Contributing to Society through Customer-driven Innovation
Changes in R&D at the Mitsui Chemicals Group

The Mitsui Chemicals Group has declared “pursue innovations” as one of the basic strategies of its 2025 Long-term Business Plan. To address the rapidly changing needs of society, it is essential to understand what society and customers desire at a deeper and more intellectual level. Providing value that addresses customer needs with a combination of its technologies and services is the essence of the Mitsui Chemicals Group “customer-driven innovation.”
We are therefore making some major changes in our research and development. We are forging alliances that extend beyond traditional boundaries both within and outside the Company in order to create innovative new products and propose solutions. Here, we introduce our initiatives to solve challenges facing society and our customers through open innovation activities.

To Create Customer-driven Innovation

From Supply to Co-creation
A Changing Relationship between Chemical Makers and Customers

Mitsui Chemicals is a technology-driven company with a fine appreciation for manufacturing. Devoted to the creation of materials, the Company has traditionally focused heavily on the manufacturing process and paid less attention to the products that are made out of its materials, leaving these decisions to its customers along with ideas for how they can help solve social challenges. In recent years, the technologies required to meet customers’ demands have become increasingly complex and sophisticated. With this in mind, it is vital that we discuss closely with customers to ascertain the exact point where we can have the most impact.

For example, a customer may ask us to create a material that feels better to the touch, a request that is based on sensory values. The first thing researchers have to do is translate this sensory value into a physical property. After that, researchers develop materials and then retransferring technical results into a prototype for customers to judge according to their sensory values. In this way, and through customer-driven innovation, interactive communication between sensory values and technical terms will play an important role.

I believe the chemicals industry provides strong underlying support for all industries. An inherent strength, chemicals open up a host of possibilities though various processing techniques, changes in combinations and manufacturing procedures through to modifications at the molecular level. Chemistry supports industry, and is a driving force behind the creation of strong competitiveness.

Shigeru Isayama
Representative Director
CTO & Senior Managing Executive Officer

A “Chef” Type Approach in addition to a “Farmer” Type Approach
Offering New Value with Collective Strengths

The creation of innovative materials is a part of our DNA as a chemicals maker. Drawing on this DNA, Mitsui Chemicals places the utmost importance on acquiring a top share of the world market for materials created with its innovative technologies, and supporting its earnings. However, it is not enough to engage in research from a “farmer-type” approach to create and provide good-quality materials. It is necessary to approach research from a “chef-type” approach that also looks at the potential of using various ingredient materials. In other words, we combine our materials with those of other companies as necessary, mixing and processing them according to a recipe that makes our customers’ products even better. In this way, we come up with solutions that leverage our collective strengths as “farmers” and “chefs.”
To this end, Mitsui Chemicals encourages its researchers to “take an exciting step out into the world.” We tell them to “go see markets and customers for themselves because the world is changing dramatically.” We want our researchers to have a keen sense of trends around the world, because new needs and cutting-edge innovations are emerging everywhere. For Mitsui Chemicals to have an intelligence function as a company, our researchers are dispatched outside the Company to exchange information proactively with venture firms. While our business divisions are aligned with markets, our research teams are organized by function and technology, because we believe it is important to have collaboration across business lines in order to maximize the use of our technologies and knowledge.

Awareness of Researchers Also Changing
Faster Open Innovation Inside and Outside the Company

Taking an enthusiastic approach to research is key to the creation of new customer value. Backed by the latest technology and facilities, development occurs spontaneously across organizational lines in a research culture that values collaboration. Management acknowledges the value of these activities, leading to an increasing number of cases where we are collaborating, co-creating, and working together with external parties.
One example of this is our open laboratory initiative, which was launched with the intention of discovering new possibilities in materials and technologies. Welcoming external designers as partners has led to ideas that leverage the properties of our materials in ways we would not have thought of ourselves. Our researchers have been rather excited to discover different ways of creating new value, once their preconceived notions of “this material for this application” were removed.
Our participation in the development of an ultra-compact electric vehicle with rimOnO was also an invaluable experience. I believe it was an extremely rewarding project, as our ideas for materials were implemented in a short timeframe, giving our researchers an opportunity to see the tangible outcome of their efforts. The Robot Materials Business Development Division, which was launched in 2016, has begun to assemble volunteers from across organizational lines and fields. We are exploring the new domain of robotics, an area we have not been involved in that much, to see how our technologies can contribute to this field.

Toward Our Vision for Future Society

As targets for future society, the Mitsui Chemicals Group has set its sights on a “cohesive society in harmony with the environment,” “health and happiness in an aging society,” and “industrial platforms in harmony with local communities.” We aim to quantify our contributions by using as KPIs the sales ratios of Blue Value™ products that contribute to the environment and Rose Value™ products that help improve quality of life, in line with targets for a “cohesive society in harmony with the environment” and “health and happiness in an aging society.”
We will reflect the concepts behind Blue Value™ and Rose Value™ products in the research and development Stage Gate System. Innovation is meaningless if it stays in the laboratory. I want our researchers to imagine how each final product will be used and the value that customers place on a particular product during the development process. This leads to customer-driven innovations, where we strive to solve challenges around the world from the customers’ standpoint.
We will continue to create new customer value in the world and contribute to society with pride while planting the seeds for new business opportunities.

Case Study: Robot Materials Business Development
An Exciting Step Out into the World
The Beginnings of the Robot Materials Business

In 2012, the Future Creation Workshop was launched in the Mobility Business Sector. It began with the Company’s backing as a venue for employees to freely explore new business ideas, with the key phrase “an exciting step out into the world.” People naturally congregate around exciting ideas. Workshop members took steps outside of meeting rooms and found volunteers within their own company as well as companies that could offset their weak spots, and customers who were prepared to take on new challenges. Efforts were then made to co-create with each of these partners. This is where our robot materials business began.
Much like a “chemical reaction,” various repercussions arose inside and outside the Company after we got outside our comfort zones. At the same time, we posed hypothetical questions like “will robots still be ‘lumps of steel’ when they are expected to fix various social challenges?” or “will robots increasingly use performance materials like automobiles?” Moving forward, there was the development of flexible components for human collaborative robots. In this instance, the need for flexible materials by robot manufacturers exactly matched the Company’s material technologies leading to the mutual development of unique specialty components. The Robot Materials Business Development Division, formally launched in April 2016, has now taken the lead in creating new customer value and driving innovation by forming new networks of people and new combinations of technologies that had not existed before in robots and materials.


Example of human collaborative robot


Fields Where We Can Leverage Our Strengths as a Comprehensive Chemicals Manufacturer

Mitsui Chemicals has excellent technologies that have been refined in the mobility and other existing businesses, and a diverse range of products representative of a comprehensive chemicals maker. Our basic view is to create a pathway to new markets by applying these technologies and products to the field of robotics.
It is necessary to modify existing technologies and develop new technologies because of the different requirements for functions, performance and quality between existing businesses and the robot materials business. External technologies are also heavily utilized. I truly believe innovation is accomplished by flexibly combining internal and external technologies. The new technologies created for the robot materials business are then gradually reflected back into existing businesses, improving their competitiveness and generating ripple effects.
Through the robot materials business, I sense there is a broadening wave of new interactive relationships within the Mitsui Chemicals Group. We reach out to other divisions for help in fully utilizing our accumulated technologies, and a number of R&D laboratories, business divisions and affiliates have asked us if their technologies can be applied to robots.
At the Tsukuba Challenge 2016, with featured an experiment involving autonomous robots navigating city streets, 10 teams participated in the event with a robot featuring bumpers incorporating Mitsui Chemicals’ proprietary piezo-electric materials for sensors. Highly sensitive piezo-electric sensors were combined with flexible polyurethane foam to address needs for the robot to sense bumps into walls and people, for sensors that can be easily deployed, and for robots to avoid damaging objects they bump into. Volunteer employees put together a bumper with modules that can be programmed via a USB connection to a PC. The prototype is being incrementally improved with ideas being exchanged with experts.
We will advance the Robot Materials Business while thinking foremost about how robots featuring the Company’s technology can play a constructive role in the world. We are proud that our technologies are contributing to society through robots.


A robot with one of our bumper sensors at the Tsukuba Challenge 2016


Shiro Otsuzuki
Manager
Robot Materials Business Development Division

Sharing the Excitement with Robot Makers and Parts Makers

The robot materials business is a B2B2C style business. It is necessary to establish an R&D model that takes into consideration end user needs and solutions to challenges. However, it is hard to fully satisfy customer needs and the needs of society on our own.
In the development of flexible components for robots, we began by looking for partnerships with willing parts makers. Because parts makers are our customers in most of our existing businesses, we were successful in finding partners due to the established strong relationships of trust built up by our veteran employees in business divisions and research labs.
We work with parts makers in that they process our materials into shaped objects desired by customers, and use materials made by other companies that we bring to the table when necessary to create parts. Mitsui Chemicals and parts makers have shared ideas for interesting new parts, and also exciting ideas with robot makers, giving rise to the potential for new products. We were encouraged to work harder by the external companies that have lent their help, thanks to their excellent technologies, passion and ability to make decisions rapidly.
I believe open innovation is essential in future R&D. For this to happen, we must foster relationships based on trust with customers and others involved in the collaborative effort. I hope that more of our researchers, especially young researchers, are able to experience this approach to R&D. We aim to move innovative R&D forward at Mitsui Chemicals and create new businesses while collaborating with our customers and other external parties.


Satoshi Yamasaki
Research Fellow
Synthetic Chemicals Laboratory