DNP develops ultra-low reflection face shield after hard-of-hearing employee reaches out on staff social network

Face shields are now an everyday item to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. But the reflectivity of such shields often makes it difficult to see the wearer’s facial expression or mouth movements. To address this problem, Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd. (DNP) has developed an ultra-low*1 reflection face shield with a staggering 0.2 percent or less light reflectivity. The innovative product was realized after a hard-of-hearing employee posted his problem on the company’s social network for staff. We interviewed Miki Sakai and Kazuo Sasamoto, who spearheaded efforts to develop and market the product, by getting many willing employees involved in the project.

  • “I need a transparent mask” – a post on the company’s social network
  • “I want to make an invisible mouth shield”
  • Starting market research for commercialization
  • Project involves many employees, spanning internal boundaries
  • Employees’ passion and “All DNP”*2 ethos culminated in the innovative product
  • *2 All DNP means the synergy of strengths possessed by not only DNP but all the companies that make up DNP Group.
Miki Sakai of the Converting Center, the R&D and Engineering Management Division, left, Kazuo Sasamoto of the New Business Development Division, the Fine Optronics Operations, right.

“I need a transparent mask” – a post on the company’s social network

In April 2020, Masakazu Yamanaka, an employee of DNP Media Art Co., Ltd., a DNP Group company who has a hearing impairment, posted a message on the company’s Yammer social network site seeking help with solving a communication problem as a result of wearing masks. It was just after the Japanese government had declared a COVID-19 state of emergency, making masks evermore essential.

“I have a hard time communicating with other people because the mask makes it impossible to see their mouth movements,” Yamanaka said in his post. “Can DNP develop a transparent mask?”

The message drew many responses from other employees, including Miki Sakai of the Converting Center, who was looking for a new business idea using films. “I thought we could make a transparent mask if we used a highly functional DNP film with excellent anti-reflection performance,” Sakai recalled. She immediately worked on the idea on her own and started researching the marketability of a transparent mask before meeting Yamanaka in mid-May to listen to details of his needs.

But Sakai soon hit a wall. A mask made of plastic film hinders breathing because it tends to stick to the face. Instead, she decided to tap into the possibility of making a face shield because it still can cater to the needs of people with hearing impairments.

Miki Sakai wears an ultra-low reflection face shield, which is virtually invisible and allows other people to clearly see her facial expression.

“I want to make an invisible mouth shield”

In parallel with Sakai’s endeavor, Kazuo Sasamoto of the Fine Optronics Operations department was trying to make a mouth shield with a 3D printer. He was also in charge of developing new businesses and took time out of his regular work to make a mouth shield. Behind this undertaking was his personal wish to help society confront the pandemic more effectively. After many failed attempts, Sasamoto came up with an idea to attach an anti-reflection film to a mouth shield, but commercially available films proved to be unsatisfactory because of their reflectivity.

He didn’t need to look any further than his own company to find the ideal material. One day, he recalled an ultra-low reflection film that he had once seen at an in-house exhibition. “I thought if I stick the film to the mouth shield, I might be able to make an invisible mask,” Sasamoto said. DNP’s films used in TVs and other display screens have remarkably low reflectivity*3, helping the company achieve the top market share globally.

Sasamoto then successfully applied to DNP’s program for accepting new business proposals from its employees, which had started just a month earlier. Next, he contacted DNP’s Mihara Plant in Hiroshima Prefecture, which manufactures low-reflection films, to ask the plant to produce samples.

Takeshi Ogawa, working in one of the sales divisions of the Fine Optronics Operations, readily accepted Sasamoto’s request. “Our ultra-low reflection films are widely used for covering the surface of displays but the challenge remained to expand its usage to other purposes. Just as we were searching ways to do this, Mr. Sasamoto contacted us. It was an opportunity to solve a societal problem during the pandemic.” The prototype created later was astonishingly transparent.

Starting market research for commercialization

The two separate moves – one by Sakai and the other by Sasamoto – merged in May after a meeting to exchange information among different divisions. In the following month, Sakai and Sasamoto decided to make an “invisible face shield,” instead of a mask, setting in motion a plan to develop an ultra-low reflection film on its surface. When they saw a prototype which was distinctively different from conventional face shields, they were confident of its market potential.

Meanwhile, they had to swiftly identify the needs of consumers – particularly people with hearing difficulties – and secure its sales channel. So, they went out to listen to opinions of many hearing-impaired people as well as sign language interpreters. As for the sales channel, Sakai contacted DNP Trading Co., Ltd., a DNP Group company.

DNP Trading’s Miyu Yane welcomed the offer. “We knew there was demand for such a product in the welfare-related field, but it was Ms. Sakai who facilitated efforts to put it on the market,” Yane said.

Sakai and Sasamoto then began market research in earnest. In July, they made hundreds of samples and visited schools for the deaf and an association for sign language interpreters as well as companies in fields including the hospitality, food service, travel, education and entertainment industries.

Feedback was largely favorable thanks to the shield’s superb transparency and comfort. They also received suggestions for improvements such as changing its size, which hindered hand movement when communicating with sign language.

Project involves many employees, spanning internal boundaries

It is important for employees belonging to different business divisions within DNP Group to work hand-in-hand to combine their expertise and sophisticated technologies in product development. Many employees came to offer their services, helping advance the project.

A major challenge was how to set standards for evaluating the product safety and find a division that will be responsible for assuring its quality. Fortunately, someone was ready to step in and solve that problem: Satoru Kanke of the Research and Development Center, who regarded the project as a chance to make a product with several DNP divisions and DNP Trading joining forces. Kanke then conducted experiments on the product’s durability, for example, when it is repeatedly exposed to alcohol for sterilization, its ability to block ultraviolet light and to find out whether it becomes damaged when accidentally dropped.

Finally in October, the low-reflection face shield was marketed for corporate customers. It has been favorably received and used by sign language interpreters at press conferences and staff working at showrooms and museums, to name but a few.

DNP’s ultra-low reflection face shield with overwhelmingly less reflected light, left, compared with the conventional face shield, right.

Employees’ passion and “All DNP” ethos led to innovative product

Yamanaka, who worked with Sakai and Sasamoto by sharing his thoughts about the new product, reflected on the project.

“The first message I posted received lots of feedback from DNP employees across the nation, who provided information or their opinions,” Yamanaka recalled. “I believe huge possibilities lie within DNP’s collective power, or “All DNP,” that generated a new business out of such a trivial thing as my message. I myself want to come up with ideas to cater to the needs of the disabled with the aim of achieving an inclusive society.”

Indeed, the DNP Group has an organizational culture that encourages its employees to span internal boundaries to synergize their strengths.

Sakai and Sasamoto acted on their own initiative – not on instructions from their bosses – because they had an urge to give a helping hand to those in need, and many other employees empathized with their endeavors.

“I am happy that many people are pleased with the product and that I got involved in the project, which makes me believe my actions were worthwhile,” Sakai said. “To make it easier for hearing-impaired people to communicate, it is essential that the use of such a product will become commonplace in society. I will take this project as a transitional point to make a better society and will continue to take on challenges in my own way.”

Sasamoto, meanwhile, said the project served as an opportunity to inform people about how advanced DNP films are. “I think many people realized that the company is engaged in meaningful endeavors to contribute to society,” he added.

Sakai and Sasamoto have already set their sights on further improving the ultra-low reflection face shield. They said there are a myriad of issues to be addressed, including how to prevent the shield from fogging up and how to suppress the reflection of light from its frame.

With the collective force of “All DNP,” however, it may be possible to make a transparent mask – which Sakai and Sasamoto initially thought would be difficult to produce – in the not-too-distant future.

Creating new business from tips posted on Yammer

In fiscal 2019, DNP renovated its intracompany network system. The move was designed to reinforce its organizational culture of dismantling internal barriers, if any, so that each employee could develop working relations with as many other employees as possible to synergize their strengths and gain tangible results. In October that year, the company introduced its own social network for staff. The Yammer site has supported an “All DNP” community by allowing employees to freely gather and share information or engage in dialogues transcending regional and organizational boundaries.

Akira Konawa of DNP Information Systems who was in charge of introducing the system and encouraging its usage, was very pleased that Yammer’s online community had sown a seed for new business opportunities through collaboration among enthusiastic employees. “I hope the social network will be accepted more by employees as a community for cooperation,” he said.

  • *1 According to a study by DNP as of October 2020
  • *3 According to the 2019 estimates of surface treated films for displays, “2020 nenban kokino kotingu no genjo to shorai tenbo” (The current state and future prospects of highly functional coating, 2020 edition; published by Fuji Chimera Research Institute, Inc.).
  • * Publication date: February 8, 2021
  • * DNP department names, product specifications and other details are correct only at the time of writing. They are subject to change without prior notice.