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Expert wheelchair manufacturer counts top athletes among the users

Interview - July 5, 2023

A Japanese firm with nearly 60 years of experience, Nissin Medical Industries manufactures state-of-the-art wheelchairs for everyday use and sports.

KEIZI MATSUNAGA, PRESIDENT OF NISSIN MEDICAL INDUSTRIES CO., LTD.
KEIZI MATSUNAGA | PRESIDENT OF NISSIN MEDICAL INDUSTRIES CO., LTD.

What do you believe to be your company’s core strengths or competencies that set you apart from your regional manufacturing competitors?

Although several companies in Japan make wheelchairs, most are now made in Taiwan or China. I think China is the best among our competitors in this field because they can manufacture wheelchairs at a cheaper cost. We try to differentiate our products by tailoring our wheelchairs to different users and their unique needs with faster delivery and at a more reasonable price than our competitors. The wheelchairs being lightweight is also important. Recently, most wheelchairs are made from aluminum. Even though all wheelchairs may appear the same at first glance, the materials used are so different. We not only do a lot of research on the materials but also cooperate with material makers in Japan who provide us with significant support so that we can develop thinner and stronger materials that can be easily processed with methods such as welding and bending. I think the difference in materials is also something that sets us apart.

 

How widely they are used by Paralympians for competition is a great endorsement of your chairs. The wheelchair is the most important tool in that activity, and having the right fit or equipment can be the difference maker in winning a medal. What is your development process for these wheelchairs used by many Olympians? Why do you believe so many Japanese and international Paralympians use your wheelchairs for their competition?

We directly discuss the demands and requests with the top athletes of a particular sport and incorporate those into our development of products. We have been continuously doing that for our new developments, which is one of our strengths. We are also focusing on cutting-edge technologies and materials for sports equipment, and letting top athletes try our equipment and tools. I think that is the reason why our wheelchairs and products are widely accepted.

We originally developed the chair ski equipment for only the Japanese Paralympians and athletes, but over time, we also received requests from athletes from other countries who wanted to use our equipment. We have been able to deliver our products to the US and South Korea since we have already established our presence in those markets. On the contrary, we initially turned down requests from European countries because we did not have a sales channel there. However, due to the tenacious efforts of the European athletes, we eventually started to respond to their requests on the condition that the maintenance of the equipment would be done at the local companies. Nearly half of the Paralympic medal holders in the chair ski field use our equipment.

 

Are you looking to bolster your sales activities or presence to better cater to European athletes?

We still do not have a sales presence in European countries, and we would like to have one sometime in the future. Nevertheless, we would like to have a firm presence in other countries and regions before entering the European market.

 

From the outside looking in, many wheelchairs look the same, but it is not often the case in reality, especially considering that aluminum, CFRP or other new functional materials are used. What is the current focus of your product development, and how are you using new materials?

The most important focus of wheelchair development is to make it lightweight. If the material becomes stronger, then the pipes can be made thinner. If we are able to achieve that with the same size and specification, the entire product can be made lighter. Of course, we also give attention to the processing performance or the design, but our ultimate goal for our R&D is to make our wheelchairs lightweight.



To compensate for a shrinking market in Japan, more companies are going overseas and collaborating with overseas companies to better suit the needs of their market. Are you also interested in this kind of international horizontal model of collaboration?

I believe that we cannot just remain in the Japanese market going forward. We have to turn our attention to the overseas market to be able to expand the use of our products, and we need to work with local companies to capture the uniqueness or the differences in the overseas market.

 

Japan continues to be the world's oldest society, and much of the rest of the developed world is watching Japan very closely to see how it is reacting to this challenge of managing so many elderly people. On one hand, it represents an opportunity for you as there are going to be more people needing welfare and medical equipment. On the other hand, it can be difficult to have a strong labor force with more people retiring. What has been the impact of Japan's aging population on your company? Do you see it more as an opportunity or a threat?

Considering now or the near future, Japan's declining population and aging society mean that there will be a growth and potential demand for our products until 2030 or maybe 2035. We expect slow growth for our products. Although the declining population has no immediate impact on our business, it will lead to the shrinkage of the labor force, posing a concern for us in the future. We can say that we have some potential at present, but we anticipate concerns in the far future.

 

Digital technologies can play a role in helping compensate or offset some of the issues associated with Japan's aging population. What impact do you see digital technologies have on healthcare treatment in Japan going forward?

Digitalization will make a lot of things happen in our field. In the automotive sector, they are researching autonomous driving systems. We expect that some of that kind of technology can be incorporated into the wheelchairs so that they can be operated automatically within a hospital. We may be able to install some digital technologies to track the location of wheelchairs and mitigate concerns for the elderly. These things have not yet been realized, but I think there is still a lot of room to grow in the digital field.

 

What will be your strategy to strengthen your overseas presence? Which regions are you focusing on?

Our focus is the US and Asia, particularly South Korea and China. I would like to make the best use of our factory in Vietnam which we opened three years ago to address the Asian market as a whole and expand our presence in the United States. After that, I would like to concentrate more on the European market by scaling up our factory in Vietnam.

 

Imagine we come back on the very last day of your presidency when you are about to pass the company to the next generation and interview you all over again. What dreams and goals would you like to have achieved for the company by then that you would like to tell us about in that new interview?

I would like to raise the revenues we generate from the overseas market to 50% of that of the domestic market. I will be very happy if we can achieve that.

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