Nippura Co., Ltd. has acquired expertise handling acrylic as a raw material, and is now famous for manufacturing reliable acrylic walls for some of the word’s most prestigious aquariums, including underwater luxury suites. We talked with president Yasuhiro Shikiyama to learn about their history, some of their most exciting projects around the world, as well as the reasons why their products have acquired such remarkable durability without compromising their aesthetics. We also got to hear more about some of their other outstanding products, such as the Blue Ocean high-definition video resolution screens with rear projection technology installed, and the various fields where this technology can be adopted. nippura
The Japanese manufacturing philosophy, monozukuri, traditionally is about the kaizen philosophy of constantly improving a product and never fully being satisfied, but it is also about responding to market demands and providing customized products according to the customer’s needs. As a company with passionate craftsmanship, can you give us your take on monozukuri?
In our opinion, monozukuri is irreplicable with the understanding of hitozukuri because in the end, the people in the craft must make things with their own hands and minds. For that reason, these two ways of making things in Japan are related to one another. Monozukuri is inevitably cross-linked to hitozukuri, and we emphasize that because without craftsmen, we cannot reach the high level of tolerance and high-tech equipment that we produce here with acrylic walls for aquariums. We do not accept the exbot kind of perception, but instead are trying to foster human capital within the company by making people multi-functional, helping them be more knowledgeable about what we do so we can increase their efforts.
Another great example that can define the meaning of monozukuri and the traditional ways of making things in Japan is the traditional Shinto temples and shrines in Buddhism. In most cases, these temples are not made by hundreds or dozens of people, but several selected people, between one to ten people for the whole construction. The personnel must be very knowledgeable on how things are made individually, and they have a track record of information and technological knowhow that has been carried out through the years, passing on from generation to generation.
That makes them strong and knowledgeable enough to create structures such as Buddhist and Shinto shrines that last for many years. Without any effects from natural disasters like typhoons, they will still stand as if they were built yesterday, and this is a good illustration of what Japanese monozukuri is all about. Furthermore, despite being a wooden structure, which is thought to be vulnerable towards natural disasters, these buildings have been standing as is for several decades or several hundred years since they were built. We draw a big line of equality toward Japanese craftsmen and what Japanese handiwork is famous for, in both its excellence and accuracy.
As you know well, Japanese companies, especially SMEs, have become niche leaders around the globe and have created dominant market shares. You were the first to create an acrylic aquarium viewing window in 1969 and you hold a record now for the 260-ton acrylic wall in China that you recently built. Can you give us your take on the unique qualities of Japanese SMEs that allow them to create such niche technologies with dominant market shares?
When Nippura was not even thinking about doing acrylic wall panels for aquariums, we were dealing with the raw acrylic as a material and then started improvising and making products based on that material. Currently, we are involved in many processes with acrylic material, such as bonding, moulding, polishing, and onsite installation.
The hardest thing to do with acrylic is bonding, because it requires special adhesiveness and plate-to-plate construction must be performed perfectly, which was problematic in the beginning. That is how our company was born, with the idea of what to exhibit from the acrylic as a raw material because it is basically a plastic. What is good about acrylic is the rigidity, transparency, durability, especially compared to other plastics, and with the additives, the acrylic panel becomes UV proof.
What is also good about the acrylic is that it is easy to embed another material into it, such as with golden foil embedded into the substance of the acrylic. Another example is the wooden fret, with these pulled out into two-millimeter plates of acrylic and embedded into the product itself. You can give any design or pattern of color to acrylic to make it a totally different product.
The biggest key factor here is not losing the transparency while applying the adhesiveness to the panels of acrylic. Initially, we were thinking about what adhesive could bond the acrylic plates to one another without losing the high level of transparency and rigidity. We discovered that acrylic, as a raw material, can be applied in many areas, and we found the solution for that kind of adhesiveness. Our company’s first idea was not making aquariums from acrylic, but what brought us here is that we started touching, thinking about, and analysing acrylic as a material and eventually came up with the idea that aquariums can be made from it.
It has been a long road to get to aquarium manufacturing, and the idea of acrylic aquarium manufacturing was not something that were in the minds of Nippura early on. That said, there have been so many trials for coming up with a product line-up. When we started to do a commissioning job for Panasonic, for their indoor lighting, they were putting up acrylic as part of their lighting system. But working under a big company would not give us much freedom with human capital, and it is hard to make a profit, no matter how many products you make for such large companies.
After that, we went back to our original state and started thinking about what else can be made from acrylic, what else could be the potential use. This is not just for a thin layer of acrylic, but the thicker, the better, because then we use more material. For where we can apply transparent acrylic panels, the idea was natural and as a result, came to us that we could make materials that could be used in aquarium sites.
Your products must withstand a huge amount of water pressure, while also creating an optimal viewing experience because ultimately, the park-goers need to see the marine life. You have managed to balance those two through your unique bonding methods. Can you tell us what is your Research and Development (R&D) focus? What are you challenging yourself with next?
The Okura Hotel, in Tokyo, is an old building that used our acrylic panels for lighting. Okura’s building was renovated several years ago, but the original acrylic shades that were used there were preserved and did not break, so they were dismantled and used again because the original shape was still in a good state and could last for another 50 years. The owner of the Okura hotel saw that the shades were very good, unbreakable, everlasting, and gave credit to our company because the products we produce and supply to customers are high quality and can be used for many years. Those lamp shades are famous for the significant design and quality of the product especially among architecture and product design fields, they are called "Okura Lantern", are one of the symbol of the hotel.
Our technological knowhow is the first step in the potential of what we can make from acrylic. The adhesive that we use makes something look like one big piece, and you only see clear transparency from the side, but it is a bonding of different panels.
We make a solid cube that could be used for construction, a completely acrylic box that is strong enough to withstand hard water pressure from the side, and nothing will happen to it. However, it is not enough to just have a solid cube, and we must be thinking about what kind of products can be made from it and add to its value because it was not created to just be a sculpture since we cannot benefit from that.
When we do R&D for acrylic, the first thing we think about is what the material can withstand, and what could be a barrier that it can hold. For example, with aquariums, it withstands the water pressure.
Blue Ocean is an image screening technology that we have, and what it does is stop the light from penetrating, so it gives clear visibility and does not allow the light to go through. This protects from construction balls and is bullet-proof, and it is used by Japanese policemen.
What extent do you need to work with partners to co-create and to produce these products?
They are all made in house by Nippura only. Something else we do with acrylic is embedding other materials into it. We received an award of distinction for one product where we embedded traditional Japanese paper into it. The belts for kimono can also be embedded into acrylic to give you very beautiful, artistic panels. We have also used golden foil and tatami, such as a bench in Okayama, with traditional tatami.
What I have been talking about is preserving something by embedding it into acrylic, but it can also be used for soundproofing. We use a soundproof layer that is embedded in, which absorbs the sound waves and prevents them from escaping and making loud sounds.
What are some of the main applications for this?
On the sides of high-speed car lanes, you might see sound-proof walls, and in most cases, they are made from glass or polycarbonate. Glass is fragile and not very stable, and polycarbonate is easily oxidized, so after ten years, it will fade and become discoloured. Acrylic can be used as a replacement, and we already are introducing this on Japanese highways as a replacement to existing sound-proof walls on highways.
We also have an underwater room in The Maldives at a hotel called the Conrad, which uses our acrylic panels, and the price of a one-night stay there is $20,000 USD.
Another product is the windbreaker. In Amarube, Hyogo, there is a railway along the seaside where there used to be accidents due to the strong wind, which would sometimes cause a train to be derailed. They could have used concrete walls, but they would lose the aesthetics because the railway is made from iron, so they came to us.
Nippura have been using acrylic for more than 50 years to create many versatile products, but why are customers choosing your company? What is the differentiating factor that allows you to be the go-to partner when it comes to acrylic-based products?
As you know, Japan is a country that is vulnerable to natural disasters like tsunamis, and tsunami-preventative walls are usually made in solid concrete blocks. We introduced an option with holes in the walls, which not only gives visual benefits, but also is functional, as people who are standing on the safe side can see how tall an approaching wave is. People otherwise would not know if the wave were high enough to overcome the wall, and they would not have time to evacuate.
This product is not only good for aesthetics, but also for safety and preventative measures. That is why we proposed to the Japanese government that this must be installed. Natural disasters strike suddenly, and nobody knows for sure when they will happen. For that reason, the wall must be solid and durable enough to last for a long period of time.
This project is a recent initiative, but it contributes to society, protecting the valuable lives of people from disaster, rather than just making products solely for profit.
When you make aquariums, you know the amount of water that will be used, but for a tsunami, how can you measure the strength and force of the wave to make sure that the acrylic will not break?
The structure itself has a breaking point. Each wave breaker has its own specific strong points, so they must be calculated carefully. We successfully introduced this product in Japan, but we got residents asking Nippura why we did not make the whole wall transparent. We can do that, but for functionality and safety, it is not desirable. We must know how many of these holes can be installed and at what height.
You have a lot of famous projects that you have completed, including the Monaco Marine Museum, the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, the Atlantis in The Palm Dubai. Why was Nippura chosen for these world-famous projects? What are your unique technologies?
It is maybe just a natural flow of events that comes from the history of Nippura. We are known for our domestic products and activities. In the beginning, it was very hard because there was a big, local competitor - a Tokyo-based, unlisted company that was also making acrylic panels for aquariums. It was very hard to withstand and overcome this competitor because with everything involving aquarium acrylic panel manufacturing, we always took second place and were in their shadow. It was impossible to become number one in Japan, so we started to think about overseas markets.
The current chairman of Nipputa, Mr. Tetsuhiro Shikiyama, travelled a lot, and he went to America to see what could potentially be discovered in local aquariums. Vancouver Aquarium’s CEO, John Nightingale, guided us when we travelled to the US, and we started to introduce our best technologies into foreign markets, starting with Canada and America. It was 1992 when construction started on the Monterey Bay Aquarium, with its opening in 1994, and this was our first step into the foreign market.
No matter how hard competition was, we had a strong belief that we were better in technological advancements and human power when compared with that large competitor in Japan.
We should praise John Nightingale, who later became our director in Vancouver, because he was the one who introduced us to Monterey Bay. We were very happy about being praised by such an esteemed gentleman in the industry, so we provided everything that we possessed including samples, specifications, and all additional information.
At that time, it was not just us, but there was also an American company doing acrylic panel manufacturing for aquariums and one other rival company from Japan. The three companies started bidding like an auction, trying to win the market, so there was a keen analysis of who had the best forms of acrylic. We won that competition by passing the strength test and all the other criteria required for buildings.
You need to know how to judge the material’s strength, and since it cannot be judged equally with the human eye, it requires industrial specs that were introduced. When they judged the strength of the American acrylic manufacturing company against ours, it was 50% higher in our products. That is one thing that truly proves how great our technologies are and has been a benefit for our company.
Another obstacle was the price. Our price was 10% higher than local competitors, but the executive director of Monterey Bay, Julie Packard, said we did not need to decrease our price by 10%, but could keep it the way it was. She was basically praising the high quality of Nippura, saying that we did not need to decrease the price because our quality and technology is outstanding, and as a result, we sold our panels to Monterey Bay Aquarium with a price that exceeded the local companies by 10%.
You have been overseas since 1992, and you have completed more hundreds of projects in more than 60 countires. Which new markets are you looking to increase your presence in? What regions and specific countries do you want to tackle?
A word-of-mouth spread strategy is what we adopted early on since our project in Monterey, because the products speak for themselves. We are not the kind of company that does sales activities by ourselves, as it would not make much sense for us to go to France and talk to the city mayor, asking him to introduce our acrylic panels in that city. We have taken a position of waiting for customers to come because we already have a good track record around the globe. This is especially true in America, which is an aquarium paradise, with more than 100 installed across the country.
As people saw the project that Nippura did at Monterey and saw how good the quality was, there was a buzz in the industry, and attention was directed to Nippura. In many ways, it does not make sense to choose a Japanese company over a local one but choosing a vendor from Japan adds credibility to the company and drags attention away from other aquariums that like to use our acrylic panels.
When the Monterey Bay Aquarium was opening, there was a ceremony, and Julie Packard went up, and she thanked Nippura, praising us for having wonderful technology that will still be standing for many years. Those words were very powerful because at that opening ceremony, there were many aquarium owners in the American market who were present and heard about us. The information flew around the area, and people understood how good Nippura was and is. It was just a matter of time, and five years later, we started increasing our sales into America and getting more projects there.
We did not only expand throughout America, but also went to Europe. It started with a Spanish aquarium that wanted to have our acrylic panels installed, and then throughout the European Union, our company’s reputation started increasing. In the final stages, we came back to Japan and rebounded. Being a small company without much of a reputation in the domestic market, it is hard to overcome the larger competitors in Japan. However, we created international exposure for ourselves, and when we went back to Japan, it served us well, giving us a good track record in Japan as well.
Apart from your aquarium products, you also have the Blue Ocean Screens, which is a separate product that uses high-grade acrylic to disperse beautiful images and is very high technology. Can you tell us what strategies you have been using to increase the sales of this product in the U.S. market? Have you engaged with sales reps, or are you looking to do joint ventures?
Blue Ocean Projection Screens is high-definition video resolution with rear projection technology installed, and it is a good product. Unfortunately, it is not that off-market compared to the aquarium panels. It is very hard to promote this product due to the market being tight. Although we do receive some inquiries for it, we are not betting much on this product itself.
We did have NHK come here, and they tested if the H8K high-definition resolution projection could be run on our screen, which it did, but it is just a matter of the size. People will not choose to install such a huge, oversized screen in a hotel or for personal use, but where it can be introduced is in home theatres in America. We have some that are maybe half-sized or one fourth size that can be used for that, but this is also a difficult market because of local companies.
The screen can also be used in art galleries and museums because they need high-definition projections on a large screen. We are looking into the medical field too, as it requires preciseness when it comes to high-definition screens in operating rooms, and it is very important for doctors and nurses to see exact, high-definition details on what is happening. Again, the market itself is not big, and we are not emphasizing the Blue Ocean screen very much, but it is a part of our portfolio.
Since we are not just a one-part production company for acrylic panels for aquariums, we propose a full package to our customers in aquariums. The Blue Ocean screen by itself is very hard to promote because we do not have the connections for that, but what is easier for us is to promote the product through our existing connections and relations in the aquarium field.
Aquariums currently make artificial coral reefs, and this simulates the natural habitats of fish, but we propose introducing our big Blue Ocean Screens to simulate the actual life of sea creatures and give an in-depth image of the water inside the aquarium, almost simulating a real experience in the ocean. We do this by having an acrylic panel and then in the back, having a big screen that emphasizes the visual aspect, so that you are looking at an aquarium, but it seems like you are looking into the ocean.
If we were to come back in five years and do this interview all over again, what would you like to tell us? What are your dreams for the company, and what mid-term strategy will you be implementing?
The core goal of our company is to provide the world’s aquarium market with the absolute best quality, with uncompromising craftsmanship. We are aiming to create better solutions for modernization of existing theme parks and aquariums or introduce new ideas into them all over the world. This is not a goal for profits but is addressing the aquariums and market needs.
Many aquariums are experiencing problems regarding preservation of natural environments and so many issues, not just environmental ones. At Nippura, we are a one-of-a-kind company that does not have any other competitors in our field, so we are unique and are contributing our best efforts, products, and quality to help solve the problems that aquariums are facing right now.
We would also like to create a stable demand-and-supply for aquariums around the globe and for others who are related to this field. We have been like that since our inception and will keep the promises that we have made since then. We are going to be make the world a better place to live in.