After the earthquake hit, Mag-Isover closed its Tokyo headquarters for three days because of the ensuing transportation disruptions and worries over the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant accident.

The management committee meanwhile relocated to its Osaka office.

Lienhart decided to import necessary products from other group companies — Hankuk Haniso in South Korea and Certain Teed in the United States to meet the demand in Japan.

“We are a local company. We have domestic plants for domestic customers who are in domestic need. But we are able to add the strength of a global group,” he said. “So we are local with global strength.”

Mag-Isover overcame the crisis quickly. But Lienhart said the Japanese market will grow further if the government raises building standards to the level of Europe.

He said Japan has to introduce binding regulations requiring that enough insulation be inserted into housing walls.

“What remains missing in Japan is mandatory regulation,” he said, adding that a lack of such building standards is an exception in the developed world.

The company’s mixture of local and global elements comes from its history. The company was founded in 1987 as a joint venture by two Japanese firms, Taiheiyo Cement Corp. and Nippon Sheet Glass Co. But Saint-Gobain acquired Nippon Sheet Glass’ stake in the venture in 2008 and Taiheiyo Cement’s stake in 2010.

To prove its commitment to the Japanese market, Saint-Gobain donated ¥100 million to an NPO aiding the Tohoku recovery effort. Lienhart and other executives of Saint-Gobain visited Yamada in Iwate Prefecture with the NPO members for two days in April.