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Japanese Manufacturers Make Use of New Innovations (March 22, 2004)

A tire that will never need inflating (Bridgestone Cycle)
The Japanese bicycle industry has been riding a wave of technological advances recently. A small factory in Osaka has developed the world's first device that uses the pedaling of the rider to automatically replenish the air in a bicycle's tires, while another small enterprise in Tokyo has produced a new type of front lamp that runs on the bicycle's kinetic energy but does not make pedaling harder. The air replenishment device, which was adopted by Japan's leading bicycle maker, hit the market in January. The new type of front lamp, which is available as an option, went on sale that same month. Other new products are also appearing, including a puncture-resistant tire and a light that provides high visibility. Facing competition from cheap imports from China and other countries, small firms in Japan are drawing on their technological strengths and developing distinctive new products with added value.

World's First Air Replenishment Device
The Air Hub, a device that automatically replenishes air in a bicycle's tires, was developed by Nakano Iron Works Co., a bicycle parts maker based in Mihara-cho, Osaka, with just 32 employees. In conventional bicycles, the tire tube tends to lose air over time due to its material and structure. As the tires begin to go flat, pedaling becomes harder, and the tires become more susceptible to punctures.

The newly developed Air Hub works by converting the kinetic energy of the rotating wheels into the reciprocating motion of an air pump inside a hub at the center of the wheel. The compressed air is fed into the tire tube via a special hose, while appropriate air pressure is maintained by emitting surplus air from an air hole in the hose. The process of making this idea a reality, however, was difficult. For example, on very rainy days the pump would send water into the tube; this problem was solved by improvements to the shape of the air hole. The device is said to maintain appropriate air pressure in the tires as long as the bicycle is ridden at least 3 kilometers a month. The Air Hub passed a quality test by Japan's leading bicycle maker, Bridgestone Cycle Co., which started selling bicycles equipped with the device in January at around ¥34,000 ($323.81 at ¥105 to the dollar).

Nakano Iron Works, which was founded in 1948, boasted a 50% share of the domestic market for hubs 10 years ago, but the figure has fallen to 20% now because of competition from cheap products from China. The newly developed Air Hub is a high-end item costing 10 times as much as the company's usual products, but it has nevertheless proven to be tremendously popular, with inquiries coming even from overseas bicycle makers. The company is currently applying for patents in several countries with a view to exporting the Air Hub to Europe and elsewhere in a year or two. It is conceivable that a device developed by a small enterprise in Osaka could become a standard for bicycles around the world.

A bicycle with the air replenishment device (Bridgestone Cycle)

A Front Lamp That Keeps Pedaling Light
Magical Light, the new type of front lamp for bicycles, was developed by Aki Denki, a small maker of electronic equipment in Chofu, Tokyo, that has only eight employees, including the president. Conventional front lamps operate by bringing a generator into direct contact with the rotating tire and turning a magnet inside the generator to create electric power. This makes pedaling harder when the front lamp is on, and the tire also wears quickly.

In contrast, the concept behind the new type of front lamp is the attachment of 14-centimeter-long (5.5 inch) magnets in three places on the spokes. As the wheel rotates, electromagnetic induction with the coil occurs every time the magnets pass the side of the generator. Since there is no friction with the tire, pedaling is easy. Though the amount of electricity generated is less than that of conventional products, brightness is boosted by the use of a white light-emitting diode in combination with an optical lens. The company began mass production in January of 5,000 units a month; the retail price is ¥3,980 ($37.90).

Aki Denki was founded by a few friends in 1961 and began by manufacturing coils for radios. It has heretofore functioned mainly as a subcontractor for large manufacturers of household electric appliances, designing and manufacturing electronic controllers and other products. At a time when large companies are being forced to restructure, however, the firm realized that it could not survive solely as a subcontractor and set about developing and making its own products.

Innovation Is the Future
Other innovative bicycle products that have appeared recently include a puncture-resistant tire (a layer of ceramic material is included in the rubber part of the tire, making it hard for nails and other sharp objects to penetrate) and a lamp that uses a blue/white LED with 12 times the brightness of conventional lights, developed for the purpose of preventing accidents.

There are more than 30 million bicycles in Japan, and annual demand is 1 million units a year. Eyeing this enormous market, Chinese and other countries' makers have been launching a vigorous offensive, and there has been a flood of imports in recent years priced below ¥10,000 ($95.24). Japan's leading makers also have been moving their production operations to Asian countries or increasing their imports of the parts in order to take advantage of the low cost of production in that country. Because of these conditions, small parts makers in Japan, which are limited in their ability to compete in terms of cost, are continuing their efforts to develop products that draw on their strengths, such as years of experience, technological innovation, and craftsmanship. The resulting products are competitive in terms of quality, functionality, ease of use, and design rather than just price. This method of manufacturing offers lessons for Japan as a whole.

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Related Web Sites
Nakano Iron Works Co.
Bridgestone Cycle Co.

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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