Japan bets for its future on innovation in Material Science and new alloys (US)

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Japan governor aichi

Governor Ōmura points out that investment in fundamental research is a huge advantage for innovation in Japan. Decades of fundamental science research gives Japan the capability to produce equipment for high-performance applications that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. Particularly China. In the realms of high energy physics, materials science (new alloys, polymers, carbon fiber, etc.) Japan has a significant competitive advantage over other Asian manufacturing countries. (Credit Photo @Forbes)

Japan is a global powerhouse in terms of innovation and culture. And it is defined by its startling contradictions and contrasts – a mixture of long-held tradition and awe-inspiring newness. These contrasts are at once Japan’s greatest strength, and its greatest challenge. While Japan has world-leading technology and industrial capability, it is often managed by risk-averse corporate culture and tremendous bureaucracy. Japan’s economic miracle was created with a post-world-war upsurge of innovation and technology; it is clear to see the value of bottom-up development and the fresh thinking that leads to it. So we ask the question of where that innovative capability is today. On a global stage of rapid change and increasing dependence on technology, what role will Japan play in future decades? In response to a series of articles that I have written on this subject, I was invited to meet in person with Hideaki Ōmura, Governor of Japan’s Aichi province and given access to a number of research facilities and labs. (Disclosure- The Japanese government provided travel arrangements for this research.) This was an excellent opportunity to find out more about the state of the art of innovation in Japan. Here is what I learned:

Technology and industry are core to the Japanese economy. And Central Japan, particularly Aichi Prefecture, are where much of that expertise is developed. Aichi Prefecture and its capital Nagoya are the home for much of Japan’s large-scale manufacturing. The area accounts for 13.9% of Japanese economic output (2012) and almost 1% of total world production. The centerpiece of this economic miracle is Toyota, the largest car manufacturer in the world. As governor Ōmura explains, Aichi’s unique advantage is its technical capability, central location and abundance of available land. Unlike Tokyo, where land prices are among the highest in the world, 150 miles south of the capital in Aichi, factories and the sprawling infrastructure they require can flourish in the available space.

In search of Startups and Innovation

I came to Aichi, Japan in search of startups, entrepreneurs, and bottom-up innovators. What I found out is that at least in Nagoya, startups are almost non-existent, and top-down corporate management is the dominant economic force. I had hoped to report on the ‘meaningful fringe’ of companies and corporate innovators that are breaking the mold of traditional risk-averse decision making. What I did find was a curious mix of corporate high-risk bets and conservative risk management.  While there is little bottom-up innovation, the classic top-down innovation-at-scale was clear to see.

Innovation at scale: Japan’s big bets

Fuel Cell Vehicles

At Toyota’s Motomachi plant I got to take a test drive in the new Toyota Mirai, one of the first commercially available consumer fuel cell vehicles. Toyota has invested heavily in the technology behind this consumer sedan, funding 23 years of development. While hydrogen fuel cells are in limited use in industrial applications, moving to the consumer sector is an enormous challenge. Both Governor Ōmura and the Toyota Mirai team were quick to point out that as difficult as the development of a safe and efficient fuel cell vehicle has been, the real challenge is in establishing a sufficient network of hydrogen fueling stations to make the technology practical for consumers. Hydrogen infrastructure on a limited scale is already available in Nagoya, Tokyo, and California. 23 years of R&D is an enormous investment for any company so that we might expect a challenging and provocative car concept in the Mirai. The design team looked at several form factors including an SUV but ultimately decided on a sedan. And it looks and feels like a Prius. With so much time and investment, we might expect more innovative design elements, but the innovation is purely under the hood in the drive system. The ‘Prius-like’ form factor is a conservative approach for releasing such a pivotal product to the consumer market.

Aerospace

The Nagoya area is responsible for producing no less than 35% of the Boeing 787 aircraft, sending the components to Seattle by ship for final assembly.  And development is underway for a new designed-and-built-in-Japan aircraft called the Mitsubishi Regional Jet. The MRJ is the first-ever Japanese passenger jet and has (understandably) hit engineering and production delays. The project is an impressive one, and for Japan is less about building an airplane than it is about developing the capacity to build airplanes. This is a huge bet, making the MRJ project an innovation play with a time horizon reaching for decades. As we see with the auto industry, the supply chain for design, transport and manufacture of thousands of interdependent parts has staggering complexity. But the payoff for getting it done can be a big differentiator at national economic scale.

Advanced Robotics

It’s not surprising to find out that Japan built the world’s first-ever robots. What is surprising is the fact that they built those first robots over 300 years ago. Seeing a live demonstration of humanlike machines performing complex tasks, powered by cranks, wires, and pulleys is very impressive. Models survive and run today that date back to the 1600’s. Some historians trace Japan’s proficiency with the detailed engineering of mechanical devices back to this tradition of robot and gear-making. Looking to the present day, I am intensely interested to find the state-of-the-art in robotics in Japan. We have seen the images in the media of sleek white robots helping people as home and medical assistants, so I wanted to discover the state of the industry in 2016. At the Expo Nagoya 2005, there was much fanfare around the development of humanlike robots and the promise of innovation in human-aid support from machines. While we might have hoped to see these robots in use, they are not yet deployed. A decade later, the research continues with great care to fully explore the safety issues of machine-human interaction.

Fundamental science and R&D

Japan is home to some of the world’s very best research labs. Nagoya University itself is home to no less than 6 Nobel Prize winners. And Governor Ōmura points out that investment in fundamental research is a huge advantage for innovation in Japan. Decades of fundamental science research gives Japan the capability to produce equipment for high-performance applications that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. Particularly China. In the realms of high energy physics, materials science (new alloys, polymers, carbon fiber, etc.) Japan has a significant competitive advantage over other Asian manufacturing countries. In Aichi as elsewhere in Japan, this research takes place via industrial consortia, corporate, university, and government research labs.

Source : FORBES

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