In the year 2016, the word “IoT” (Internet of Things) has become increasingly familiar. With this trend, the general public’s expectations for and attention to the innovations in things generated by engineers is likely to increase even more.
However, at major manufacturers’ actual production sites, as long as engineers are nothing more than mere office workers, they are restricted by only being able to work within top-down assigned project codes.
If it were possible to bring together the technical capabilities of individual engineers and create a platform for the free and vigorous exchange of ideas, what innovative products could the generate?
For this article, the editorial department at Brain Portal spoke to Mr. Akihiro Okabe, CEO of Novars Co., Ltd., the company that is planning to release the world’s first IoT battery, MaBeee.
Yamiken, the incubator that developed MaBeee, is a unique organization made up of an informal group of engineers working across company boundaries. The name “Yamiken” comes from “yami,” which means “secret,” “dark,” or hidden,” and “ken,” which is short for “research.”
In this article, we asked Mr. Okabe about how the Yamiken organization was formed, about how its projects are manged, and about their commitment to listening to user feedback.
The start of Yamiken and MaBeee
– The product website for MaBeee focuses on the words “handicraft” and “construction.” It gives the sense that there is a concept of wanting to play together behind your development. How did this concept develop?
Mr. Akihiro Okabe: Simply put, the engineer involved in the development of MaBeee started his work based on a desire to play with his children using model trains. If you think about it, until now, when a father and his child played with a model train set, it was the father’s job to set up the train set and the child’s job to play with it. From the get-go, they were not actually playing together.
But by simply using a smartphone-connected battery, it is possible to control the toy using the accelerometer, voice recognition, and more. MaBeee incorporates this idea of wanting the father to participate in play.
However, this concept didn’t start out with someone trying to think of ways to operate toys. It started with conversations about whether there were projects that people wanted to do but couldn’t within their companies and referring us to others in the same situation.
These conversations led us to meet the engineer I mentioned before. He was a mechanical engineer and the first prototype that was created through cooperation of engineers such as software developers each doing their own part was MaBeee.
– Even at that stage, would you say that Yamiken’s atmosphere had this sort of playful spirit, like it was an extracurricular activity for engineers who belonged to different companies?
Okabe: It think that sense was rather strong. As things were gradually created as a result of these activities, the members’ sense of enjoyment grew, and they grew more passionate about trying to put in more and more effort.
– It was an activity that embodied the idea of the name “Yamiken,” linking together ideas that were buried in different companies to create something fun together. Wouldn’t you say so?
Okabe: That’s right. When I, myself, was involved with planning new projects at my previous job, there were some projects that would make it through and others that would not. There were lots of projects that were adopted that I would have been happy with as they were, but that changed significantly as documents circulated through the company.
There were some projects that got funded, and others that were never chosen and could not be accomplished. This is true in any organization, but as budgets have become more strictly managed in recent years, it’s no longer possible to just say, “Let’s give this a try!”
So, Yamiken was started in the context of trying to create a welcoming place where I could ask people for advice about these kinds of work-related concerns.
How to collect and manage resources
– Yamiken is like a club, where excellent engineers who belong to large companies can participate in projects together without changing jobs. Have engineers actually come together naturally like this?
Okabe: Yes, they have. However, we have gone in search of engineers individually if we found during the MaBeee project that we were lacking in a particular skill.
More specifically, the project started with a focus on engineers who designed electrical circuits and the software that runs on circuit boards, but once we had created this software we needed to address the issue of how to develop the smartphone app.
Then, once we had confirmed that the app could connect technically, we needed to figure out the structural product design. We decided on a AA battery design, but we needed a designer to make that look as good as possible. Then, we created a detailed basic design to make it easier to insert and remove the battery.
– How did you acquire the expertise needed to form the basis for automation for mass production and the mold design?
Okabe: I looked for an expert for the mold design. I knew from experience that people will help you if you are open about what you are having trouble with. I was very happy when we ultimately got a team together over the course of the project, for the electronics, mechanical design, app design, and project management to oversee the whole project.
That said, the Yamiken members work for different companies, so I was quite nervous about how to get together technicians for Novars as the development proceeded. If the project stalled because the members were too busy to participate, I thought that I would need full-time members to keep things moving.
– When your members are distributed both inside and outside your company, are there any problems with who manages your human resources and processes?
Okabe: Until Novars started officially as a company, there was no defined project manager – someone was always voluntarily doing it within the amoeba-like role sharing. However, if we tried to really work as a company like that, we would run into the problem of not being able to maintain Quality-Cost-Delivery (QCD).
Now, we have a full-time project manager in the company, but that person’s role is different from that of a conventional project manager in terms of the speed required of us as a startup and the broad range of responsibilities that each member has. At my previous company, the areas of responsibility for each department were prescribed, but that is not the case at all here. It’s become standard for the project manager to be involved in the whole process.
– It seems like it puts quite a burden on the project manager for them to be in charge of the whole process, even areas outside of their own expertise. Has Yamiken employed some new method of project management as part of their product development?
Okabe: We are now in the process of figuring out that method. For Yamiken, I think there is a major element in our mindset that reduces the burden on the project manager. In a large company, technicians are completely uninvolved in parts of the project outside of their own area of expertise, so the project manager has to jump all over the place. But at Yamiken, we have a culture among the engineers of thinking that is bad.
Our underlying strength is that we bring in people who want to do something, not who just do what they are told. I think that as this way of thinking spreads, we will be able to do more and more interesting things. I hear engineers talk about how they have learned new things and broadened their own areas of expertise.
The mission of an IoT startup
– Do you have a vision or value that you want to bring to the world as you continue Yamiken’s efforts?
Okabe: I have two. In terms of our stance towards creating things, we do not want to make everything as quickly as possible. We should start by thinking seriously about who the project is for. Then, to keep us from giving up for whatever reason on projects that start out strong, we want to cultivate the idea of creating something that will make someone, even one person, happier as we work through projects in small units.
– If you work through projects in small units, does that mean that you have to think about your hypotheses regarding people’s potential needs in a different way than the method employed by conventional companies?
Okabe: Yes. The way a conventional large company would do it is that they would use their budget on a research company to come up with a hypothesis, but I think that if instead of looking through large reports, our activities could go beyond the framework of a conventional company to directly sense the needs of customers, we can come up with new, interesting things.
Someone once told me that it was a waste to develop something unless you started with user feedback. That is what led me to this idea. When we were developing MaBeee, we took this idea to heart, visiting community centers on weekends to talk to parents and children about their needs. It seemed hard at first, but we had no other valid way of assessing what the needs actually were.
– What was the other vision?
Okabe: IoT is a business model with very little precedent, so we need products that really impress people to overcome this hurdle. That’s another reason why I thought we need to broaden our concept of manufacturing.
The other day, I went to a class at a girls’ high school where they had to come up with a way to use MaBeee to make their student life more fun. I want manufacturing and IoT products to be able to be used that easily for fun activities. I wouldn’t go so far as to try and Yamiken-ize all of Japan, but I think it would be great if there were more opportunities for engineers working at large companies to come together and form teams with nearby elementary and junior high school students to make things.
– It seems that you could really make a society where making things is a familiar activity and where people can be impressed by each other’s work by making more of these activities that go beyond company boundaries. Thank you very much for speaking with me today!
Yamiken is made up of members from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of skills who come together across company boundaries. That collection of members made me think of the team in the movie “Ocean’s 11.”
The participants are able to achieve ideas that they could not in the vertical framework of a company through the horizontal framework of an “extracurricular activity.” They are using the same brains as they always did, but their enthusiasm and commitment can be implemented in this manufacturing process with a sense of speed and excitement that could not be accomplished at a large company.
I hope that this circle of making things that meet small needs will continue to expand in the future to create a Japan-wide “Yamiken-ization” in the future.