Development Room: the story of our manufacturing spirit

03 Wheelchair “Wijit”

The TSS New Product Development Division has taken on various challenges until now. The lever-operated wheelchair system Wijit you are about to read is also one of such challenges. It might seem like a mismatch seeing a company manufacturing production equipment developing welfare-related equipment. It was our president’s “wish to be useful to the society” and the presence of company employees who knew about his wish that gave birth to the development of this product.

In 2005 a man contacted Yoshikawa at the Kamata Factory about product development. The man was a senior colleague of Yoshikawa at his previous company and he had called Yoshikawa to discuss a concept together. He gave Yoshikawa some details of the concept and they quickly set a date to meet.

The summary of what the man told Yoshikawa was as follows. At the time of the talk, the man’s company was working on developing a completely new wheelchair operating system, which would be different from conventional wheelchairs that required users to grab on the wheels fixed next to the tires to move the wheelchair. The new concept would add a lever to each tire, allowing the user to ‘row’ the wheelchair as with a canoe. A US company was developing the operating technology, while a major Japanese rubber product manufacturer was working on providing the technology necessary to put the new wheelchair to practical use. The man was working as technical advisor at the wheelchair manufacturing and retailing company jointly set up by these two companies.

"Did you know, without gripping strength it’s hard to move the wheelchair over a long period of time and it’s difficult to brake? A US company has developed a mechanism that will remedy that problem, by allowing users with weaker strength to easily operate their wheelchairs. My parent company provides the technology for that and it is responsible for manufacturing and selling the product. Would you be interested in joining us to develop the product together?"

This was a new frontier completely unknown to TSS that was dedicated to machinery manufacturing until then. What kind of specifications would be required? What kind of technology would be necessary to realize that?... Despite not understanding much of this new business area, Yoshikawa was certain that the company president would agree to this. Yoshikawa was caught between wanting to give it a try and feeling uncertain about it at the same time.

(Yoshikawa to the company president, Tanaka)
"What do you think?"

A long silence.
And then Tanaka opened his mouth...

"Well, I think it’s interesting. Let’s do it!"
And so the project began.

The development of this new wheelchair was a full joint effort between TSS and the wheelchair manufacturing and retailing company that brought the concept to Yoshikawa. The TSS team consisted of Yoshikawa and Ueto, who had just joined the company; other project members were selected on the other company’s side. At the meeting that soon ensued, the members all appeared nervous, this being the very first time they met one another. After the self-introduction, Ueto slowly exhaled and thought:

"And so this marks the beginning..."

They would become one team over time and this was their first step. From that moment their challenge began.

The first thing the member worked on was the remaking of drawings by converting inches into centimeters and translating from English into Japanese. But the problem was not just converting the unit of length or translating of the language. When reading both the drawings and making the translations, it was of utmost importance that the designer’s intentions are properly understood. It determines whether all stages of the product manufacturing, such as fabrication and assembling of parts, would fail or succeed. Only after many discussions between the people involved in the making would a single product or technology finally be created.

Three months after the translation of the drawings began the first test wheelchair was finally completed. The team immediately tested it on a slope, and that was when they heard an alarming cracking sound and froze on the spot. The gear had broken! After checking other parts of the wheelchair they found many problems with it, such as the brake not functioning as well as it should have. With everyone sighing all around, Ueto said:

"...We'll just have to solve each problem one by one."

No one had expected that this would work right from the start, but seeing the first prototype breaking in front of their eyes was a stab in their hearts. Though as technical experts they were not ready to give up! From the message of the drawings the member knew they had to make the “freedom to move around regardless of disability” a reality and by drawing their wisdom, they continued to make steady efforts. They considered everything from the selection of durable materials, the types of painting that can withstand outdoor use, the design that would not compromise the performance of the wheelchair, to the methods of component treatment that takes all the above into account. By verifying and analyzing these over and again, the team continued on to ask the opinions of people who actually were using wheelchairs.

One year went by after several trials were made. Finally, the new wheelchair was ready to be commercially launched and the team brought it to a product fair in Tokyo. With much less burdens on the arms and shoulders compared with conventional products, allowing users with weaker grip and arm strength to easily operate, and being conveniently designed to allow a one-touch attachment of the new operating implement onto the wheels, the new wheelchair received positive feedback. It went on to be presented at other exhibitions and fairs after that and continued to receive good reviews, while also being reported in the papers.
Yoshikawa and Ueto both happily and lightly walked back from the product fair. They were both smiling.

"It went quite well, didn’t it?"
"Great, if this goes well we will soon be mass producing! This is where it starts!!"

An unexpected incident then occurred one day to the team that had just started to do well. There was a problem concerning patent right with the US Company that made the design. The team thought this kind of issues would have been cleared already in the initial stage….and just when things were starting to take off…The team members became anxious.

"What’s going to happen? We....."

Despite continue efforts to negotiate between the two companies, eventually they were unable to bury the gap between them and the Japanese side concluded that they would pull out of the business. While the team members went through various thought, they could not overturn this decision. Feeling their sorrow, each member returned to where they belonged.

And so the business came to an end, but the members did not stop being the technical experts they were. The various new knowledge and experience they acquired through developing the wheelchair became a great achievement for them and would go on to help them develop further in the future. The joy of creation, the anxiousness when the road ahead is unclear, the surprise of encountering new knowledge…today the people creating products continue to shine on the stage of production, where such emotions intertwine.

(Except Tanaka, all characters in this story are pseudonyms. In consideration of related companies, parts of the story may differ from actual facts.)

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