R&D pays off for Japan's enterprising Tateishi Electric
In 1957, when Sony had just developed and put on the market the transistor radio, Kazuma Tateishi bought one as a bedside toy.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Tateishi, an electrical engineer and founder of an aggressively expanding company bearing his name, was then wrestling with a problem a customer in the rapidly growing automation-equipment industry had given him.
''I want a switch that can be used 100 million times before it has to be replaced,'' this customer had said. Mr. Tateishi made Japan's best and most original mechanical switches, lasting for 100,000 contacts before the silver points were eroded. For manual operations, this was quite sufficient, but with automation the switch would not last more than a week.
How could Mr. Tateishi increase the durability of his switches 1,000 times? As he sat listening to his newly acquired radio, the answer came, as most of his answers have, in a flash of inspiration.
''Why, of course,'' he thought. ''The transistor doesn't need a mechanical switch. It uses an electric circuit. If I can devise a circuit that acts as a switch, without contact, it would last forever, or nearly forever.''
It took Mr. Tateishi and his engineers 2 1/2 years to translate the idea into a marketable product. But by the spring of 1960, the company had made the first of the proximity switches that have brought it worldwide fame.
That same year, Mr. Tateishi invested 280 million yen (then worth $777,777) to build a central research laboratory, which has been the core of the Tateishi company's research and development ever since .
''In those days,'' Mr. Tateishi recently recalled at his headquarters near one of Kyoto's well-known Zen temples, ''my company's capital was only 70 million yen. It was quite a bold decision to sink four times our capital into a central research laboratory. But I knew, from a survey I had just concluded, that 60 percent of our sales came from products we had developed ourselves within the past three years. Unless we kept research and development going full tilt, our company would have no future.''
That spirit still pervades Tateishi Electric (or Omron Tateishi Electronics, to give it its full title in English), Mr. Tateishi said. The company devotes 5 percent of its annual sales to research and development. Most Japanese companies do not go beyond 3 percent.
''The IBM incident (in which Hitachi and Mitsubishi Electric, two of Japan's largest machinery makers, were accused of trying to steal industrial secrets from IBM),'' Mr. Tateishi said, ''is a typical example of what I call production by sample - buying a sample from someone else and then imitating it.
''We Japanese started our modernization effort far behind the major Western countries. Most of our companies had to take the road of sample engineering, or of paying royalties to buy other people's technologies, in order to catch up. But this is not a road one can take forever. As for my company, the only time we indulged in sample engineering was before World War II, when a Japanese aeronautics laboratory said it had seen a certain kind of micro switch in an American magazine and wanted us to make one like it. We bought the switch, adapted it, and sold it to the laboratory.
''But otherwise, from the very beginning, all our products have been developed by ourselves.''