Since its founding in 1963, Yamahachi Dental has focused on creating high-performance but affordable artificial teeth, gaining an international reputation and being named in 2020 as a Global Top 100 Niche Company by METI (Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry). With the second largest production capacity of artificial teeth in the world, Yamahachi Dental is supplying smiles across the globe.
Looking at the health care industry, Japan is creating solutions that are world-renowned. In the dental field, Nissin Dental is a world-renowned leader in dental education and equipment with their gum disease models and robots for dental training. Why do you think is Japan very successful in these niche fields especially when it comes to the healthcare industry?
I cannot speak on behalf of all the other companies. This is only my sixth year as the president of the company after I inherited the company from my father who was the founder. Our focus and our main product for many years has been artificial teeth. A big part of our business is the production of artificial teeth, starting from the software engineers who handle the CAD/CAM system to the dentists who deal with the raw materials. It is difficult to speak on behalf of other companies because we only contribute to one aspect of the medical field. The companies that you mentioned earlier might be able to because they operate on a bigger scale and are operating on a national level. One thing I think is that the Japanese education system has always elevated jobs in the medical sector. Combine this with the Japanese tendency for perfection and I believe it has resulted in a lot of expertise going into smaller niche companies, people bringing their skills into, let’s say, less popular areas and being trained and guided into those sectors. The small company system does reward creativity and ability and there is a great desire for the company to succeed rather than the individual, so I believe we have a greater sense of loyalty and teamwork in smaller companies.
Kimio Toyama, Founder
As a company that has been selected in 2018 as a Regional Future Leader and in 2020 as a Global Top 100 Niche Company by METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry), what is the essence of Japanese monozukuri for your company, and what are the roles of SMEs like yours play in the Japanese economy?
Historically, after Japan lost in World War II, most of the engineers were dragged into the outskirts of Nagoya and they settled in small towns like where we are now in Nishiura. My father was in Osaka before, but because of health problems, he came back here to settle down and establish his business after the devastating war. He got to know a local dental manufacturer and started to work there. Then he left that job and used this acquired expertise in dental materials and his people skills to set up his own company. That is how our company started to produce artificial teeth, and they have become our flagship product. SMEs like ourselves do a lot of the jobs that bigger companies will not do because they are less profitable. You’ll often see the bigger companies asking smaller companies to create parts for them and supply expertise in niche sectors that maybe they have no commercial interest in but still require the parts.
Japan's population is declining, and it is expected that by 2035 there will be less than 100 million people, and it will continue to progressively decrease. There is no other company that has produced the volume and variety of artificial teeth that you have produced, and you credited that to "human resource development". How do you ensure stable human resources with a declining population and especially as a company located in such a rural area?
Yamahachi Dental has seen such social problems lead to local companies facing difficulties in recruiting new personnel. The truth is that bigger companies are targeting brilliant young graduates from distinguished universities, and even the young graduates are eyeing to join these big companies. This leaves smaller companies like ours with fewer options. Those who come to us are the ones who for some reason did not enter the big companies or ones who settled with rural life and want to contribute to the local community. Another difficulty apart from finding good personnel is having the personnel match our criteria and expectations. Nevertheless, in due time, with good instruction and training from senior personnel, we can bridge the gap and help them get there. We have a large number of local and long term staff at both our Head Office in Japan and our offices and manufacturing plant in China. This leads to roots developing within those communities and relationships deepening. We like to think we have become an integral part of both those communities.
We are not currently looking for foreign employees, but we are not limiting ourselves either. We don’t attach a nationality to our workers. We have had staff from other countries and still do but as I mentioned before, getting people to move to a small fishing village is easier said than done. My father's approach to business is that even failure is a lesson learned. I have already tried different things with the company. We are happy to employ people from any country if they have the skills we need.
Looking at the products that your company supplies, you are focused on composite and acrylic artificial types of teeth, but you also have supplementary businesses such as CAD/CAM milling materials, dental waxes, separating and cleansing agents, and many others. Can you give us an outline of your business and the services you provide your clients?
Our number one product is artificial teeth. We have a lineup of about 30 main different types of artificial teeth with numerous variations. It was a result of my father being acquainted with many dental and medical engineers. The magic of CAD/CAM cutting technology is that it can shape and design artificial teeth with any material in 3D. The problem is the raw material. The material has to be on the functional side. It should not lose this important feature. This is why we came up with the criteria of 45 Vickers hardness for our artificial teeth. We patented the technology for the world's hardest artificial teeth with stain resistance. We also have incredibly hard-working teams working on new products but also working in sales. Our Sales teams multitask in a way that is very personal to our customers, and we believe that our teams go above and beyond their job descriptions.
The technology for artificial teeth requires balance. Acrylic is not hard-wearing but stain resistant, and then there are composites that are hard wearing but easily stained. Your company came up with a new technology which involves inserting nanosilica composites into your mixture to create a balance between these two. You introduced the NS and PX model which are much stronger. What do you think is the future of the ideal type of artificial teeth, and how are you going to cater to it?
The future of artificial teeth will be based on the product's affordability. Price matters for most companies that buy artificial teeth. Currently, we have three types which are pure acrylic (New Ace), composite (Soluut PX) and a hybrid form, our NS series. The price varies depending on the material. The composite is the most expensive, followed by the hybrid, and the acrylic is the cheapest. We need to have a balance between quality and price in order to make artificial teeth accessible to those who need them. What we want and what we work very hard to achieve is exceptional quality in all our products from the more expensive lines to the cheaper ones. We don’t believe that by choosing a less expensive product that you should be getting an inferior product. We focus on quality first and then work very hard in our R&D to create materials that will give you that quality but are also affordable.
Which countries do you foresee having a market demand for your products, and what is your advantage as the first Japanese company that can provide such a variety of products?
We would like to target Asia and Southeast Asia where there is rapid economic development. Artificial teeth are a necessary commodity. We would like to be able to meet market demands as they grow. We would not like to lose the Asian market to American companies. Dentsply, an American company, is the number one artificial teeth company in the world. There is also Ivoclar and Vita in Europe. We recognize that there are key players in every region, so we would not want to lose our Asian market where we are geographically located. Of course, we are also turning our focus to America, Europe and beyond. We have some very hard-working distributors all over the world trying to get Yamahachi products out there.
Your company has a dominant market share here in Japan with 30% of sales domestically and a production of 100 million teeth annually with about 26,000 different designs. What is your company's unique selling point that makes customers choose your products?
Our strength is in being able to provide quality products at reasonable prices. It is important for us to continually produce high-quality artificial teeth without impurities and discolorations. This is the reason why we have won over the trust of our customers and established a good reputation for our company.
The reason we are able to produce such high quality is down to our dedicated staff, in all departments、in both Japan and China。We are in a fishing village, and it is always hard to employ new staff. When we do get new staff everyone in the company, from every department, takes the time to help and train them. A lot of people in this office are local, and they have been with us for a long time. All the care, understanding, and training that go into the newcomer sometimes works, and sometimes it doesn't. We take our chances. I think this is a very Japanese trait, to try and make the best of what we have, to use what is available and not waste any time wishing we had something else. You can’t question the Japanese ability to take a hard or sometimes impossible situation but make it work. Our younger staff are bringing in new ideas and new ways of thinking, our staff are also a lot more exposed to international sensibilities through travel and the very obvious influx of foreigners into Japan over the last two decades and that all causes change.
Fostering human capital takes effort. Recruiting workers is just one aspect. Another aspect is fostering and shaping them to meet company expectations. Bigger companies are quite good at it because they have HR resources that can offer many different training opportunities to new workers. This can prove to be challenging for SMEs. However, SMEs can often offer a more personal touch and I often think of us as more of a family than a company.
Then there are our international distributors, we have some really close relationships with a lot of our distributors, and they’ve been with us a long time.
After interviewing many SME companies such as yours, we have seen SMEs having the flexibility and fluid communication with staff that big companies lack. For new employees at your company, is being able to speak to the President or top management an advantage?
Yes. I do not go around the premises every day but when I have the time, I visit production, R&D, dispatch, warehouse, and communicate with personnel face to face in order to foster a comfortable working atmosphere.
Sometimes I receive calls from headhunting companies with candidates, I really do not like such cold calls. On paper, we might say that a candidate graduated from a good university and is a good match for the company. But the reality is we cannot know or get all the information about a person off a piece of paper.
It is a challenge for us to maintain a strong relationship with our Chinese workers in China. We have always had a very close relationship with our team in China. Before the pandemic there was a lot of training and language studying going on between both places. I look forward to that starting again.
With 400 employees in China, your overseas sales are China-dominant, can you tell us more about your operation there and your plans for further expansion internationally?
In the province of Jiangsu, China where our factory is located, we heard that Yamahachi has the number one market share in the artificial dental market. Despite local competition in China, we are proud to say that we are number one in sales there. We have a very strong Chinese sales team, and they work very hard to get our products out to customers. It is also a very different sales system compared to Japan. We have established markets in over 80 countries too and it is very satisfying watching these grow.
In the future, we will need a new manufacturing plant if the global demand increases and especially if the development in Asia grows rapidly. We would like to solidify our capital, which requires growth in the company and the people, so we would like to work on various things to achieve this further growth. The pandemic has slowed everything down and it has made it very hard to forecast trends and sales but hopefully we are over the worst and things will start to pick up not just for Yamahachi but for all other companies negatively affected in the past two years.
In four years, it will be your 10th year anniversary as the company president. If we come back then for another interview, what goals and dreams would you have liked to accomplish by then?
My goal is to restore this old Head Office building or perhaps build a new office for our headquarters. I would also like to continue to have a successful sales turnover. It might be hard to achieve being the number one company globally in four years, but I will keep on working with that goal in mind. I would hopefully like to see the company start building a second plant in the near future. Mostly I just want Yamahachi to be the first word that pops into people’s heads when they think of artificial teeth.