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SFT Laboratory develops world's first Air-Conditioned Cooling Jacket

Interview - February 6, 2024

SFT Laboratory is a pioneer in air conditioning clothing, enhancing comfort and safety worldwide.

TORU ICHIGAYA, PRESIDENT OF SFT LABORATORY CO., LTD.
TORU ICHIGAYA | PRESIDENT OF SFT LABORATORY CO., LTD.

In recent years, we have seen the rise of regional manufacturers who have tried to replicate the Japanese model at lower costs with higher defect rates. However, Japanese regional brands such as Uniqlo and Muji have remained successful in overseas markets. What are the key advantages of Japanese textile manufacturers nowadays?

The strength of Japanese companies lies in the fact that Japanese companies are strong in a wide range of areas. It is the combination of those strengths that has made Japan strong, especially in the textile and clothing industries. For example, Japanese material and textile fabric makers led by Toray produce high-quality and high-functional materials. This combined with the extensive know-how of monozukuri that companies such as Muji or Uniqlo possess, allows Japanese companies to provide universal and high-functional outfits with simple designs that have been well received in the global market.

 

Japan has an aging population which is expected to drop below 100 million people by the year 2050. This has raised two major issues. The first is a labor shortage and the second is a shrinking domestic market. What challenges has Japan’s demographic shift posed for your company, and how have you adapted to it? How much do you need to look overseas to ensure your long-term business success?

The domestic labor shortage is something that we are struggling with. The countermeasures that we have taken have been to introduce digital tools and technologies to reduce the labor required by our staff and make our production more efficient. We have also been providing training to our employees to enhance the efficiency of our operations. That is how we have been trying to mitigate the impact of Japan’s labor shortages. At the same time, expanding overseas is critical. We were unable to go abroad due to the Covid pandemic. Recently, however, Japan has seen an increase in inbound tourists and there are now many opportunities for people to visit other countries. We are currently trying to increase our sales to foreign users.

 

While talking about your overseas business, in our previous interviews with key players in the industry, they mentioned the importance of open innovation and finding local partners to unlock the international market. Your company has co-developed many products such as the Air-conditioned baby carrier and stroller with Dadway. Or your school bag cooling pad with its electric fan with Seiban for example. How important are open innovation and partnerships within your business model, and are you currently searching for a similar business model with overseas partners as well?

Partnerships are key to creating new innovative products and enhancing our product portfolio. We have been partnering with companies to create new products that embed our air-conditioning technology. With regard to overseas partnerships, we are currently seeking partners. We are looking for opportunities to partner with local companies to enter into new markets. That is important, as we do not have the manpower to expand overseas by ourselves. By communicating with partnering companies that specialize in the fields that we are not specialized in, we want to come up with new ideas and invent new patents that will allow us to provide new solutions to society.

 

Your company does not only do business in Japan. You have expanded to China for example, with your Dongguan Hongmei company which focuses on air-conditioned clothes, and you have also released your Zippkool range which is oriented towards the US market. What advantages have these international locations brought to your company, and where would you like to continue your international expansion moving forward? What strategies will you use to do so? Will it be M&A, joint ventures, or new subsidiaries?

Based on our experience with Zippkool which we launched in the US market through a company that we acquired, we realized that it is more efficient to partner with a local sales agent or trading firm that already has channels to the market that we want to target. Working together with an international trading agency is key to expanding our sales.

 

You mentioned the importance of expanding your products into new fields. Could you tell us which new fields you believe currently have the most potential for the integration of your products?

There is a wide range of applications that use our cooling technology. However, the main application is clothing. Within the clothing sector, workwear is the dominant application, as there are many different types of workwear that we apply our technology to. Other than workwear, there are also many different types of clothing with functionality. Opening up new possibilities within the clothing industry is what we are currently focusing on. There are other new opportunities that I cannot disclose at this time. However, I can say that we are in talks with a bed company about utilizing our cooling technology. Hard hats for the construction site are another area that we are looking at.

 

You created Zippkool as a separate brand aimed at the US market which targets the construction, warehousing, and manufacturing sectors. While this kind of technology is well-developed in the Asian market, it is quite new for Westerners. Since workers in that field have always worked without it, investing in for example your high-vis jackets or the helmet coolers that you have made may sound like an inessential use of money for these types of companies. How did you manage to convince your clients within these fields to adopt your products, and how would you rate your penetration of the US market so far? What are your expectations for the future?

Usually, people think that if it is hot, your clothes should be as light as possible. In this sense, adding another layer of clothing with air conditioning is actually going against people’s mindsets. It can be difficult to convince people to use our products. This is not only the case in the US. It is the same in Japan. However, having said that, recently as a result of global warming, the temperature has been rising and there have been more and more cases of heatstroke. People’s awareness of heatstroke has increased around the world.

We are in an advantageous position as we provide a more comfortable working environment with our Cooling Gear clothing. Experiencing the advantages of our products is very important, so we engage in international exhibitions to let people see how effective our clothes are. Having a cooler environment increases work efficiency. Also, due to the shortage of manpower, more companies are eager to introduce a more comfortable working environment as part of staff welfare. Many of our Japanese customers purchase our air-conditioned clothing to enhance the working environment for their employees.


Special model for full harness safety belt usage


Textile companies are known to have one of the longest supply chains, which implies high CO2 emissions. When this is coupled with AC technology, which in our mind uses a lot of energy and emits a lot of CO2, it does not seem to be the most ecological solution. However, your company aims to achieve a “menstrual cooler society” that does not pollute, is healthy, and is comfortable. How do you manage to shorten your supply chain and produce air-conditioned products in an ecological way?

As part of our environmental initiatives for manufacturing, we have a product lineup that uses plant-based fabric and recycled materials. We are also part of the JBRC association which focuses on the recycling of batteries. Our company promotes battery recycling for a sustainable society. Also, when it comes to logistics, we try to make our transportation as efficient as possible by consolidating the items we need to transport.

Currently, our products are mainly used in outdoor environments. However, by using our products indoors you could reduce the amount of air conditioning that is needed for the room, as you could have a higher room temperature and still feel cool by wearing our air-conditioned products. While this has not yet become popular, we want to continue to spread awareness of the effective usage of our products as well as develop new types of products that are focused on indoor usage.

 

Although very convenient especially during the Summer or in humid locations, AC technology can produce some downsides when people are overexposed to it. It can affect people’s skin since AC reduces the amount of natural oil that the skin secretes. This can lead to issues such as fine lines, blemishes, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. It is also said that the skin ages twice as quickly due to a lack of appropriate hydration. How do you ensure that you overcome these challenges and offer AC-based products that do not damage the user’s skin?

Our Kuchofuku (air-conditioned clothing) blows out air parallel to the skin. It does not blow air directly onto the skin. Instead, the air flows on the surface of the skin. This means that it has less of an effect on the skin than AC, which is blown directly onto a person. However, to be honest, we have not looked into the details about the impact that Kuchofuku fans have on skin.

 

You mentioned that while your main business still focuses on products for the outdoors, you want to also develop products for indoors. We know that you established a company in China that focuses on air-conditioned clothing and that you are developing yourself in the US market. Moving forward, what new locations would you like to expand to and offer your products in the future?

Moving forward, we want to find strong local partners in the US. We also want to expand to Europe, as Europe’s temperature is also rising, and there is a need for our products there. Southeast Asia is another market that we are very interested in.

 

We are very curious to know about your technology. Could you run us through the history of the development of air-conditioned clothing and how your company came to be part of this interesting and innovative business?

My father invented air-conditioned clothing. He was a Sony engineer. When he became independent, he started manufacturing television tube measurement devices. At that time, he visited overseas factories in Asia. He realized that air-conditioners had not yet penetrated the Asian market, and he saw that the workers were working in harsh environments. After seeing this, he began to think of ways to provide comfort to the workers. However, he believed that if air-conditioners became the main solution, it would cause a global energy issue. Therefore, rather than cooling the environment, he believed that it would be more efficient to cool each individual that was in need. That was how he came up with the idea of air-conditioned clothing.

At first, the idea was to have a water tank to spray water and use air to cool down. However, water leakage was an issue. He then realized that humans have physiological cooling capabilities. People sweat when it is hot, but applying air allows you to cool your body temperature down. The idea of having a fan was to evaporate the sweat on the surface to cool down the temperature.

 

Your business was established in 1991. If we were to return to interview you again in 2031 for your 40th anniversary as a company, do you have a personal goal or ambition for the business that you would like to achieve by that date?

My goals as the president are to increase the number of applications for our Kuchofuku clothing and to provide safety and comfort to people. Currently, our products are mainly used in the construction sector and in factories. The logistics sector and leisure facilities such as theme parks for example are areas where we would like to apply our products to. We want to help provide a safer and more comfortable working environment for the workers. Creating appropriate products for each field is necessary. I also want to elevate our technology so that we can provide cooler and more efficient air-conditioning systems. That will be very important for the advancement of our company.

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