Japan lay in ruins. World War II had left little but smoldering rubble, a shattered social model and an economy smashed to bits behind in its horrific wake.
But what would arise from the unhappy ashes was a true economic miracle. As the Japanese people began to clear the fog of war from the skies over their defeated nation, manufacturers, suppliers and bankers began the process of what they once called Zaibatsu – a system in which business cooperatives called 'keiretsu' began the work of Japanese economic recovery.
After nine long years, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry was on a roll as the Prime Minister most responsible for the philosophical overhaul, Hayato Ikeda, fought to make his country a powerhouse once again through a policy of heavily industrializing the nation's future. The Bank of Japan began to issue loans to local banks for distribution to nascent industrial conglomerates. Politicians and through them, the National Bank of Japan, assumed nearly complete control over the structure of the heavily indebted local banks. When coupled with what was called 'shuntō;' a hand-in-glove working relationship between government, unions, banking concerns and business, you had the makings of a competitive powerhouse.
The Keiretsu conglomerates were intent on preventing foreign companies from participating in Japanese industries, and the tight-knit relationship with MITI – and their fellow conglomerates – followed a shared vision. It was the Keiretsu which dictated that strategic industries like shipbuilding, electric power, coal and steel production were given favored treatment.
It was a long-haul strategy, and as a result, Japanese managers were willing to accept low profits as a cushion against market fluctuations and dents in the ongoing plan to revitalize the Japanese economy as a whole. Coupled with the Foreign Exchange Allocation Policy, import controls aimed at preventing the onslaught of foreign-made goods into Japan's still reeling markets, MITI used foreign exchange capital to promote exports and boost production capacity and infrastructure.
And it all worked beyond the wildest imaginings of even the Japanese.
Between 1955 and 1980, Japan's nominal GDP exploded from a little over $91 billion to a startling $1.065 trillion, and though it would implode eleven years later, the repercussions of the "economic miracle" still resonate throughout the world.
While it may appear that American and European 3D printer manufacturers have a solid lead on the competition, a Japanese alliance was announced this week which has the potential to quickly close the gap.
The group plans to use titanium-based materials to craft complicated components like airplane parts and artificial joints for medical use.
Now the Japanese government is eying "The Next Economic Miracle" as it looks toward Additive Manufacturing technology as a spur. Promising 3.8 billion yen – or $36.5 million – this year alone to 3D printing and AM research and investment, it's clearly a serious statement of intent.
Various member organizations of this 'New Keiretsu' have pledged to chip in 500,000 yen every year to the research group to develop the advanced technology to create 3D printed components with AM. The group says they'll have the latest prototype machines ready by 2015. While some of the work is dedicated to readying 3D printers as commercial products, the real focus is a long-haul strategy of creating machines to make medical equipment and aerospace parts from titanium-based materials.
While Western companies now dominate the new market for 3D printers, the Japanese and Chinese are in hot pursuit.
Included in the New Keiretsu are the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Tohoku University, Kinki University and an additional 27 companies. And the names of those companies should be familiar to the manufacturing world: Panasonic, IHI, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Komatsu, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nissan Motor among them.