J-GoodTech Feature Article
Business Manual for Changing the Future
The Forefront of SMEs
"Nanotechnology" Strengthen Competitiveness for the Next Decade with New Technology Applicable to a Wide Range of Industries
"The Forefront of SMEs" series takes up and describes a keyword popular in the industrial world as a theme, including its impacts on SMEs and probable business opportunities.
This theme is nanotechnology, which is attracting attention beyond industrial borders as a technology changing the future of Monozukuri craftsmanship. Its range of application is surprisingly broad, and we provide hints on how to deal with nanotechnology, which is becoming popular even among SMEs.
Highly promising nanotechnology is surprisingly close to us
One nanometer is one millionth of one millimeter. This is the size of several atoms. Nanotechnology controls substances on this nano level, or the atomic or molecular level. As a means of Monozukuri craftsmanship that goes one step ahead, nanotechnology is attracting attention from various fields, such as electronics, biotechnology, the environment, and chemistry.
In the first place, why is nanotechnology attracting so much attention? Nanotechnology will make it possible to manufacture smaller semiconductor devices with higher performance and memory devices with greater capacity. Even if the size is small, a larger surface area will enhance catalyst and sensor functions. In the fields of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, nanotechnology makes it possible to create mechanisms with greater effects.
The point is that substances gain new properties if they can be made as small as nanosized or if their structures can be controlled on the nano level. Consequently, the strength and elasticity of substances can be improved, or electrical or magnetic characteristics can be imparted to substances. This will produce new materials that contribute to Monozukuri craftsmanship. For example, filters or building materials may absorb harmful substances in the air if only light is applied to them.
Nevertheless, not a few companies may consider substance control on the nano level as a high-level technology beyond their reach. However, there are many SMEs improving their core technologies and working on nanotechnology to satisfy customer requests, raise product quality, and create new competitive key businesses.
A plating company in Tokyo let a young employee study at a graduate school to incorporate the latest technologies and information. The company also invested in equipment to implement a scanning electron microscope, and then conducted joint research with a university. By upgrading their in-house technology, the company developed new plating technology with greater resistance to ultraviolet rays and heat. Plating fuel cells with gold on the nano level, about 1/1000 of the ordinary thickness, produced an advantage in that the amount of gold can be reduced.
If it is difficult to develop technology in-house, you can incorporate a product or service developed by another company to improve the quality of your company’s products. If you think about it that way, you will see there is a route to nanotechnology for any SME.
Nanotechnology to strengthen business
How can SMEs utilize nanotechnology in their businesses?
Some SMEs urge other companies to use nanotechnology by making use of their in-house products based on high technical capabilities. For example, an industrial equipment manufacturer in Osaka Prefecture developed a particle generator capable of quickly generating 10-nm or smaller particles. Customer companies in a wide range of fields from pharmaceuticals, foods, and chemicals to electronic materials can now manufacture highly competitive products from mass-produced nanomaterials. Last year, they received a commendation from the Director General of the Patent Agency for their achievements.
Not a few SMEs develop and sell new materials themselves by using nanotechnology and provide high-level processing technology at the nano level to other companies. For example, a subcontractor company met a university professor at a gathering. Jointly with the professor, the company evolved their in-house technology into a world-first nanoparticle surface treatment technology. Now they have the top market share in the world with key parts for DNA chips.
Here are more examples. An inquiry from a customer made a glass manufacturer take on the challenge of glass surface treatment. The company developed a glass reflector resistant against heat and shock by using nano-level technology. A precision machine tool manufacturer felt the pinch about the advancing shift of production sites out of Japan. They improved their processing technology and realized nano-level precision. In addition, a company observed the cross-section of a hair under a microscope capable of nano-order measurement and developed a more effective bleaching agent. This is an example of applying nano-level observation to product manufacturing.
This is how you can apply nanotechnology to various purposes by using your imagination. We can say that the results are a field that is likely to improve business value.
National backup for nanotechnology innovation
When SMEs try to work on nanotechnology, where should they start? They should identify market needs, reevaluate their own technology, and consider the direction and means of their efforts. The Nanotechnology Platform Project is effective during this process. In 2012, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology launched this project to promote nanotechnology research and innovations in the industrial and academic worlds. The official Nanotech Japan website introduces excellent cases of use and gives information relating to nanotechnology. You can feel free to collect a wide range of information there.
This project interlinks with universities and research organizations that possess advanced nanotechnology research equipment and know-how. Various users in the industry, government, and academic sectors, including ordinary SMEs, can use the equipment of these research organizations. The research organizations provide services such as technical consultation and proxy technical assistance services in addition to lending equipment.
Japan's industries expect a lot from nanotechnology because nanotechnology helps strengthen competitiveness. In the current Monozukuri craftsmanship field, developing countries are catching up with advanced countries in terms of quality, and cost competition is becoming fierce. Under such circumstances, nanotechnology user companies are trying to distinguish themselves from others by incorporating nanotechnology-based materials and processing into their products. In future, more companies will use or provide products and services relating to nanotechnology.
SMEs should have an advantage when it comes to uses of nanotechnology, which is a new technology, because they can act speedily and flexibly according to judgment by their management. Companies may find that they have dormant nanotechnology seeds by taking another look around themselves. You should start from information-gathering to search for new discoveries.