We sat down with Future Innovations Group president Yuji Murai to discuss iMESH, an IP wireless system that connects all of Japan using data communication such as mobile communication networks and Wi-Fi for fields such as logistics, transportation, events, and disaster relief.Sector: Manufacturing
Over the past 25-30 years, Japan has seen a rise in regional manufacturing competitors who have replicated Japanese monozukuri processes but done so at a cheaper labor cost, pushing Japan out of mass markets, however, we still see that many Japanese firms are leaders when it comes to niche B2B fields. How have Japanese firms been able to maintain this leadership despite the stiff price competition?
Japanese excellence can be described in many words, and of course, the first one that came to our minds is the world quality. There is a great level of quality here domestically in the products and services that companies are introducing on a wider scale. Usability and attitude towards manufacturing are other key factors, and Omotenashi is a Japanese phrase that roughly translates to hospitality. Japanese firms think long and hard about the products they produce and how they will be useful to an end user. All of these things combine to create the essence of monozukuri and Japan’s spirit of manufacturing.
We also have to talk about Japan’s time of seclusion, and Japan is widely known as an island nation where most companies are targeting a domestic audience. The demands of Japanese customers are high and people expect the best quality products. Manufacturing companies have to meet those standards. Of course, we could say that many firms produce too much quality, and over-spec products are something that Japanese firms are often criticized for, but at the end of the day, the high quality of products is what has earned Japanese firms the respect they have on a global stage.
We are a group company and a combination of the different companies we have under our umbrella. One of the major companies we have under our umbrella is called Mobile Create and they have developed Japan’s first professional IP radio system called Voice Packet Transceiver or the iMESH. It was first developed in 2009 and currently, we are trying to pitch it to some countries as well. I think this product is a good example of the simple fact these days; it is not enough to just have a high-quality product. You need proper business activities to back up your technology or your product, and that comes through excellent human resources. It must come as a package; first of all, you come up with the technology, then you come up with the product, and then people who work for the company introduce that product and take it to the next stage. Obviously at some point that needs to be taken to foreign markets because as you know, the domestic market is so confined and competition is stiff. We have had relative success in this regard and have established a company in Los Angeles, specifically in Silicon Valley. That company was established to introduce the services and products of Mobile Create. Thailand is on the way next, but unfortunately, the world has been suffering over the past few years with the COVID-19 pandemic. Most overseas expansion has been halted and put on standby. Maybe in the near future once the dust clears, we can re-enter this market and introduce our products on a new scale.
IP radios are commercial radios that utilize mobile phone lines, and you have developed the iMESH wireless system that can communicate anywhere in the country. What advantages do the iMESH IP radios have over more conventional forms of communication? In a world with smartphones, what role do radios play in today’s society?
It might be difficult to describe distinguishing points when talking about professional-grade IP radio systems. The concept is actually quite the opposite when compared to our smartphone usage in daily life, meaning that smartphones started off as communication tools and later on adapted to the usage of the internet with things like entertainment. The idea of radio is much more conventional, and we are getting back to the basics of communication. There is a push-to-talk button and it is simple to operate with just one click. With the introduction of small applications, we can develop these new generations of IP radios further, and basically, I like to think of it as an upgraded conventional product. It is more user-friendly and more convenient to use with the features of being able to plug into a cigarette lighter in a car to charge it. We have improved conventional radio systems through different transportation systems and then put them up on a new scale.
Another great advantage is that when you use the iMESH radio system you can transmit the data to many listeners; it could be many listeners in just one push. You can transmit your voice to many recipients using the wireless walkie-talkie, a level that smartphones have not reached yet. To do so companies must come up with solutions or services that are excellent in comparison to conventional products. Now when you hear us talk about this kind of product you might be led into thinking that anyone can do it. The reality however is that this was hard to implement at that time because there is a lot of sophisticated technology behind the scenes and there were many steps prior to finalization. Some other companies tried to do this as well by introducing a similar product to iMESH for truck drivers but they were not able to get it to work well enough. We on the other hand have had success and have been able to achieve smooth communications without interruptions.
You mentioned that you are pitching this iMESH product to other markets around the world. What strategies do you need to employ in order to ensure iMESH’s success?
Obviously, there are other IP wireless radio solutions out there, and there are many companies that have introduced similar services and solutions. Right now, we have a foothold in the US, but we would also pitch to some other countries also. We are doing this by reaching out to customers in the industries of relocation and logistics such as truck dispatch companies, taxi drivers, and long-haul bus drivers, and basically asking them if they would like to improve their existing IP radio systems. It can easily connect with existing solutions on smartphones and it is smooth in delivering messages with just one simple push of a button. The area of coverage is wide and there are no breaks in the IP waves.
Which countries do you see having the most potential for the iMESH system?
In my opinion, Asian countries have the most potential because a lot of kinematics is taking place in this region. There is a necessity for communication between vehicles and with that, there is a need for more accuracy and big data delivery. Basically, there is no preference right now on which country, but anywhere where the transportation and logistics sectors are expanding would be key targets for us moving forward.
You are also involved in many other industries such as automotive, robotics, semiconductors, and much more. Are there any other industries that you are currently focusing on? Which do you personally believe has the most potential for future growth?
Two industries stand out right now, those being robotics manufacturing and cashless payments. Those two are key, besides the wireless communication tools we create. We are putting our best efforts into those fields. As far as robotics goes, we are investing in a company while at the same time manufacturing. These are for goods-to-person (GTP) robotics, and these robots help to handle loads of different weights inside factories or for transportation services. We also have a mapping system that allows us to recognize positions whilst driving, and through the GPS system, the robotics can navigate around obstacles. This is important in a factory setting because you are working with a limited amount of space. The robots can carry up to 100kg. We also have our autonomous sterilization robots.
The Future Innovation Group (FIG) is active in participating in different specialized expos related to robotics and factory automation (FA). We really do have a wide range of robots that are catering to a wide range of different industries and needs.
To handle all of these applications, we have designed a cloud system to unite all of the robotics solutions and FA that we have introduced. This has also allowed us to introduce some drone solutions as well, and these are effective in information gathering and searches over local areas. These can also be handy for hazard prevention methods and as you know Japan is vulnerable to natural disasters such as earthquakes. With automated operating hooks, the drones can carry heavy loads of up to 60kg over long distances. It can grasp the flight path using mapping data and we are able to monitor the drone’s activities in real-time. We are also seeing pesticide dispersion as a key application for these drones, however, the applications are far and wide, with many I am sure that we have yet to think of.
When it comes to robotics in the hospitality sector, real-world applications are few and far between. Well-known robots like Pepper from SoftBank Robotics have only sold about 30,000 units, which is weak when compared to the lofty expectations that were set. Why do you think the adoption of service robots has been slower than initially expected?
Service robots can be found in mainstream services such as hospitals or nursing homes, and I think the other big sector is the industrial applications that you mentioned; automation that can replace human labor with a machine that can operate 24 hours a day. This helps in the Japanese market because we have a lack of human resources and the statistics indicate that this is only going to decrease further as time goes on. We at the Future Innovation Group are emphasizing more on these industrial-type applications for our robotics, however, WILL is one good example for the hospitality sector that has not reached a large number of implementations at this time. We have much more of a foothold with industrial robots that help companies manufacture things. Service robots, in my opinion, will come to prominence later on because it does take a lot of time to install such equipment and the use is way more specific and targeted. It is a more sophisticated area and requires more research. Industrial robots take a shorter time to install and implement than service robots.
As you know, our company is a group company and one of the companies under our banner is a company called REALIZE. This company specifically is targeting semiconductor and automotive-related automation equipment. It is a manufacturing company and it opens up many doors for us. We can take some of the technologies from ciRobotics and combine them with REALIZE’s manufacturing capabilities and embed the technology into robots. The automotive industry is one that is booming right now and we have a lot of big names in the automotive industry that are coming to us for solutions, especially in terms of assisting with heavy loads inside a number of factories nationwide. Surprisingly, there are not too many solutions found domestically in Japan and while some companies are using Chinese robotics, that they have problems with customization and maintenance. We are putting our best efforts towards this industry because industrial robotics are still booming and we see great potential in offering solutions.
Electrification is becoming a big trend in the automotive industry and obviously, factories require more sophisticated solutions in terms of inside plant layouts and different robotics as well as different augmented products to help with work inside the factory. Some of the manufacturing companies related to automobiles are also moving into the field of smart cities such as Toyota and we also exist in that field. You name it, we can do it, and pretty much any industry can benefit from our expertise and solutions.
Of course, with all these mentions of industrial robots, I do not think that we are forgetting service robots, it is just that they take time. On the first floor of an apartment near our head office, there is a convenience store where service robots can pick up items and deliver them throughout the building. It is an experimental service we are introducing to try and tackle service robots and look for possibilities wherever we can.
One industry you mentioned was semiconductors and that particular industry is projected to be worth USD 1 trillion by the year 2030, and recently we have seen regional leaders pushing to expand domestic production of semiconductors. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there were many shortages and a good example of this regional push for more production can be seen in Kumamoto with Sony and TSMC opening a joint fabrication plant with a plan to start full-scale production by 2025. What opportunities do these regional pushes present for your firm?
The reason we emphasize so much on robotics simply comes down to the Japanese market itself. There is a shrinkage in the labor force and industries across the board and changing rapidly in order to adapt to this social situation. Automation inside factories is one-way things are changing, but also there are trends that we are seeing specifically in certain sectors. Autonomous driving is one that comes to mind, and many companies are looking for robotic-related solutions. The Japanese market itself has a dire need for more solutions for a wide range of everyday life activities, and this can come from the robotics field; even cashless payment services are coming from the robotics sector. Again, our strong point comes from combining the different companies we have under our umbrella in order to introduce synergistic solutions for customers.
You have invested in Takumi, but we also know that you co-developed the Mobile Manipulator with Omron. Are you looking for similar partnership opportunities in overseas markets?
While I did say earlier that our company is almighty, there are a great many products and developments out there that we like and some companies might have an advantage when compared to what we are doing. Those advantages we are talking about come from marketing, sales, and AI, things that we do not actually have in our arsenal. We are good at robotics and good at manufacturing. We like the idea however of open innovation and we feel it is important to communicate with some affiliated and like-minded companies in order to bridge the gaps. What I am trying to get at is that we are open to cooperation but obviously, that cooperation needs to come as a benefit and help with an element we lack. There needs to be a mutual interest to spark cooperation and beneficial points for both companies. With that, we can push forward and look to create better and more innovative solutions.
You have Mobile Create in the United States, but you also have group companies present in Singapore as well as India. What countries or regions have you identified for future expansion and what strategies will you employ to do so?
The Japanese spirit of hospitality is something that we would like to take to some other countries, for example, Thailand is a country that is close to Japan in terms of hospitality. We are strong in the introduction of DX solutions for hotel chains and we are standing at around 7-8% market share here in Japan, and while it is not huge we do have experience and we are looking to get better results domestically while taking that concept overseas to Thailand also. The integration of multimedia systems for hotels is handled by KTS, another one of our group companies.
The idea was to go to Thailand before the pandemic hit because it is widely known for its hotels and level of hospitality. We tried to introduce Japanese hospitality to this country and that will continue to be an effort on our part. India and Singapore were two other locations you mentioned, but right now we are thinking one step at a time. Once we get our foothold in the Thai market through KTS then we can think about more expansion to nearby countries with other group companies such as Mobile Create. Basically, we are looking at KTS to be a window so that we can reach Thailand and then onwards to other Southeast Asian countries.
Imagine that we come back in 5 years and have this interview all over again: what goals would you like to have achieved by then?
It might be a personal dream of mine but being a local company in Oita, I would like to see more contributions made to revitalizing the region and giving back to the local community. We have a wide community of different engineers here and a large number of those work for us but having said that we would like to increase the number of engineers that come to Oita and maybe make this environment more reliable, attractive, and open so that others will come. In order to do that we need to continue to highlight the best features of the company and contribute to the Oita prefecture itself.
Finance wise I do have targets, and within the next five years, I would like to be reaching levels of sales to three times more than we have now. Within 10 years, I would like to see sales reaching JPY 100 billion. That is a big and ambitious dream, but it is my goal. We are not just limited to the boundaries of Japan and as we like to say here, “From Oita to the world.”
Interview conducted by Karune Walker & Sasha Lauture