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NA 2010: Kazuo Itoh builds on MDR success

By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
May 11, 2010

Kazuo Itoh was only two years old in 1946, when his father founded a company to repair electric motors in Japan following the World War II.

Today, the Power Moller — or motorized conveyor roller that Itoh invented in the mid-1970’s — is used in motor driven roller (MDR) conveyors around the world. How did the MDR come about?

“I have been around motors nearly all of my life, and grew up in the factory,” said Itoh while spending time at the Itoh Denki USA booth at NA 2010 at the end of April. “But I didn’t want to just repair motors. I wanted to invent a product and start my own business.”

Itoh said he got the idea for integrating the motor into a roller after watching how much work was involved in installing the motors on a conventional conveyor. “When the motor is integrated as part of the roller,” he said, “you can install the system much faster.” What’s more, he added, in the 1970’s, Japan was one of the world’s leading manufacturers, including automotive, consumer electronics and appliances. “Those companies wanted a way to change over their manufacturing lines quickly,” he said. “The motorized roller conveyor was modular which made the turnover easy.”

Still, Itoh added that it wasn’t until Panasonic installed sections of MDR in a manufacturing plant making VCR’s in the early 80’s that the new concept caught on in Japan. The first MDRs used AC motors, which limited their use to niche applications, like a transfer conveyor. In the mid-1980’s, Itoh Denki began using DC and brushless DC motors, which allowed them to become the key engine driving a conveyor line.

The greatest success came when the United States Postal Service adopted MDR here in the U.S. “Once the USPS started using MDR, OEMs understood its value and began to adopt it in logistics,” Itoh said. “That was followed by the e-commerce boom.” In all of those cases, the key selling feature was the ability to run an MDR conveyor to sense when product was in a zone and run on-demand. 

Today, MDR is gaining more attention from companies focused on sustainability, which has long been of interest in Japan. “Japan has almost no natural resources of its own, so we are very committed to protecting our environment,” said Itoh. “So that is part of our mission. We also foresee a serious shortage of labor coming in the future. We believe these are opportunities for us to demonstrate the added value of automation.”

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Executive Editor

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. More recently, Trebilcock became editorial director of Supply Chain Management Review. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.


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