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Project 01 Creating a market for an innovative material – ZEONEX

We created a brand-new type of plastic.
The downside – there was no market for it.

In 1985, 32-year-old Masayoshi Oshima (currently an executive corporate officer at ZEON) and his team launched a project to develop a new material. After painstaking work, they succeeded in synthesizing cyclo-olefin polymer (COP), a highly transparent resin featuring low moisture absorption and high precision molding qualities comparable to glass.
Many people were certain it would be a groundbreaking product, and so the company decided to construct a new plant to produce the resin. For Mr. Oshima, the real battle was just about to begin.

Demise of a once-promising target application A decision to make a foray into the optical component market and being repeatedly turned away at its door

  • Masayoshi Oshima(In 1985, 32-year-old/currently an executive corporate officer)

Initially, COP was developed for use in magneto optical disks (MO disks), which had been enjoying the spotlight as the recording medium of the next generation. By the time ZEON's COP plant was completed in 1989, however, the MO market had not only stopped growing but had started to contract. "You made it, you sell it," said the man in charge of promoting this business for ZEON, which meant that Mr. Oshima was in a tight spot.
He explained: "This was a brand-new material without precedent anywhere in the world, and the customers simply didn't exist yet. It definitely scored extraordinarily high in terms of optical performance. And so I decided to introduce the material to the optical lens market and began conducting market research."
One of ZEON's research firms sent Mr. Oshima a dismal report, which included the statement: "Glass remains the preferred material for lenses, and there is little prospect for a plastic lens market in the future. Demand – if it exists at all – would be no higher than 200 tonnes."
Mr. Oshima said: "That number and our production capacity – 1,000 tonnes – make no sense. Therefore, I reluctantly decided to directly approach other kinds of manufacturers such as optical products makers."
After that he spent his days visiting all sorts of companies that made optical products and eagerly tried to attract them to COP's superior qualities. What he received from them, however, was a frigid reception.
"I was always asked about the product's track record, but it didn't have one since it was a new material. When asked about the price, I'd tell them it cost 10,000 yen per kilogram, which would draw looks of astonishment. At the time, acrylics were priced at several hundred yen per kilogram."
Mr. Oshima would consider himself lucky if even one person made the time to hear him out. He was turned away at the doors of most companies, where he was often told to just leave a brochure. He traveled so much around the country that he even wore out his shoes!


Searching for development-minded individuals and closing a deal that would see COP used in printer lenses

  • Pellet

After six months of trying to sell COP, Mr. Oshima woke up to reality and said: "I'm not going to find any buyers this way." Instead of chasing after companies, he decided to go after development-minded individuals. He read volumes of books and magazines to make a list of the researchers and developers he wanted to meet with. He also frequently attended lectures, academic conferences and industry gatherings, which enabled him to slowly but surely expand his network of connections.
He commented: "I collected around a thousand business cards in about a year, and to this day, the people that I met have remained valuable resources."
One of those connections, an engineer at a molding machine maker, became a close friend and told him: "Mr. N at Company A – a major optical products maker – was seeking to develop a new lens for compact printers."
"I knew intuitively that I'd finally found the person I was looking for," said Mr. Oshima. "I made an appointment right away and explained to Mr. N the qualities of COP. And he decided on the spot that he liked it, saying: 'That sounds promising! Let's work together.'"
Company A had been planning to introduce a next-generation compact printer to global markets and needed to find an alternative to the standard glass lens, which was expensive, heavy and difficult to process. Furthermore, conventional materials were failing to provide the performance required by manufacturers, and Mr. N had been searching far and wide for a solution.
Mr. Oshima later said: "Our COP can be processed into any shape by injection molding while also offering outstanding optical performance. We've spent two years in joint development with Company A, working on moldability, birefringence and metallic molding technology, and so the product could finally be released to the market in 1991."
The new material, called ZEONEX, made its market debut. There was little time, however, to savor this accomplishment, as rivals were racing up from behind in a fierce effort to catch up.


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