30 July 2019
Softly, Softly Tact Proves Best Way to Treat Japan's Medical Sector
With many Japanese patients-to-be preferring their healthcare to be doled out as sensitively, non-intrusively and as non-digitally as possible, the sentiment at Tokyo-hosted Medtec was that a low-profile approach was best all round.
As ever, Medtec Japan – Asia's largest medical device manufacturing and design show – had a few surprises up its sleeves. Perhaps the biggest, though, was just how singular the Japanese market remains.
While advances in technology – AI, 5G, blockchain and IoT, we're looking at you here – are revolutionising the medical-device sector on a global basis, these trends were somewhat less obvious at Medtec than might have been anticipated. This is, perhaps, because the Japanese prefer a more analogue, somewhat traditional approach to medicine. In addition, a distinct regard for privacy means that many Japanese have an instinctive distrust of all things digital and computerised, especially when it comes to healthcare.
Another notable characteristic of the local healthcare market is its preference for a softly, softly approach, with a greater emphasis placed on non-intrusive intervention and an inclination to make things, above all, easier for the ill and infirm. This means that a lot of the local innovation on offer is channelled into these directions, rather than towards developing more radical and revolutionary solutions.
This softer approach to medicine – as well as a degree of innovation – was evident in the presentation put together by Kyoraku, a Tokyo-based plastics manufacturer. This year, the company opted to showcase its range of shape memory polymer filaments for 3D printing and, in particular, its new Fabrial brand, which has a number of applications in the medical sector, including the creation of customised casts and bespoke hand braces.
Keen to highlight the benefits of its new range, Takashi Nomura, the Manager of the company's Technical Research Department, said: "Essentially, Fabrial is a series of biocompatible and flexible filaments that have been certified as non-irritable to the skin and non-harmful to cells. The big plus is that the material can take on any shape – and can easily be reshaped – and is suitable for use with just about any patient."
In support of his claims, Nomura demonstrated just how easy it was to shape and re-shape the material after just heating it with a standard hair-dryer. In many ways, such low-key, multi-use products are the unsung heroes of the health sector, an accolade the company is more than happy to acknowledge.
Another Tokyo-based business – Tok, a specialist in mechanical and motion technologies – was looking to secure a similar positioning. At this particular expo, it chose to highlight the wide range of tools and components it has on offer, including pulleys, gears, levers and wrenches. While all are quite different in terms of construction and application, the one thing they have in common is that they have been designed to make various household tasks easier to manage.
The purpose of one such device – a rotary damper – for instance, was to stop window blinds crashing down when lowered by an infirm or elderly householder. In a similar vein, it also produces gadgets that restrict the movement of toilet seats and re-inforce shower-door hinges.
Outlining the thinking behind the company's presentation, Sales and Marketing Manager Shoko Suzuki said: "This year, we are looking to demonstrate the whole of our skillset. Not only do we manufacture a wide range of products, but we also customise them in line with the needs of our many hospital and care home clients."
Perhaps even more impressive than the breadth of the company's offering was its pricing structure. Regardless of any required customisation, Suzuki said the majority of its products retail for US$10 or less.
As well as price, the elderly-friendly nature of its range is another plus point for Tok, with appealing to that particular demographic always a shrewd move for a Japanese manufacturer. Also well aware of the value of super-serving that particular sector was System Friend, a Hiroshima-based software developer.
Indeed, it had high hopes that the Akira, its newly launched mobile motion visualiser, will find a ready welcome within the elderly-care sector. Essentially, the device deploys a contactless sensor to produce a 3D map of a patient's posture and movements, allowing problems to be easily identified and suitable rehabilitation regimes implemented.
An even higher-tech take on posture and motion problems was on offer from Omron, a Kyoto-based specialist in cutting-edge healthcare solutions. Working in partnership with Cyberdyne – a robotics development business launched by Dr Yoshiyuki Sankai, a Professor at the University of Tsukuba, Japan's leading tech-oriented university – the company was looking to introduce showgoers to HAL, a robotic exoskeleton designed to help the wearer undertake a variety of the more onerous everyday tasks.
Outlining the benefits of the HAL and its possible applications, Sho Sasaki, the Manager of Omron's Business Incubation Centre, said: "While its name obviously references the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's also as an acronym – Hybrid Assistive Limb. Basically, it clips onto the thigh and supports the back, making it – among other things – easier to lift objects. Typically, such items feel 40% lighter, so a 100kg weight would feel like 60kg.
"While its already in use in factories and warehouses, we're seeing growing interest from the medical sector, particularly with regard to rehabilitation and the lifting and moving of incapacitated patients. To date, we've sold 1,500 units, with about half going for industrial use and the other half to care institutions."
As well as the focus on elderly care, another notable trend at the show was the sheer number of companies moving into the medical sector, having previously operated in wholly unrelated fields. This, of course, is down to both the increasing spend in the sector and its apparently recession-proof status.
One such debutante was Hiroshima-based Shigiya. Previously a force to be reckoned with in the automotive sector, it now sees diversifying into healthcare as a natural progression.
The first fruits of the company's foray into medcare is the WAM-5500, a system aiming to bring industrial precision into the field of professional eye testing. Said to give a more accurate prognosis than many of the currently available systems, it can also be calibrated to factor in the needs of different age groups.
One of the clear dilemmas for companies that extend into the healthcare space is whether or not to do so under their existing branding. It's an issue that clearly concerns bigger, well-known brands more than niche players, with TDK favouring one approach, while a joint move into the medical-device arena by Fujitsu and Panic has seen the two companies go down quite a different route.
TDK, the Tokyo-headquartered electronics giant, has opted to maintain its core branding for its venture into medical territory, with its Silmee range of wearable sensors – which keep tabs on pulse rates, skin temperature, UV levels and ECG readings – being promoted as very much part of the TDK family. Essentially, although the system is specific to the medical sector, the company still sees it as broadly in line with its wider consumer-electronics offerings and, therefore, in no need of a distinct identity of its own.
Tokyo-based Fujitsu and Osaka-headquartered Panasonic, however, took a different stance with their joint foray into the medical-device world. Their Phii – a high-end, cableless ultrasound scanner designed for use by medical professionals – has gone to market under all-new Socionext branding. With a unit price of about $10,000, each scanner is about the size of a smartphone and can be used to build up an ultrasound picture of what's going on beneath the surface of a patient's skin.
The joint venture's marketing team essentially felt such a product might sit a little oddly alongside the consumer-electronic ranges of the two partner companies. As it's a shared endeavour, the creation of an apparently third-party business was also seen as a convenient way to handle pooled patents, R&D costs and so forth.
It could, though, be the winning formula in the Japanese med sector – large companies leveraging their existing tech to create medical solutions with small footprints and then promoting them with the kind of softly, softly approach likely to appeal to the nation's well-heeled older citizens. Sounds about the perfect prescription.
Medtec Japan 2019 took place from 18-20 March at Tokyo Big Sight. The event hosted 523 exhibitors and attracted 25,407 visitors.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo