Japan’s still got it: why hardware still has the edge

World First Technological innovations

Japan’s still got it: why hardware still has the edge

Over the last century Japan has mastered the art of developing a host of “world first” technological innovations that have revolutionised the way we play and work. From the pocket calculator in the 1970s, the Walkman personal music player in 1979 which changed the way we consume music on the go, and more recently androids (humanoid robots) which speak, look and act like people. All these groundbreaking products perfectly fitted the needs of the times, generated new value, and were able to anticipate what people needed, perhaps even before they realized it themselves. 

Powerhouse through the decades

In the 90s and 00s the country took a hit from financial woes such as the collapse of the Bubble Economy and intensifying competition from both western countries and China. Although some companies have fallen by the wayside, others have proved that Japan’s capability for innovation and technology industry has been rebooted and is now stronger than ever. While the country’s stock as a powerhouse in products such as TVs and white goods may have fallen, Japan has returned to its status as a global power-house in electronic hardware for use in certain consumer and business markets through developing and identifying products in fast growing product categories – from printers to robotics. Successful companies are building on foundations laid over many decades, refining and evolving technology to meet today’s changing needs. For example, miniaturised robotics hardware for smaller, localised manufacturing as industry is re-shored to the West; high-precision sensors to enable the monitoring of changes in the body; and, visual communications technology designed to meet the most rigorous workplace requirements. 

The emergence of software

Despite this long and fruitful history of innovation, with the advent of Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Apple, Uber and AirBnB, the focus seems to have shifted to the West with the buzz now revolving around “more exciting” software rather than hardware. However, although software may be today’s buzz word with a constantly evolving pipeline of developments to meet our every need, hardware remains an essential driving force behind today’s societal evolution. It will also undoubtedly remain the interface between humans and software. 

Japanese hardware strength

So what is the source of Japan’s strength in hardware? I often use the example of the sushi chef who is motivated as much by the smile of satisfaction on his customers’ faces as by the amount in the till at the end of the night. The idea of the artisan working his or her genius in front of appreciating customers is a key component of the unique manufacturing style known as monozukuri, meaning, the blend of art and science in the manufacturing process and a precursor to sustainable manufacturing. The key idea is that the sight of the customer inspires the artisan to work towards the goal and to overcome any obstacles he or she may find in his path. When distilled down, the monozukuri concept roughly translates as “craftsmanship” and this skill has been expertly honed over time, with a desire to create superior products, with limited waste and frivolity, using precision engineering skills now engrained in the psyche of Japanese corporate management and manufacturing. All products are created within an endless cycle of ongoing improvements and always with the end customer in mind. 

Research and development

Japan, from a geographical standpoint, is not rich in natural resources and has had to use available resources efficiently, and import raw materials, in order to produce high quality hardware for export. The country has a high population density, a key factor in the development of its compact and efficient infrastructure including its technology, and companies have a strong tradition of allowing spending to be channelled into R&D, with substantial results.

Japan invests heavily in research and development. According to most recent figures, Japan is the third biggest spender on R&D, with 3.49% of GDP spent per year and 10 in 1,000 of the employed active population works in research. In the business sector this equates to $132,644 million, out of a total R&D spend (PPP) of $170,589 million. It is perhaps no surprise then that Japan has been awarded the highest number of Nobel prizes for science in Asia.

Where the West has fostered a robust software market, driven by out-of-the-box thinking and investors for innovative start-ups, Japan’s successful manufacturers continue to refine and build on what they do best: hardware developed from an ingrained ethos of quality precision engineering.

Our collective future will be built on a meeting of these two worlds and societal evolutions complemented, and facilitated, by both aspects.

Driving innovation

The fact remains that without the availability – and continued refinement – of high-precision hardware as the interface for this software none of this change will be realised. Just as critical to this advancement is the preservation and investment in the specialist engineering skills. This is what Japan continues to do best.

By aspiring to become a company that is truly indispensable to its customers and society, Epson fully embodies this ethos, creating high-precision hardware and integrating the principles of monozukuri and sho-sho-sei (efficient, compact, and precision) technologies into all its products. I will not deny that there was a period when the company shifted from its roots and became focused more on the competition than on its customers. What was the point of outdoing our rivals by providing better functions and features that the customers didn’t need? However, over the last few years we have reemphasized our roots in craftsmanship, refocused the company on the customer and on the greater goal of making the world a better place. While many of our competitors outsource production, we have also concentrated on our vertically integrated business model that means we manufacture our products in our own factories, and allows us to create a cycle that enables us to reflect customers’ needs in the design and manufacture of these products. For 75 years, Epson has been driving innovation, and is now focusing on innovations in inkjet, visual communications, wearables and robotics. The company has a long history of doing this: Epson created the world’s first quartz watch; the world’s first hand-held computer (the Epson HX-20); the world’s first compact, lightweight digital printer and the world’s first colour inkjet printer, whose successors are a milestone of the Epson of today. At the heart of everything is the customer and their experience of the hardware. Epson invests $1.4 million a day (€1.2 million), or more accurately 5.2% of annual revenue, in R&D to achieve the highest standards of hardware. 

Hardware will remain a constant

Taking smart glasses as an example, the game-changing applications that are being developed in augmented reality are only as effective as the smart glasses designed to deliver them. Epson’s Moverio offering is designed for multi user applications and the hardware includes a unique binocular silicon-based OLED high pixel augmented reality display panel designed to function in the most high-pressure workplace. By building all products around Epson original, owned technologies as opposed to outsourcing product design and manufacturing, the company can not only guarantee the quality of manufacturing, but also build their products from scratch – ensuring that customer needs are the driver of product development every step of the way. By then working in tandem with software developers to provide specific applications for Moverio smart glasses, the end-user remains front of mind in the transition space between hardware and software. 

From Silicon Valley to the R&D labs in Japan, the consensus is the same: hardware will remain a constant. Looking forward, ecologically sound hardware will also have a vital role to play in the move towards a more sustainable future with efficient, compact and precision hardware helping businesses and society reduce their environmental footprint.

It is perhaps no surprise then that despite the major advancements of software, none of this change will be possible without hardware as the interface between human and software. High precision, efficient and sophisticated hardware will remain a milestone of our societal evolution, delivering and carrying the digital revolution of the future for decades to come. And Epson, by staying true to its roots in customer-focused Japanese craftsmanship, is poised to continue to lead the way with their focus on delivering core innovations and delivering best in class hardware.