BreakThrough Study Idea

Engineers need to accept that failure is part of the development processYotaro Hatamura

<Series 2 / complete>


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Next we’ll cover Hatamura’s impression of engineers in Japan according to Failure Studies and the companies he’s worked with domestically and internationally. Part 2 of this 4-part interview is “What do engineers really need?” His unique perspective covers the strengths of Japanese engineers and points to remember about the advancement of technological development.

The Strengths Of Japanese Engineers

This is going to sound harsh, but I feel that a lot of engineers have a very narrow perspective. The engineers of the future will need to have a broader view and deeper view of the world. Looking back through history, ever since the Meiji Restoration, Japan has just been copying North America and Europe, and we were very successful at technological development without really attempting new things. But that was only possible because we already had a model to use as a base, and a goal in mind. That’s not the case anymore. What we need now is more proactive thinking, and a more complete perspective.

Certainly, engineers should always be seeking to improve their own technological capability. Sometimes, constantly focusing on improvement may even be the easier way to work. Some people prefer to immerse themselves in technology and just concentrate on their personal specialty. But some day, they will need to seriously think about how to earn money. If they get stuck in the old way of thinking “that’s not my job, marketing and sales will take care of it,” then they shouldn’t expect to make progress.
What engineers need to be doing now is getting involved with planning and decision-making so they can start thinking of the value chain all the way from development to earnings.

Could you elaborate on what kind of qualities the engineers of the future should have, and which traits should they put effort into?

Points To Remember In Engineering

We used to assume that a great product meant good sales... and that’s just not happening anymore. For example, a product like the iPhone was possible because a truly breakthrough idea was connected with the capability to make it real. The engineers who thought up the iPhone would also have been thinking about manufacturers and production costs. If you try to imagine how each little component is made, it’s overwhelming. It’s a matter of following through, of tying manufacturing with business, you need that connection to make it possible.

Actually, one of the research groups that I run opened up an iPhone as for a research study. One thing we learned is that over half of the parts in an iPhone 5 were made in Japan. The machinery for processing was also made in Japan. This tells us that Japanese products have a high reputation and good reliability. Another thing we learned is that even though Apple doesn’t have its own factories, we can presume that the developers were familiar with the manufacturing technology.
When you look at the parts one by one, none of them are very surprising. I remember thinking that it seemed to be made of parts that any regular person could buy. The most disappointing thing was that Apple was using these parts, not a Japanese phone manufacturer. I think Japanese companies must have also had ideas for smartphones like the iPhone.

But when it came to running through a mental simulation, anticipating the upcoming changes in the world and the needs of consumers, and carrying that through the value chain to earning money, Steve Jobs won the race. There was a decisive gap between him and the engineers in Japan. For the next generation of engineers, it will be extremely important to follow the iPhone’s example and include the value chain in their planning concepts.

If engineers can consider the full value chain up through earnings, it will expand their area of involvement. In other words, there will be more opportunities for failure along every step of the process. How should they face those failures when the time comes? What drives them keep trying after failure?

The Significance Of Failing & Trying Again

I released the book “Recommendations in Failure Studies” (Kodansha) in 2000. Failure Studies got its start from my long involvement in the field of mechanical design. This is the basic idea of Failure Studies: Don’t hide your mistakes - investigate and analyze them, accumulate and organize those experiences. You will learn how to avoid potential failure, and it will lead to greater success. I think this can apply to any field that involves thinking and creation.
Failure only happens when you are working towards a known goal. When you’re in development, you’re trying new things, and it’s natural that unexpected things will happen. You must keep in mind that some failure is inevitable, that things won’t always go smoothly when you’re developing new technology. You should hedge against risks and make an advance plan for avoiding critical damage.

Experience with failure will be extremely beneficial for future manufacturing. Failure leads to new technology and techniques. Success will come, eventually. The road to success is paved with failures. If you can link the experience of failure with achievement, if you can keep trying without giving up, you will encounter the next opportunity for failure. And through this cycle of trial and error, the task to conquer will become more acute and refined.
I call this experience the “spiral of failure and success.” The spiral of failure and success nurtures great creativity. Engineers must maintain courage during trial and error, they need the essential attitude to keep trying to achieve bigger, better results.

The spiral of failure and success
※Source: Reasons to Succeed (Asahi Shimbun Company)


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Yotaro Hatamura

Born in 1941 in Tokyo. BS and Master’s degrees from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Tokyo. After working for Hitachi, he returned to the University of Tokyo as a professor. Retired in 2001, but retains status as an honorary professor. Specialties include failure studies, danger studies, creative design theory, intelligent processing and nano/micro processing. Runs the Hatamura Institute for the Advancement of Technology since 2001. Founded the NPO Association for the Study of Failure in 2002, and the Danger Studies Project in 2007. Participated as investigator and committee chair of the Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations of Tokyo Electric Power Company since June 2011. Hatamura has written many books, but his 2000 release “Recommendations in Failure Studies” has sold over 400,000 copies. “Traveling the Tech Highway” is his latest.

■Best-Known Books
Recommendations in Failure Studies (Kodansha) 2000/11
Creating & Planning Technology (Iwanami) 2006/11
Unprecedented & Unexpected: Lessons From the Great East Japan Disaster (Kodansha) 2011/7
Getting Real in Japan: The Tech Superpower Fantasy is Over (Kodansha) 2015/6
Traveling the Tech Highway (Iwanami) 2018/1

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