A commitment to problem solving is the key factor in surviving and overcoming adverse conditions, such as the current coronavirus pandemic. This attitude has also played an important role in R&D in Japan.
The development of new materials in Japan is a 56 trillion-yen industry, employing over 1.2 million people, and producing world-changing products like LCDs and Lithium-ion batteries. Innovations in this field have shaped society, and Japan’s determined approach has enabled its chemical and materials industry to continually defy economic outlooks as outmoded business plans are replaced in favor of the pursuit of cutting-edge material technologies and products. While Japan is home to global giants such as FujiFilm, Asahi Kasei, and Shin-Etsu, there is also a wealth of small-to-medium-size firms led by bold entrepreneurs seeking out uncharted territory. The discoveries made by the three companies highlighted here have resulted in products that surpass their competition and exist nowhere else on the market, granting them near-monopoly status.
Extreme Materials are Achieving the Impossible
Some of the most important breakthroughs from this field have been materials that are stronger, lighter, and more durable than anything humanity has seen before. One such material that has become indispensable in the past few decades is graphite, which can be found today in a wide range of high-performance applications. “We make graphite components for household appliances, for medical equipment, for automobiles, trains, aircraft,” says Kondo Naotaka, CEO of graphite specialist Toyo Tanso. “Our parts were even used in the Hayabusa 2 space probe.” Toyo Tanso was one of the first companies to be able to mass produce isotropic graphite, and over 30% of the world’s supply still comes from this medium-sized company. Graphite’s light weight, low friction and heat resistance have made it indispensable to next-generation energy solutions, enabling Toyo Tanso’s customers worldwide to become leaders in wind, solar, thermal and nuclear technologies.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, synthetic textile maker Amaike has developed Amaike Super Organza, the lightest fabric on the market today, at just 5 g/m2 (for comparison, the yarn is five times thinner than your hair). After it was initially developed as electromagnetic shielding for plasma TVs, the small team decided to introduce it to the fashion industry after plasma TVs became old technology. As CEO Amaike Mototsugu explains, “Up to that point, nearly all of our business was as a subcontractor for corporate clients, so this was a big shift for us.” The translucent material fired the imaginations of designers, and today it can be found in costumes for film and stage productions. The company continues to develop new materials for customers around the world, with an output of up to 15,000 m2/month, for both fashion and industrial uses.
But perhaps no other class of materials has shaped the future as much as those that go into our electronic devices. Conventional electronics have been approaching a limit, however, as developers race to achieve greater computing ability in smaller sizes with limited power usage. Innovators have hoped that new materials or techniques could bypass these limitations, enabling devices that are far smaller, more powerful, and much more efficient. For one group, their work on a completely different problem led to an important discovery: “these students at Kyoto University had developed a method for creating ceramic filters with gallium oxide, but when I saw their work, I realized that their idea could be applied to creating power devices with gallium oxide as a semiconductor, it could make them not only much more energy efficient as power sources, but also much smaller than before,” explains Hitora Toshimi, who together with this 15-person academic research team created the company Flosfia. Their resulting MISTDRY technology has enabled them to make diodes and transistors that only require one tenth of power source volume compared to previous ones. The company is planning to scale up to mass production this year.
From Customer Needs Come Groundbreaking Innovations
“The needs of our customers are the prime driver of our R&D,” says Amaike. “They come to us for materials with properties that simply don’t exist anywhere else.” His team of 40 then sets to work inventing them literally whole-cloth, producing fabrics with properties no other maker can supply. “Each year we produce 50 to 100 new materials as samples for our customers.”
R&D is always important, but on the cutting edge of technology it is an absolute necessity. Even more important, however, is the emphasis firms place on listening to the needs of their customers, who are themselves striving to improve their own capabilities, and approach them with very specific requests. This creates a virtuous cycle in which the material makers themselves innovate to meet their customers’ needs.
For Toyo Tanso, being a trailblazer in their field often means that the equipment to develop new innovations doesn’t even exist yet. “Being so far ahead means that we will necessarily make false steps, but because we never give up, we are able to achieve what nobody else can,” says Kondo. “We invest a large portion of the profits earned by our successful products into developing the next generation.”
From multinational giants to small teams, many of the companies developing new materials in Japan are succeeding by working with customers to understand their unique needs, and focusing R&D on pushing ahead of their competition. This has enabled them to become near-exclusive suppliers to some fields, such as Toyo Tanso’s 90% share in graphite parts for CT scanning equipment. This not only raises their own capabilities, it spreads their innovation to customers, the customers’ customers, and outward through society. One thing they are looking for, however, is closer ties with the rest of the world through partnership. “With gallium oxide we innovated a production of semiconductor that could change the world,” says Hitora, “we are yet to collaborate with many businesses to innovate more in the real world.”
Note: All Japanese names in this advertorial are given in the traditional format, with the family name preceding the given name.
To learn more about Toyo Tanso, click here.
To learn more about Amaike Textile Industry, click here.