Mitsui Chemicals Teams up with SMEs to Push Innovation (1/2)

R&D Center Sales and Marketing Event
From Materials to High-Added-Value Solutions

Since 2012, Mitsui Chemicals has been carrying out its Monozukuri Craftsmanship Campaign . The movement stems from the company’s key policy of increasing its contact with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in possession of unique technologies in order to spur innovation.

The Monozukuri Campaign is an event held at Mitsui’s Sodegaura Center, a research and development hub in the city of the same name in Chiba Prefecture. SME representatives gather to set up panel and product exhibits in an effort to market their technologies to R&D leaders within the Mitsui Chemical Group as well as exchange feedback.

The Organization for Small & Medium Enterprises and Regional Innovation, JAPAN (SMRJ) selects SMEs that match Mitsui’s requirements and sends them to participate in the campaign. Fifteen companies attended the Kansai event in October 2012, twenty in the Kanto region event in November 2013, and more are scheduled to attend this fall’s event as well.

Interviewee
Mitsui Chemicals, Inc.

Director, New Market Development (Automotive Materials) Division
Akio Hirahara

Akio Hirahara, Director, New Market Development (Automotive Materials) Division Mitsui Chemicals, Inc.

Flatter organizations lead to user-driven innovation

“Since we set up the New Market Development (Automotive Materials) Division four years ago, we have been ramping up our attempts to trigger innovation by interacting with a variety of companies outside our own organization,” explains Akio Hirahara, director and head of the division.

For decades, he said, Mitsui Chemical had marketing representatives in charge of business areas that dealt in specific materials - plastics, rubber, and so on - and they would carry out their sales activities while targeting the customers who used each type of product. Unfortunately, this system made it difficult to handle clients who wanted to consult with them about multiple materials at once.

No matter what the material, Mitsui Chemicals had to be a “one-stop shop” capable of handling all automakers’ requests. With this goal in mind, they decided to set up a new organization designed to carry out marketing and developing activities across all types of materials. The result was the New Market Development (Automotive Materials) Division, which officially got off the ground in April 2010.

Mr. Hirahara told us that creating a “flat” organization like this now allows his company to handle consultation requests from automakers who are undertaking new development projects and still aren’t sure which kinds of materials they want to use.

  • “Akio Hirahara, Director of the New Market Development (Automotive Materials) Division, a flattened materials organization at Mitsui Chemicals

    “Akio Hirahara, Director of the New Market Development (Automotive Materials) Division, a flattened materials organization at Mitsui Chemicals

Forging win-win partnerships

“Our mission as a division,” Hirahara explained, “is to create new materials for use in the auto industry - but the truth is that Mitsui Chemical isn’t that great at finding the seeds we need to make our business work. We simply don’t have the speed for it in many cases. Smaller enterprises, on the other hand, do have those unique, eye-catching technologies. Mitsui has many researchers on hand who excel at putting those seeds to the test and analyzing the mechanisms that make them work. This strength, combined with our ability to take our ideas worldwide, means that SMEs can then take advantage of our analytical outcomes and global presence to further refine their own work. These are the kinds of win-win partnerships we are looking to create.”

Hirahara went on to say that the trend at Mitsui Chemical was not focused on seeds or projects for individual materials, but was instead the pursuit of innovation driven by the needs of customers and the market via user requests. Automotive materials (mobility) was the company’s starting point, and it is currently expanding its focus to include the healthcare and food and packaging sectors.

These three areas are currently positioned as Mitsui Chemical’s “Targeted Business Domains ”, where the company aims to move beyond its previous offerings of simple raw inputs and materials to providing its clients with higher added value; namely, solutions to their unique challenges as well as final products.

“What this requires,” Mr. Hirahara told us, “is that Mitsui reach beyond its walls and adopt the idea of open innovation. We must interact directly with companies and universities with superior technology both inside and outside Japan in order to identify the next commercially viable seeds and develop them within our own organization."

Tapping into the potential of binding technologies

One of the key outcomes that the New Market Development (Automotive Materials) Division has produced in its four years is binding technologies used to join resins and metals.

One of Mitsui Chemicals’ specialties is synthetic resins such as performance elastomers and polypropylene compounds, which are designed for use in automotive components like bumpers and instrument panels. Although today’s automobiles are still mostly made up of chunks of metal, the global trend towards reducing environmental impact demands that vehicles get even lighter, which in turn means that we must continue making the shift from metal to resin parts when it comes to automotive components. This is one of the most pressing challenges for automakers today, and represents a perfect opportunity for chemical manufacturers to offer their solutions.

That said, Hirahara noted that creating a never-seen-before breakthrough resin is not really on the horizon for Mitsui. Given these limitations, the company is instead seeking out business opportunities that tap into the current trends towards modularization and fusion in the auto industry - and binding technologies are absolutely essential to both of these processes. Successfully reducing automobile weight hinges on the answer to the question, “How can we effectively bind resins to metal - ” The solutions are also what will help automakers improve fuel efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of their products. And since Mitsui Chemicals did not itself possess these answers, it went outside to find the seeds that could generate them.

  • Mr. Hirahara: “Reducing environmental impact is a key task for the auto industry”

    Mr. Hirahara: “Reducing environmental impact is a key task for the auto industry”

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