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Fuji Latex: membrane technologies for a wide swath of applications

Interview - May 18, 2023

Utilizing thin rubber manufacturing technologies, Fuji Latex develops unique probe covers for medical use, rubber balloon for foodstuffs and/or balloon for ...

 
YASUHIRO KONDO, PRESIDENT OF FUJI LATEX CO., LTD.
YASUHIRO KONDO | PRESIDENT OF FUJI LATEX CO., LTD.

What is Fuji Latex's monozukuri? What do you believe sets you apart from your regional manufacturing competitors?
In terms of our total profits and revenue, two-thirds of that comes from our precision control devices, so when it comes to our main product line, which is our dampers, I think that's a great perspective from which to describe the strength of our monozukuri.

We actually have two types of dampers. One type is for industrial use as shock absorbers for different industrial settings, and the second type is the non-industrial, for various public applications. What's very interesting is that we started in the industrial shock absorber setting, but we realized that the arena in which we applied these shock absorbers was very limited.

We decided to really challenge ourselves by experimenting with other ways our dampers and shock absorbers could be of use, in different ways. It started from identifying the needs and demands for such products.

It's actually quite interesting how we started to find new applications for our dampers beyond industrial settings, and more in the area of commercial and consumer use. We identified and studied those needs together with our clients, oftentimes actually making proposals and suggestions as we continued to innovate in this field.

I want to give you some examples of the kind of products we have, our dampers and their applications, so that you can get a better understanding. One example is in the wash lids of toilets here in Japan. There is a lowering function where the toilet seat lowers down. Our dampers are used to help with the smooth lowering of the seat, and it's something that's unnecessary - you don't really need the seat to lower itself slowly and smoothly.

You can still use the toilet and it’s not something that is indispensable for the use of toilets, but it does lend itself to a sense of greater luxury, and it adds value to the experience of using the wash lid and seeing it lower down in a smooth motion.

In a sense, we're continually looking for ways to design movement and motion. How to make movement and motion beautiful, and how to bring added value and aesthetic quality. Another example of where our dampers are utilized is with doors that are pulled horizontally. If you notice in Japan, many of these types of doors these days - when you pull them, they close slowly and smoothly. They don't slam shut.

Again, this is not a function that is required, but it adds elegance and grace to the motion of the moving doors as they open and close, and it has now become so standardized that not having it feels strange. It has now become indispensable to the aesthetics of the door and its motion.

This is an example of how we've continued to create new markets and create new business applications. We take pride in the fact that we've continually been able to increase the applications of our dampers and give birth to new markets and ways of utilizing this within the lifestyle field.

Another example I can give you is rice cooker lids. Rice cooker lids also include our dampers, and they are standardized now. If you have a rice cooker, you’ll notice that the lid slowly floats upwards. It's very smooth functioning. Of course, it's not something you need. You can literally hold it with one hand and open it with your other hand and it will be fine and you can still use the cooker.

However, when we made this proposal with one of our clients to introduce the damper in their rice cooker lids, all the other companies followed suit. Starting with one company, there was a domino effect and now all many the rice cooker makers want to work with us in order to introduce our dampers to their products.

Again, this is a question of, “Is it really necessary?” One might raise a doubt about whether it's actually something that’s needed, but once it's there, it's strange if it's not there. Together with creating new applications and fields of use in new markets, we also help to promote new culture in this way.

To summarize, we feel proud that we’ve been able to give birth to new markets. At any point in that process, there are always those moments when we doubt the necessity of it, but we continue to push through, together with our clients who are eager to try it out and test it.

As a result, it gives birth to new products and new trends within the culture as well. Another example I can give you are garbage can lids. After you push the lid of the garbage can, it lifts up very smoothly. In that way, we've helped to add a feeling of luxury to the garbage can.

In a sense, we create beautiful movement, and now we've created this beautiful movement of the garbage can lid. I believe this kind of thing is very Japanese. It's a part of Japanese culture to be so particular about introducing aesthetics and wanting to make even the movement of a garbage can lid beautiful.

I think this culture is something that is a strength that we've helped to promote within Japan. Not only is it giving birth to new markets within Japan, but also things that are culturally relevant. I believe that this aspect of Japan’s search for making movement beautiful is something that they can export successfully around the world.

With regards to our overseas markets, at one point, of course, they doubted the necessity for toilet seat lids, but now it's starting to become more and more prevalent, accepted and recognized. I believe that in this way, by continuing on this course, there are many ways that we can continue to develop as a company.

 

When it comes to anti-seismic or anti-disaster technology, you offer the Fudoh Fudo-oh series, which is a dampening system for fixing non fixed furniture like a big printer in an office, for example, or a bookshelf in a home. It prevents objects sliding around toppling over in disaster situations. You also talked about the growing need for this kind of technology overseas as well. Firstly, how does it prevent this dangerous sliding toppling, and secondly, are you interested in providing this kind of system to other overseas markets that are prone to earthquakes?

With regards to our Fudoh Fudo-oh series, we started development on it some 10 years ago, and at that time we thought, at the very beginning of the prototype stage, “Is this really necessary? Is this really going to work?” in relation to the way it works to prevent furniture from falling in the case of an earthquake.

With it being made out of sponge, I really thought, “Is this really going to work? Is this really going to help prevent the furniture from sliding and falling down toppling over in an earthquake?” However, a few years later, we had the 2011 Great Eastern Japan earthquake, the Tohoku earthquake, and prevention awareness increased dramatically within Japan after that.

The need for such products increased, and in a sense, you could say that the age of this kind of technology emerged among Japanese consumers, and our product actually started to be utilized not only in the public sector but also the private sector.

It undergoes quite rigorous testing, and it's able to be resistant to magnitude 7 earthquakes (the highest on the Japanese scale). With earthquakes, there are different seismic waves, so we did thorough testing and inspections to ensure that the product would be resistant and function with various types of seismic waves, and it was proven to work.

The structure itself is quite simple. It’s made of sponge. We have the L-shaped series made out of sponge, plastic and adhesives. It seems simple, but our damper know-how is the key to the product, and how we've been able to, accumulate our know-how and wisdom when it comes to dampers is something that we were able to introduce within this structure, in order to make it function.

What's very interesting about our technology and how it works, is that it's not simply something that, from a layman's point of view, stops the furniture from collapsing in a way that it somehow screws it to the wall or something like that. Instead, it actually dampens the peaks of the swaying of the furniture, so it's not that the furniture doesn't sway with the earthquake. The furniture does sway, together with the earthquake, when you're using the  Fudoh Fudo-oh series, but it doesn't collapse topple over.

We've been able to utilize this specific know-how when it comes to dampers to help absorb the vibrations in this way. We believe this was also something that we were able to really pioneer in a new market. In a sense, when it comes to our  Fudoh Fudo-oh series, it's contribution is really in creating a strategy to prevent these accidents in the case of various high levels of earthquake intensity.

This is another example of how we were able to create a product that became a standardized product, a de facto standard within the market to the extent that we also gave birth to our competitors, and so in that sense, it's really been a way in which we've been able to not only trailblaze the market, but also enable the product to penetrate.

 

At its inception, your firm was a rubber manufacturer specialized in sexual health products, one of Japan's first condom manufacturers. Can you tell us a bit about your history? What are some of the major milestones and changes in the company, and how did being a rubber product expert in the past help your development of these later technologies and dampers? Is there a link between the two?

Actually, the trigger was the thin membrane technology that was utilized in the production of rubber products, including condoms. We were looking to see what the other applications for this thin membrane technology were. We were studying how to make the film and rubber so thin, and how that could actually be utilized, so first it was utilized in in the functioning of our compact shock absorbers.

In order to work, these shock absorbers need to absorb energy, and in doing so they use oil, so the issue was how to make sure that it doesn't leak. In order to prevent the leakage of oil and lubricants, we introduced this thin film membrane as a way to do so without leaking.

What's very interesting is that the connection between dampers and condoms is that they both work to prevent leakage. That's the key technology that needs to be introduced in order to prevent the liquid from leaking, so from that perspective, that technology used to prevent leakage was the connection between them.

Together with the thin film membrane technology, we also began to develop various technologies for sealants and creating different seals for the sealing of oil, and other liquids also. It opened up into utilizing different materials from rubber to packaging film, and in this way our sealant technology also developed, and we were able to diversify the product lineup as a result. Now, this technology has been introduced in our dampers and has helped to give birth to a wide range of dampers from vertical dampers to rotary dampers to gas springs, to vibration absorbers and the like.

 

Have you had many experiences collaborating with overseas companies, and if not, are you looking for opportunities to do so?

Before I jump into this question, I want to just give you a comment with regards to our market, our business, and the impact that the decline of the population, the low birth rate and the shrinking market in Japan has had.

When it comes to dampers, it's not necessarily on a similar trend. In fact, with regards to one of our dampers that are utilized in horizontal push-pull doors that are found in Japanese homes. Actually, we see that the number of these doors that are in a home have been increasing with every passing year, so perhaps you could say that on one hand the Japanese market is shrinking, but there's still great opportunities for growth, and dampers have now penetrated into the culture here. It doesn't necessarily mean that the opportunities here are shrinking together with the shrinking market.

Regarding co-creation and overseas partners, as we continue to expand our business overseas, we are definitely looking to see how we can continually cooperate with overseas partners because it's absolutely necessary to create products that are catering to the local markets.

One example of such products that we have done involves how we've been able to utilize our dampers in the Korean market, in using these dampers in the lids for kimchi refrigerators, specifically. For kimchi, the refrigerators are huge. They're incredibly large, and the lid opens vertically, so imagine if there weren't any dampers on there and how much it would hurt if it closed on you.

We worked together with a Korean partner to collaborate and create this product, which is specific to the Korean market. This is something that would never necessarily be selling here in Japan, so in that sense, we are looking to actively co-create with many countries and create products that are culturally and geographically specific.

Alongside that, we are looking to also collaborate with partners to rollout dampers for industrial use, where the needs are universal. Actually, when it comes to overseas, one of the greatest strengths of our dampers is the fact that working in the precision device market, we have been able to really expand our array of applications and cater our products to a wide variety of fields.

We're not a company that is only specialized in the automotive sector, but we've been able to really have our dampers be applicable and marketed to a wide range of fields from toilets to industry, to different architectural fields, to the automotive sector, cars, trains, planes, ships. Game centers, too - some of the machines that you might find in a game center.

Musical instruments also. The piano covers, the keys, they all include these dampers in them. This is an old school example, but floppy disks, CDs, Walkman covers, the cassette tape recorder covers so when you open and close the lid, it floats upward and downwards. Car navigation motors. The lids for sunglass holder covers that you find in cars.

Furthermore, within the construction field, power shovels and pedals also have our technology in them. With the increase of electrification and automation, and the trend towards lightweight, there is a need to modulate both weight and pressure in order to increase the functioning and the usage of such things as pedals and levers, so our dampers are utilized.

I believe this is a strength of ours, and we have lots of great growth potential moving forward. We're really looking proactively and optimistically at how we can continue to stay the course and give birth to new fields throughout overseas markets as well.

 

I’m very curious about which region you're focusing on. You mentioned Shanghai and Germany, with Shanghai being a base for Asia, and Germany being for Europe. Which region are you focusing on as part of your international development?

These are the areas that we want to continue to make progress in, where we've already created a presence. We're focusing on, within Europe, Germany as well as Italy, and then of course the North American market and the Chinese market.

We believe that there is still great growth potential for the overseas market, so we want to continue to make headway there. These are the areas in which we have direct channels of distribution and sales networks.

However, the end users of our products are much wider than that, so when it comes to direct distribution channels and such, it's about maybe 15% to 20%. However, when you consider the end users of our products, it's probably double that. As we move ahead, I think it's really about how we can expand to market our products to the entire world and continue to work with Japanese clients that are abroad.

 

Let's say we come back to interview you again on the last day of your presidency. What would you like to tell us about your goals and dreams for the company by that time, and what would you like to have achieved by then?

Perhaps the response that I provide you is a little bit abstract, but I want to share that my goal whilst I'm president is to be able to solidify the two parts of our business. That’s the precision devices as well as the medical and health side.

When it comes to our precision devices and that sector, it's actually the one that's driving profits and revenue and growth of the company. When it comes to the medical and health, where our main line is the condom products, for example, there's still lots of space for improvement. There needs to be more reorganization and restructuring of that business, and how we go about it.

My goal is to really be able to solidify both of these lines of business. One reason behind this is that when it comes to the precision devices, they’re very susceptible to changes in the global economy, whereas the medical and healthcare business is resistant to economic fluctuations, so having both strong is a way in which we can create a very steady and sustainable company that is really successful in every sense.

The precision sector is really driven by R&D, and there's lots of space for machine and engineering design, and we've been able to grow in this field thanks to getting a lot of strict instructions from our clients as well, and I believe there's a lot of things that we can adopt and include from what we've learned in growing this business into the health and medical side of things, which still has lots of potential for growth.

Right now, the health and medical is really focusing on condoms and balloons, rubber products in general. We need to find out how we can continue to identify new needs, new markets, and develop.  That’s what I want to achieve while I am president, and create a solid foundation for the company in both its sides.

Right now, the health and medical is really focusing on condoms and balloons, rubber products in general. We need to find out how we can continue to identify new needs, new markets, and develop. And I believe that we should develop new products that combine these medical and precision technologies, and further expand our market. That’s what I want to achieve while I am president, and create a solid foundation for the company in both its sides.

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