Nanako Akiyama, CEO “I do not want to make those who have lost precious hands or feet sad, a second time.”—Shojiro Obara, founder, Obara Kogyo
Obara’s profound empathy traces back to the aftermath of World War II in 1946 when he was deeply moved by the plight of the numerous Japanese soldiers who had lost their limbs in the war. His compassionate demeanor was underpinned by a steely resolve to reach out and help them. This was the genesis of Obara Kogyo. He laid the cornerstone to produce high-quality prostheses and orthoses quickly to every person in need.
During that time, the manufacture of prosthetic braces was not well-established in Japan, and only a few craftsmen could make those. Championing the cause, Obara Kogyo supplied the components necessary to produce prostheses along with manufacturing their own prostheses to cater to the wounded soldiers.
“We believe that it will be possible for us to develop new and even better products by combining 3D printers with our metal processing technology”
Along the evolutionary timeline, Japanese prosthetic technology began to catch up and was on a par with the global leaders in the arena. Obara Kogyo focused on the long-delayed development of active prosthetic hands and contributed to supplying artificial limbs throughout the country. Obara Kogyo’s prosthetics manufacturing equipment was highly acclaimed overseas alongside the company’s contribution to society. Even as early as 1981, a set of equipment was installed at the newly constructed Beijing National Orthopedic Prosthetics Division in China.
Fast forward to today, with Nanako Akiyama at the helm, the company has turned yet another leaf on their rich heritage. Their high-precision and high-quality products manufactured by leveraging innovative technologies are in demand not only in Japan but also in China, Korea, and Russia.
“We believe that even as we actively adopted new technologies, it is the continued dedication to the people that has placed us one among the most loved companies for more than seven decades,” says Akiyama, CEO of Obara Kogyo.
Advocating a Customer-First Philosophy
Prosthetics and orthotics are indispensable for physically challenged users in their daily life, and they often have to use it for an extended period of 30 or 50 years. Hence it is necessary to produce orthotics that match the unique physical characteristics of each user, and that requires high customization. Put simply, it only means that the manufacturer should be able to manufacture bespoke products with advanced technology. To this end, the Obara Kogyo team, firmly rooted in their corporate philosophy of ‘meeting needs and providing greater comfort,’ goes the extra mile to customize products as per customer requirements.
Even after seven decades, their customer-centric philosophy reigns, as this scenario reveals: a customer, whose legs were affected by polio, has been using iron prosthesis manufactured by Obara Kogyo for 45 years.
It is the continued dedication to the people that has placed us one among the most loved companies for more than seven decades
Making iron prosthesis is not only time-consuming, but it uses multiple presses and a separate machine for each process. “However, we have been producing iron prostheses and orthoses because there still are a few people using it for many years,” states Akiyama. “We treat our customers not as physically challenged but as people who need our products.”
Obara Kogyo places human relations above everything, and this reflects in the close association they have with numerous individuals and organizations over a long period. It is not surprising to know that patients regularly visit them not only for any minor repairs but to report the condition of their prosthesis, which can endure repairs even after thirty years, a testament to its durability.
Building a Lasting Legacy
“We believe that it will be possible for us to develop new and even better products by combining 3D printers with our metal processing technology” The Obara Kogyo team builds on their impeccable reputation for trustworthiness and reliability—a legacy carried forward for the last 70 years. The company’s skilled craftsmen are proficient in producing prostheses and orthoses from different materials and honing it to perfection. Obara Kogyo’s state-of-the-art factory boasts of 30 different machines for producing materials and machine tools. Their commitment to a customer’s unique needs is reflected in them continuing to offer carefully handcrafted and customized wooden, steel, aluminum, and iron prostheses.This is made possible because the company follows a strategy where they utilize a variety of materials and make products one by one in multi-item production lots. Even though most companies have stopped manufacturing iron prostheses, Obara Kogyo continues to make those by forging for the very few customers that still require those. “We always think of the safety of the people who use our products over a long period, which has led us to adopt the forging process for making prostheses and orthoses,” mentions Akiyama.
Forging, a processing method used in making Japanese swords, refines the metal crystals and eliminates gaps inside the metal, thereby increasing the overall strength of the product by aligning the crystal orientation. Although it is difficult to process, the final metal product has exceptionally high durability. Behind the adaptation of such costly and laborious forging are the needs of people. “The prosthetics industry should be a user-centric manufacturer as most people use a prosthesis for a long time,” says Akiyama.
The company also makes wooden orthoses, products that combine wood and metal, which are inexpensive but have excellent durability. However, orthoses made of wood is difficult to adjust than the metal counterpart, but the company’s skilled craftsmen with years of experience and intuition, truly excel at it. The manual adjustment carried out by their craftsmen is more accurate than machines with tolerances within 0.03 mm deviation.
The Obara Kogyo team was the proud recipient of the Bronze award at the 25th World Genius Convention in 2011.
Forging an Employee-Centric Culture
While the company places customers first and leaves no stone unturned to cater to their unique requirements, on an equal footing, they put the needs and voices of employees first and value their opinions. This has fostered a culture wherein employees freely express their opinions and ideas, and draw on the cumulative strengths and support to forge success. Veteran employees, who have amassed a wealth of expertise, adorn the roles of advisors and mentors for the juniors and new hires. The techniques and skills of the senior personnel are passed down to the juniors, and this results in the making of products that people can use forever.
The collaboration and teamwork, stemming from an employee-first approach, is the golden thread that runs through the family-run company, where taking care of employees is central to their ethos and values. This has resulted in employees having a high level of self-affirmation.
In tandem, Akiyama’s optimistic personality and willingness to go the extra mile and take challenges head-on has been instrumental in the company adopting new technologies. “We can confidently stride into uncharted territories as I believe in the skills and knowledge of my employees to overcome any challenge and integrate innovative technologies,” she says.
In an age where 3D printing has taken center stage in the orthopedic devices sector, Obara Kogyo strives to balance traditional manufacturing methods with innovative technologies. The disruptive potential of 3D printing has ushered in the possibility of producing prostheses and orthoses tailored to the needs of users. The company is contemplating introducing 3D printers and new material processing to augment the prosthesis made of iron, wood, or light metal. This will enable the on-demand production of prostheses according to customer requirements, which would be cost-effective and in line with their user-first policy. “We believe that it will be possible for us to develop new and even better products by combining 3D printers with our metal processing technology,” remarks Akiyama.
The Code for Success
Giving a glimpse into the future, Akiyama elaborates on the company’s strategies to offer its devices to users in developing countries. As opposed to their engineers visiting them on-site, the plan is to ship precise parts and materials from Japan and assemble the final products in these countries. This will lower the cost of transportation, materials, and workers, and in turn, lower the product cost drastically.
Obara Kogyo’s facility is soon to be rebuilt with a community space so that users can easily visit and pick their customized orthotics. The company also envisions hiring people with disabilities, including their customers, and creating new jobs for them. The benchmark on customer-first philosophy has truly gone a notch higher.
In a nutshell, when statistics project that more than 600 million people worldwide experience disabilities of varying degrees due to several reasons, Obara Kogyo is determined to restore mobility and better quality of life.
Description Obara Kogyo manufactures prostheses and orthoses made from different materials. Obara Kogyo team, firmly rooted in their corporate philosophy of ‘meeting needs and providing greater comfort,’ goes the extra mile to customize prostheses and orthoses as per customer requirements. Obara Kogyo’s state-of-the-art factory boasts of 30 different machines for producing materials and machine tools. Their commitment to a customer’s unique needs is reflected in them continuing to offer carefully handcrafted and customized wooden, steel, aluminum, and iron prostheses. Obara Kogyo is determined to restore mobility and better quality of life.
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