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Engineering new fabrics & materials with diverse real-world applications

Interview - August 16, 2016

Komatsu Seiren has established a reputation as a highly successful fabric and material manufacturer, known for both quality and innovation. Already known in Europe and making headway into North America, its technologies and creative approach to R&D “allow us to tackle old problems from new angles,” says its President and COO Tetsuo Ikeda, who provides the details of its latest innovative materials whose inventive applications range from the catwalk to the construction site.

 

TETSUO IKEDA, PRESIDENT & CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER OF KOMATSU SEIREN CO., LTD.
TETSUO IKEDA | PRESIDENT & COO OF KOMATSU SEIREN CO., LTD.

What has been instrumental in Komatsu Seiren’s success over the last 10 years, and what would you say are the core values and philosophies that continue guiding the company today?

Our goal at Komatsu Seiren is to develop new fabrics and materials that carry real-world applications. We want to improve the life of the end consumer. Together with our partner Toray, which is the biggest textile manufacturer in Japan, we share the view that fabrics will change our society. As this view is applied to our business, high manufacturing technology will expand areas for fabric and change our society. In conjunction with Toray, we are engineering exciting new carbon fiber composites that might at first seem like the repurposing of carbon fiber, and just look like strong rope, but they bear extraordinary strength and lightness. These products present great potential; for instance, as building materials and tension materials, the carbon fiber composites are reborn and able to considerably improve the potential scope of use of our materials.

 

In 2015, your largest growing business segments were clothing and logistics, both registering growth in or near double digits. Additionally Komatsu Seiren aims to expand as a service provider and further integrate its business processes. While clothing still represents a large part of your operations, to what extent are you seeking to diversify?

Apparel clothing still represents about 60% our business; however that percentage was a whole lot higher 20 years ago. That is because today imports make up around 97% of Japan’s fabric clothing market – which means that even though this segment makes up over 60% of our business, for every 100 pieces of clothing sold, only 3% are produced in Japan.

Komatsu Seiren used to be heavily focused on apparel and clothing; however today the domestic market is shrinking and the majority of clothing is coming from overseas. These changes continue to impact our business segmentation and redefine our business model, and have warranted a decrease in clothing and other areas. So essentially, we decided we have to look at different ways to increase revenue.

When we started as a dyeing company, our business was very simple. Our clients would tell us, "Make it black." And we would dye it and sell it. Later, the oil shock and growing uncertainty in the economy made the business environment increasingly complicated. In 1973 we created a new division: instead of just having a client, and producing based on the client's order as we had done in the past, we decided to design products and go out and sell them.

By 1999, we had grown our technology a lot and found some pretty interesting applications. The Japanese market however wasn't mature enough to understand how much progress we had made. Mr Nakayama, the president in those days and the current chairman, revealed plans to go to Europe, especially with fashion. He believed that places like Paris and Milan would understand our technologies and their applications; and that once we had built excitement there we would be able to bring it back to Japan in order to increase sales.

Another big leap forward was in 2002, when we came up with a concept called "vintage fabrics".

We added physical and chemical forces to synthetic fabric, which enabled us to enhance the viability and broaden its scope of use. Consequently, we created a new textile, which exceeded the characteristics of cotton and linen.

To illustrate this strength of ours, take a bottle of water: on its own it is just water, but with the right materials added, it can turn into tea, Coca-Cola or Sprite. The same thing happens with our products. Carbon fiber existed before, but it was very weak from a transverse direction. By intertwining it using traditional Japanese technology, we can make it very strong and open the fabric up to a host of new applications. In essence we have created new from old.

 

What practical applications in particular do you see for your materials?

If you take the carbon fiber material that we have designed, for example, its main purpose is to serve as a building material. However, in addition to these obvious uses, we have outlined 10 new projects where the material could be use. For instance, on the metro there are big heavy doors to prevent people from falling on the tracks. Those doors are expensive to manufacture both in terms of time and money. If this technology could be repurposed to manufacture the doors quickly and cheaply, this would be an exciting application. The material could also be used in the shipping industry where a lot of the materials – although strong – end up rusting and have a short lifespan. We see multiple applications based on the products’ unique characteristics.

 

Last year you opened a fabric laboratory called “fa-bo”. Was the carbon fiber a byproduct of the lab? What other next generation materials are you excited about?

We actually created the fabric laboratory “fa-bo” after creating the carbon fiber. As I mentioned earlier, this is a building material, and as a consequence we first needed to get approval from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism before it could become commonplace. So “fa-bo” was created to test and demonstrate new applications of this product before it can be officially sold; and in the meantime, we also used it to create and test entirely new materials.

For us, our technologies should allow us to tackle old problems from new angles. In this regard, we have created, for instance, a new material for umbrellas, which makes our umbrellas the most water repellent umbrellas in the world. It is quite amazing actually: the umbrella gets wet, you shake it off once and it’s completely dry! It is presently a luxury item and sells for about ¥5,000 ($50) on the market.

Another example is the material that we are producing and putting on speaker covers of high-end headphones. Even when you put it on your head, the material is tight enough to prevent sound from leaking, but breathable enough that you don’t sweat. This is a very unique characteristic, and this material has lots of other applications. If we were to make it a little bit harder, it could be used in car seats for instance. At present you can easily tell the difference between artificial leather and natural leather, however, our material will be able to change this.

Thobes are another great example. Men in the Middle East wear an ethnic garment, called a thobe. Even though these are all white, there are over 150 types of material with various features and functionalities. Thobes look like a very simple piece of clothing, however there’s lot of technology behind it. Our company is good at using these seemingly simple things and making sure that all customers’ needs are met through the different functions and features we can provide. As a result, 80% of the middle to high-income populations today wear thobes made by us!

It’s all about coming up with small products or fulfilling a small need, then expanding on that and finding different applications.

 

Do you see a place for these new materials in global markets?

Japan is full of regulations. Although Prime Minister Abe has talked about a commitment to deregulation, we haven’t seen much progress yet. 60,000 tons of carbon fiber are produced in the world and the share of carbon fiber produced by Japanese companies is more than 70%. But, the share of its processed products is no more than 10%.

Instead of just trying to push for deregulation, we actually hired an agency in Europe two years ago to sell our technology. We’re forming markets abroad before we can even put it on the market here.

 

What role does the US market play within Komatsu Seiren’s global strategy?

In regard to apparel clothing, where the majority of our business lies, America is of course a very big market; however while cities like New York and Los Angeles are very fashion-oriented, the heart of fashion is still in Milan and Paris. For the last 20 years we have been focusing on making sure that our brand Komatsu Seiren is well recognized and well known in clothing in the European market. We haven’t touched North America at all, because our focus has been achieving recognition in European markets.

For advanced fabrics, however, we believe that our products that are not apparel related will be well received in the North American market. We are presently exploring the North American market for our building materials, etc.

Our sales have grown considerably in the US, even though they are driven by one product essentially at present, which is a sunshade for Lexus. It’s been doing extraordinarily well and we’re looking at potentially partnering with other car companies in the future.

 

When we met with Mr. Ishige of Jetro, one of the comments he made is that Japanese companies usually excel in terms of technologies and know-how, but lack the ability to effectively communicate and market. What strategies are in place at Komatsu Seiren to raise awareness about your company on the global level?

We will continue to sell directly to main fashion houses like Prada or Armani. We believe that by doing this, we are building strong communication. Recently, we have been making alliances with our competitors. Obviously there are major competitors to Komatsu Seiren, but by working with them on products, we can offer technology that nobody else has, while benefitting from exclusive knowledge from the other party. Additionally, we can use their marketing and communication skills to push our products.

 

As the leader behind such promising venture, what is your vision for the future of your company?

As a company that has existed for 75 years, we think we can keep going forever. To make this happen, we need to constantly create high quality products and technologies and expand into new markets. Ultimately I hope to give my successor a stronger and more profitable company.

 

In closing, if you could you address international readers with a direct message, what would you tell them?

Cutting-edge fabrics solve problems. Today we are looking at engineering fabrics that filter water effectively in an environmentally friendly way. We are collaborating with a major company in Japan to prepare for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic games in 2020. Together we have created a material named “greenbiz” that is capable of absorbing water and then slowly releasing it to allow it to evaporate, effectively cooling runners. The material is water-retentive, light and resistant, and has applications beyond just a marathon track. These are just some of the exciting products we have planned for the future. 

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