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Mitaka Kohki: From Outer Space to the Operating Theater

Kikuchi Masanori [Profile]

[2012.02.24] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | العربية |

A small company with just 50 employees, Mitaka Kohki has developed a camera used by NASA and enjoys a 50% share of the market for neurosurgical microscopes. We take a look at the secrets behind the company’s success.

Based in the city of Mitaka in western Tokyo, Mitaka Kohki Co., Ltd., is a small company specializing in high-precision measurement tools. Its creativity and ideas have enabled it to carve out a remarkable market share in micro- and macro-optical products, from the wide expanses of space to the most intricate of neurosurgical procedures.

Corporate Data
Company name: Mitaka Kohki Co., Ltd.
Address: 1-18-8 Nozaki, Mitaka, Tokyo 181-0014
Representative: Nakamura Katsushige, COO and Managing Director
Business: astronomical instruments, space observation equipment, industrial machinery, medical devices, development and manufacture of solar power systems
Capitalization: ¥10 million
Employees: 50
Website: http://www.mitakakohki.co.jp

Camera Technology Used by NASA

The highly sensitive camera used on the Space Shuttle.

Mitaka Kohki has just 50 employees, but despite its size the company is a major presence in the field of astronomical observational equipment. From its base next to the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan in the city of Mitaka, the company has developed a succession of innovative astronomical observation devices, culminating in the development of a special camera that was used by NASA onboard the Space Shuttle. Jovial company president Nakamura Katsushige (67) explains the company’s unique background.

“It all started before the war, when the Tokyo University observatory [the predecessor of today’s National Astronomical Observatory] relocated from Azabu to Mitaka,” Nakamura explains. “My father, a facilities administrator at the university, worked on acquiring the rights for the new observatory from the landowner. He had a gift for making things, and after the war he turned his talents to building and installing telescopes and other precision equipment at the observatory. My father passed away during my first year at an industrial high school in Tokyo—but his example inspired my elder brother and me to start Mitaka Kohki. My brother became the first president of the company. Like me, my brother had honed his skills at the Mitaka observatory. Together, we carried on our father’s work, making astronomical telescopes and equipment for use in spacecraft.”

Since its beginnings in 1966, the company has worked on an astonishing array of advanced technical equipment, including observation and measurement devices for research ships in Antarctica, solar observation devices for the University of Tokyo Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, and observation equipment used on space rockets. Perhaps the company’s crowning achievement so far came when one of its cameras was used on the NASA Space Shuttle. Mitaka Kohki has an outstanding reputation as a small company producing limited-order, high-tech devices tailor-made for clients including universities, research laboratories, and leading companies in Japan and around the world.

Mitaka Kohki employees at work.


 Developing a Vibration-Resistant Microscope

The Space Pointer Cygnus (1989).

An important turning point for the company came 26 years ago with the development of the Space Pointer Cygnus neurosurgical microscope. This marked the company’s first foray into life-or-death medical procedures. The move was sparked by an encounter with the leading German camera maker Leica.

“They were still called the Wild-Leitz Group at the time,” Nakamura explains. “They had just developed a new high-precision surveying instrument called the Transit, used for measuring roads and things. My brother and I were really impressed by the device, and decided right away that we wanted to try to adapt it for use in surgical microscopes. The aim was develop something that could be used in brain surgery and other neurosurgical operations—the pinnacle of surgery. We developed a prototype and applied for a patent within three months, and approached Leica. We signed a licensing contract in next to no time.”

At the time, Leica’s German rival Carl Zeiss dominated the global market for neurosurgical microscopes. Leica was well known as maker of camera lenses, but was not so strong in the medical field. The Nakamura brothers saw a business opportunity. The expertise they had built up over many years working on space technology was to prove crucial.

The parallelogram shape ensures that the angle between the microscope and the object being observed does not change even if the microscope moves.

“We went to watch a famous surgeon at work in the neurosurgery department at Kyoto University. Our job was to find solutions that would meet the exacting requirements of these surgical operations. Extreme precision is crucial. We tried to balance all the various parts of the device and looked to get rid of even the slightest vibrations. After a series of painstaking modifications, we succeeding in coming up with a way to keep the microscope at a fixed distance from the spot where the surgeon is operating. This made sure that the focal point or field of view did not shift and that there was no loss of focus during an operation to treat a cerebral aneurism, for example. The experience we had built up by developing equipment for use in space was crucial in this success. A rocket needs to withstand huge vibrations.”

The new microscope led to a breakthrough in making more stable operations possible in a field where the tiniest delay or slip of the scalpel can be fatal. But Nakamura says the idea behind the microscopes was simple. “It’s based on the principle of parallelograms, which is simple enough for a grade school kid to understand.”

Brain surgery in progress.

A worker runs a final check on an overhead balancing stand.

Named after the Cygnus constellation that shines in the nighttime summer skies, this groundbreaking microscope was officially released worldwide in 1990. Roughly five years later, Leica’s share of the global market for neurosurgical microscopes had grown from less than 1% to nearly 20%. Today, the latest version of the Cygnus microscope (modified into a much smaller overhead model to allow the surgeon greater ease of motion) has more than a 50% market share.

The Importance of On-Site Design

Nakamura with several of the overhead balancing stands waiting to be shipped.

First comes the idea, then development. The rest of the process—mass production, sales, and maintenance—can be left to the major manufacturers the company delivers to, which have the necessary capital resources and sales networks. Mitaka Kohki has avoided the worst effects of the strong yen in recent years, thanks to its longstanding practice of doing all its accounting in yen. “We are a Japanese company, after all,” as Nakamura says. Everything is logical, streamlined, and natural.

In 1994 Yoshikazu, the elder of the brothers, decided to take a back seat as company chairman, and Katsushige became the company’s second president. After studying under his father and brother and absorbing the company’s traditions over many years, Nakamura is prompt to reply when asked what the secret of good craftsmanship is. “Your design work has to be done on the spot,” he says.

“What need is your design trying to satisfy? What do the people who will use the equipment need—what will they use it for, and how? It’s crucial to visit the operating theater or observatory where the equipment will be used. Technology is not something anyone can teach you. The important thing is to learn by watching. Our annual sales of 2.6 billion yen are nearly double what they were when I became company president. We’ve been showing a steady profit for some time now, so results are good on the sales front too.”

Nakamura’s inquisitiveness and ambition is never satisfied. Today the company is working to develop new technologies that can contribute to solar storage electricity generation, “which the big manufacturers are dying to get their hands on,” and technology for use in fluorescence microscopes that light up cancerous growths in three dimensions.

Mass production holds no appeal for Nakamura at all. For him, the competition is all about ideas. His strategy is to acquire more patents and continue to increase the company’s intellectual property reserves. As I leave Mitaka Kohki, it occurs to me that perhaps this attitude holds the key to the survival of Japanese manufacturing, characterized as it is by so many small and medium-sized enterprises.

(Originally written in Japanese. Photographs by Kuyama Shiromasa.)

  • [2012.02.24]

Born in Hokkaidō in 1965. Worked as a reporter at the daily Hokkaidō Shimbun before going freelance. Writes interview-based reportage and social features for such magazines as Aera, Chūō Kōron, Shinchō 45, and President.

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