Established in Kyoto in 1948, Nissin has grown from humble beginnings as a manufacturer of dental study models for the domestic market to a leading provider of dental education products to customers worldwide. The company enjoys a well-reputed standing among doctors, professors, hygienists, dental assistants and students from all corners of the globe. In this interview, president, Koji Yokoe, explains how Nissin continues to play a major role in the improvement of dental education internationally by offering a complete line of high-standard dental training models and simulation systems.
Why do Japanese companies dominate in developing niche technology? What is the role of Japanese companies in the international supply chain? What can these companies in the medical and pharmaceutical fields bring to the world?
Japan is an island country that has a unique and long-standing history and culture of mutual supportiveness. Neighboring villages helped each other out and filled the particular needs of their fellow men. I believe that this practice of paying detailed attention to the needs and deficiencies of others has naturally been adopted by the generations of Japanese companies, and thus enabled the ability to develop niche technologies. Pursuing profits is important, but I think they come as a result of prioritizing the spirit of mutual cooperation.
I believe that the role of Japanese companies is to be the brain and the artisan. In my opinion, Japan is not very good at mass production compared to countries such as the United States and China. On the other hand, there are niche areas that only Japanese companies can bring to the table such as innovative product ideas and new technologies. By providing this know-how and “artisan spirit” Japanese companies can play a major part in the global supply chain.
The dental industry is part of the broader medical and pharmaceutical industries and oftentimes is considered the same. While this is true to a certain extent, it is small in comparison. I believe that due to this difference in market size, mass production is not a major characteristic of our industry. Rather, dental manufacturing companies like us who specialize in niche areas can contribute to the market by providing unique one-of-a-kind and made-to-order products and services. At Nissin Dental Products, Inc. we serve the needs of the dental education market by offering custom made dental training models and teeth specific to each customer’s needs.
Japan’s population has been declining since 2008 and over one-third of which is expected to be over sixty-five by 2050. For this reason, dental prosthesis will be increasingly important for the elderly population of countries with a similar demographic situation to Japan’s in years to come. How can Japanese companies develop new solutions related to dentistry? How can they leverage this first-mover advantage when it comes to geriatric patients?
In Japan, the average life expectancy is famously long, but actually the average health span, in other words healthy life expectancy is relatively short. This means that many elderly people are dependent on various medical and nursing care, and some have no choice but to live in nursing homes away from their family. As a result, their quality of life may not be as fulfilling. Various studies have shown that dental health is closely connected to overall bodily health.
In light of this, I believe that the mission of Japanese dental companies is to engage in “monozukuri” or manufacturing that will help build a healthy longevity-based society, and to assist the elderly to live a long and happy life by providing various products and services. This role also extends to designing helpful products for dental practitioners and caretakers who provide care to geriatric patients on a daily basis. For example, we have a product called the MANABOT, which is a simulated geriatric patient manikin that is used to teach and train caretakers on how to provide proper oral care for the elderly. As Japan has the world’s oldest population, Japanese dental companies can become the forefront in geriatric dental care and contribute to other countries using their accumulated experience and know-how.
Academia faces the challenge of developing a relevant curriculum for students both in terms of technology and the development of modern dental practices. In keeping with the increasing importance of the relationship between universities and institutions such as yourself, how has your company been able to upskill dental students? What relationships have you developed with academia?
I believe that building and maintaining a close and cooperative relationship with the academic institutions, more specifically the individual instructors is very important. The instructors are the ones who teach and train the students. They are the ones who closely interact with the students each day. Our company has always made it a priority to listen closely to the inquiries and requests of educators and provide the best possible solution. For example, as I mentioned earlier, one of our strongpoints is the ability to develop and produce custom made models and teeth. We offer this service to universities worldwide.
Ultimately, the mutual goal of Nissin and the education institutions is to produce well-qualified dental professionals. I believe that further strengthening our relationship with the dental schools and its educators, being attentive to their specific needs and offering tailored solutions through our products and services will result in enhancing the skills of dental students.
Which is the priority between the training and model aspects of your business? What are the synergies that you were able to create between these two distinctive, yet similar lines of business?
Our training products such as jaw models and teeth, manikin heads, patient robot Dentaroid among others are geared towards academia for use by students and educators. On the other hand, our patient education products which are used to explain various dental conditions and treatments to patients are intended for use in the clinical environment by practicing dentists. Both aspects are important to our business, but most times the patient education products derive from our training products. For example, when we develop new training models in collaboration with academic educators, we incorporate their different ideas into shape. Oftentimes, these models are designed to practice the latest treatment methods and techniques. We then feed these elements into our patient education models. The methods and techniques being taught in the schools are what is already being implemented in the clinic. Therefore, I see that a good synergy is being created by utilizing this feedback approach.
Dentaroid, a patient robot for practicing dentists
Could you tell us more about how you have been rolling out Simodont, a dental trainer that uses very high-end technology, since 2018? How do you leverage your dental know-how to distribute it using your global network?
In the Fall of 2018, we acquired the Simodont virtual reality dental trainer business from Moog Inc., a US company based in New York State. Under the new Nissin brand, we began the sales of Simodont, which had previously been sold under the Moog brand for approximately 10 years. It has only been a few years since the rollout, but we have had universities in countries such as the United States, China, Taiwan, Singapore, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom purchase multiple units so far. We intend to further distribute it globally using our vast network of international distributors. Although the COVID-19 situation is making things somewhat complicated, we continue to train our distributors so they can effectively install and provide maintenance and support to our end users. Simodont already had a wide selection of virtual training exercises in its software library from the onset, but we have since increased the contents to make it more robust and appealing to the universities. We also see that students improve their skills better and faster when they train on Simodont in conjunction with the physical training model. With this in mind, we have been developing virtual 3D models of our various products and incorporating them into Simodont, thus allowing students to repeatedly practice on specific techniques virtually before actually performing them on the physical model counterparts. We plan to continue developing more similar contents for Simodont to further create a positive synergy effect between the virtual and physical aspects. I believe this will really contribute to the skill improvement of students.
Simodont, a virtual reality dental trainer for budding dentists
Japan is famous for spending up to 3% of its annual Gross Domestic Product on Research and Development (R&D). For seventy years, you have developed excellent relationships with professors, dentists, dental nurses, hygienists, and students. How have you been able to satisfy such a stringent group of customers? What is your R&D strategy?
Nissin started out in 1948 originally as a manufacturer of denture materials. The dental schools who were using our materials expressed concern regarding the teaching tools they were using. Back then, students trained on real human teeth which was a challenge for the instructors due to the lack of uniformity and consistency of the specimens used for teaching. To cater to the needs of the schools, we visited each university and gathered information from the instructors in order to develop prototypes of the ideal models that met their requirements.
This general approach has not changed and is still a significant R&D strategy of our company today. Educators in academia feel at ease when they have someone they can rely on. To fulfill this role, Nissin continues to listen closely to the wishes and requests of our customers, share their ideas together and create products using both old and new technologies. This has helped gain great trust from the global dental education community. One of our goals is to provide a “total solution for dental education”. Further developing and enhancing our entire product portfolio will enable us to offer this solution to our users.
Are you looking for co-creation partners? And are you also looking to expand into other fields like the medical field or other areas of dentistry?
Over the years, Nissin has engaged in co-creation with J. Morita MFG. Corp., a leading manufacturer and supplier in the dental industry. We co-created a dental training simulator with them where we developed the manikin head portion. The manikin head is appropriately called the Ni:Mo, which is still being manufactured today for the Japanese domestic market.
In recent years, we have also worked with a spin-off venture company of Kyoto University to develop “Keora”, an oral moisturizing spray that prevents dry-mouth and fights against bacteria. This product is currently being sold exclusively in the domestic market. At the moment there are no specific collaboration projects, however we are always open to opportunities for co-creation of new products that enrich oral health and dental education. Although our main focus is still to expand further within the dental field, if a unique opportunity in the medical or other fields presents itself it may be worth exploring. I believe we still have many discoveries to make.
Since 1985, Nissin has launched a product line in the US and Canada and has opened offices in China, Malaysia, and Mexico. What is your international expansion strategy and what method will you be adopting? Will you continue to open sales offices, establish a factory, or engage in a joint venture, for example?
Nissin’s international sales strategy has generally remained the same since our initial expansion overseas, which is to establish a 1 dealer per country policy. We generally work with a single local distributor. We keep an open mind to pursuing potential new markets, but we do not rush in doing so. Finding a qualified and trusted candidate is crucial, therefore we approach each opportunity carefully. Through this method, we have successfully expanded into many new international markets over the past decade or so. While the expansion phase has somewhat settled down now, we are still open to new opportunities. Also, over the years, Nissin has been able to establish new overseas locations through a combination of the right people at the right time, and by a sweet twist of fate. Strangely, whenever a thought of expansion arose, the right circumstances moved in our favor which allowed us to open sales offices and factories in each location.
When actually determining whether or not to plan an overseas factory and office expansion, we consider the general policy of produce locally and consume locally. We determine whether the sales in a particular region can maintain the factory or office and yield benefits. If the merit is justifiable, we will consider all options before deciding to open a new overseas location.
Would you be interested in expanding internationally with the dental materials that you are currently only offering domestically in Japan?
The dental material business is another important element in our business portfolio. We develop, manufacture and distribute denture fabrication materials, denture teeth, investment materials and impression taking materials, to name a few. However, most of our dental materials are sold only domestically. Contrary to our dental model business, expanding overseas with our dental material products is costly and demands compliance to strict regulations that vary from country to country. Although we are open to exporting our products to a market that has a dealer who is ready and willing to handle all the required costs and requirements, for now we want to allocate more resources into the global dental educational field and further grow our dental model business.
Imagine we come back to interview you again in two or three years; what would you like to tell us? What are your dreams for the company, and what would you like to have accomplished by then?
We hope to expand our product sales into more developing countries in regions such as Southeast Asia and Africa. In addition, we would like to enhance the market penetration of our products in each of our existing markets by working even closer with our worldwide distributors.
The dream of Nissin as a company is to become more and more of a familiar entity to the global dental professionals and students. If all of the dental academic institutions the world over, whenever they need a solution concerning dental education would say, “Hey, let’s ask Nissin. Because I know they will have the answers,” this would be the ultimate joy.