Making a breakthrough from an unintended trial product
A few years ago, Tadahiro Ishida, a product developer at Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd. (DNP), made a careless procedural error while searching for a material composition suitable for a heat-resistant, thermal transfer ribbon he was developing for industrial printers on food packaging lines. The resultant product was not what he had intended to make, but nonetheless he kept it for functional testing, rather than disposing of it.
At that time, Ishida was assigned to develop a new thermal transfer ribbon whose prints on packaging films could withstand heat even when boiled for sterilization. It was a pioneering challenge for DNP, which is one of the world's largest suppliers of thermal transfer media for printing barcodes, lot numbers, best-by dates for labels and food packages (thermal mass transfer). The results of Ishida's work would determine whether the company could expand its business horizons in domestic and overseas markets.
Ishida was startled when he conducted functionality testing on the “dud.” The “failed” material had high heat resistance and excellent printability at the same time. “That was the very moment the phenomenon of serendipity dawned on me,” Ishida recalled. Serendipity is “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for,” according to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Many Nobel Prize winners describe their ground-breaking discoveries as serendipity.
Success found in “failures”
Ishida also believes serendipity has been an essential element in his career. “My professor at my university taught me the importance of serendipity, which I did not fully comprehend at that time,” he said. “But since taking up a research and development position at DNP 20 years ago, I have encountered many instances of serendipity.” Indeed, this belief prevented Ishida from discarding the product he unintentionally made.
Developing a heat-resistant, thermal transfer ribbon may not sound challenging to those unfamiliar with the industry. But, in fact, it took Ishida two full years to commercialize the product. His first—and most daunting—challenge was to complete two contradictory missions: The ink ribbon must melt when a thermal head was pressed against it at a high temperature to transfer the ink to a substrate, but the print must not melt away when a food pouch is boiled in water. He spent day after day at his lab inside DNP's Sayama Plant in Saitama Prefecture to find an ideal material composition. (The search, of course, ended when he found the material he had accidentally created.)
Success owed to professionalism at Sayama Plant
But product development does not end there. Once the optimum material composition is found, the next step is to ensure that what was made by hand at the lab can be reproduced by production machine at the plant. Many developers experience a setback at this stage.
Under these circumstances, workers at the production department often serve as trouble-shooters. “The professionalism of the workers at the plant is outstanding,” Ishida said. “They go above and beyond in trying to turn what we develop at the lab into a commercial product. This heat-resistant ink ribbon could not have been completed without the help of people at the production department.”
The workers' expertise shortened the product development time because Ishida did not have to go back to square one and find a different material composition. The product eventually went on sale in late 2015.
Constant battle with contradictions
Ishida joined DNP in 1998 after obtaining a master's degree, majoring in polymer chemistry. Since then, he has mostly engaged in the research and development of thermal transfer ribbons and become a specialist in this niche field.
His career has been marked by “a constant battle with contradictions,” he says. His first assignment was to make improved ink ribbons for dye-sublimation printers used to print photographs and photo sticker prints, which were popular especially among young Japanese at that time. The objective was to enable ribbons to produce good and dense colors, but at the same time to solve the negative side effect of putting priority on coloring: the offset of dye ink to the ribbon layer underneath when the ribbon was rolled as a product. Another contradictory puzzle he had to untangle was to maintain the sparkle of a hologram after it was thermal transferred onto sticker prints, even though heat caused the hologram to lose its sparkle.
But no matter how challenging his missions have been, Ishida has always found joy in his assignments. For one thing, he loves conducting experiments on novel materials. “I am thrilled to experiment with new materials I have stocked. Whenever a new project comes along, I start experimenting on them to see if I can use them for thermal transfer ribbons.”
Ideas for accomplishing product development often pop up while he is relaxing or not thinking very hard, he says. “While commuting by bus, which takes about 30 minutes, it sometimes occurs to me that I should experiment with this material or that for a product I am developing,” he said. To make his work much easier, Ishida is given considerable leeway in developing products—be it for solving problems of clients or for pioneering work DNP initiates.
Globalization of DNP's Imaging Communications Operations department
Globalization is significantly shaping DNP's Imaging Communications Operations department. The department has group companies in the United States, France, the Netherlands, Malaysia and China for photo-related products and thermal transfer media businesses. Ishida joins a teleconference with European sales representatives once a month to exchange market information.
Ishida believes the heat-resistant, thermal transfer ribbon has global appeal because it can withstand heat from steam sterilization as well as subzero temperatures—a technology that can be applied to print data on pharmaceuticals and medical care products.
Ishida's eyes, however, are now set on another development project, again rife with contradictions. As he goes along, he might encounter another instance of serendipity. After all, serendipity seems to occur to those who work hard and open their minds to the unpredictable.
- *Publication date: Sep.15,2017
- *DNP department names, product specifications and other details are correct only at the time of writing. They are subject to change without prior notice.