Venture manufacturers on the rise

Digital advances giving inventors chance to be own makers

by Hiroko Nakata

Staff Writer

Surrounded by fields and houses on the outskirts of Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, few people would recognize this office as the headquarters of an electronics company. But this is where Keita Yagi runs Bsize Inc., making, designing and selling products all on his own.

Since founding the startup in September 2011 in Odawara, a bucolic city over 70 km southwest of Tokyo crowded with other venture firms, Yagi, 30, has developed and sold 1,000 of his Stroke desktop lamps online, taking advantage of common tools now available in today’s digital age.

The design of the LED lamp, which emits light from the end of a tube, has won awards in Japan and Germany for its minimalist design.

“Using digital tools, it takes one-tenth of the time it used to take to create an electronics product,” Yagi said in his office, which occupies about 30 sq. meters with its neatly organized bookshelves and Stroke lamps set up by his computer monitors.

A growing number of Japanese entrepreneurs are launching hardware startups after being inspired by the U.S. “maker movement,” which is effectively a push to produce by individuals outside a factory setting, using open-sourced materials and desktop computers to create their products.

In the past, manufacturing was one of the last industries entrepreneurs focused on because of the huge initial investment and extensive time needed to develop products.

Today, however, it is much easier for a young engineer to kick off a manufacturing business, thanks to the potentials of the Internet, and cheap or even free technologies, such as 3-D printers and CAD (computer-aided design) software.

The trend gained momentum when the translated version of U.S. trendsetter Chris Anderson’s latest book, “Makers,” was published in Japan in October. Anderson suggests in his book that anyone can become “a maker” with today’s digital tools and asserts that the burgeoning personal fabrication movement is “the third industrial revolution.”

Many of Japan’s new startups are being launched by people leaving Sony Corp., Panasonic Corp. and other electronics giants that are struggling with huge losses. They often start off alone or with a small team, and some experts say the trend might boost the struggling economy.

Yagi was a medical equipment engineer at Fujifilm Corp. for four years before leaving in 2011. He was largely inspired to start his own home appliance production in 2008 by reading “Fab, The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop — From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication” by Neil Gershenfeld. His aspirations were also driven by Apple’s iMac, which impressed him enough that he began dreaming about production operations based on a totally new concept.

The Stroke, which he began selling in 2012, makes use of an LED he came across while working at Fujifilm. The light emerges at the end of its 15-mm-diameter tube, which wraps around the computer’s frame. It has a sensor on its tip allowing for touch activation.

His latest project is a contactless smartphone charger with a wooden cover scheduled to debut later this year. Meanwhile, he will hire another refugee from Panasonic in June.

“It took about 10 months for me to invent this desk light,” Yagi continued. “But it would take about a year for 10 to 100 workers to develop a similar product at a big company. I don’t even need to hold those useless meetings,” he said, mocking the organizational rituals that slow bigger companies.

In the past, design drawings for potential products had to be shown around to various companies on paper to find someone who could make it. After that, it would take about a week to get the first prototype.

But thanks to growing advances in digital technology, Yagi can get a prototype the very next day. He merely emails the 3-D CAD data for the item to his partner, who uses it to build a prototype using either a 3-D printer, which squeezes out heated plastic in the shape of the object, or a CNC (computer numerical control) machine, which can automatically carve the prototype.

Such machines used to cost millions of yen. These days, they are much more affordable at about ¥100,000, entrepreneurs say.

To support the trend toward personal fabrication, business incubators are giving would-be entrepreneurs chances to rent 3-D printers, CNC machines and laser cutters at low prices.

On March 1, Samurai Incubate Inc. and Goto Human-Ecology Design Firm Co. began leasing out 3-D printers and other machine tools for free at MONO, an open-to-all machine shop in Koto Ward.

Until June, they will only charge the lessees for the cost of materials, such as resin and plastic for 3-D printers.

This is a big offer that startups are keen to take advantage of.

“I often use 3-D printers when I create trial products,” said Shuichi Ishibashi, CEO and cofounder of new tool-maker Sassor Inc.

The venture firm used 3-D printers to manufacture small boxes to cover sensors used to gauge electricity consumption.

Like other fledgling firms, Sassor used to ask factories to manufacture prototypes. The advent of cheap 3-D printers, however, has brought the cost of that process way down from over ¥100,000.

“Now it only costs several thousand yen for the materials, such as resin, to create a prototype (with 3-D printers),” he said.

Now the only hurdle is moving on to the next step: mass production.

“We can make prototypes. But we don’t know what to do when we have to produce products in large volume with minimum effort,” Ishibashi said.

Yagi of Bsize said he visited, telephoned and emailed 100 plants to ask them to mass-produce his products. He ended up signing deals with 15 plants.

To ease the difficulty of reaching the next stage, a group of hardware startups and factory owners in Ota Ward gathered one evening to address their mutual needs.

The startups need to find manufacturers for mass production and the factory owners want to expand their business channels, which tend to be limited to major companies, leaving profits vulnerable to business conditions. In this light, the opportunities for collaboration look promising.

With the maker movement growing in Japan, Yagi said he is aware of his responsibility as one of the up-and-coming startups.

“The government and investors do not support the trend if there are not successful examples,” he said. “So I have to make my business a successful model.

“I hope I can bring about innovation in the economy with a new product idea,” Yagi said.