TOKYO -- When Toyota Motor took its new ultracompact three-wheeled electric vehicle for a test spin on the streets of Tokyo recently, it was to offer the public a glimpse of its vision of the future -- both in the way people travel in cities and how products are made.
What sets the i-Road apart from other vehicles, aside from its specs, is that it will not be churned out en masse on a typical assembly line, but on-demand using 3-D printers. The idea is to give buyers the freedom of customizing their vehicles. Using a 3-D printer means the carmaker can tweak colors and shapes unit by unit. Someone wants wood-grain paneling? Fire up the printer.
To make that vision a reality, Toyota turned to Kabuku, a venture business founded in 2013.
Masahiko Inada, Kabuku's 33-year-old co-founder, says the age of mass production is over. "It is time for people to produce original goods for their own," he told members of the Toyota Future Project Office in autumn 2014. He urged the carmaker to create "a smart plant to produce everything and anything with one click."
Impressed with what they heard, the Toyota employees decided to partner with Kabuku. The head of the future project team said Kabuku's "speed and flexibility are different" from anything else out there.
Inada studied artificial intelligence while in graduate school at the University of Tokyo and received a variety of prizes as a digital planner at advertizing giant Hakuhodo. In 3-D printers he saw a tool to unleash people's creativity.
A tipping point for Inada came in 2012 when he met Masahiko Adachi, a fellow AI researcher. Known for developing the Japanese-language inputting app for the Android mobile operating system, Adachi is a well-recognized figure among people at Google.
The two hit it off and agreed to found Kabuku. Their goal was lofty: to "democratize Japanese manufacturing."
Kabuku has joined hands with factories that have 3-D printers and offers molding services for companies and individuals. With partner plants in over 30 countries, Kabuku uses AI technology to quickly find the optimal factory for each order. The roughly 20 employees at its office develop software, among other tasks, and hail from such countries as Japan, the U.S. and Germany.
Toyota is not the first automotive company to call on Kabuku. Yoneyama Industry, an autoparts maker in Sanjo, Niigata Prefecture, introduced a cutting-edge 3-D printer in 2013 to stay current with the digitization wave.
"We used to turn down orders for certain products because the stamping work took too much time," said Toshifumi Yoneyama, senior managing director at Yoneyama Industry. "The 3-D printer is a dream machine."
Yoneyama Industry began working with Kabuku after Yoneyama met Inada in 2015. "These guys change the way manufacturing is done," Yoneyama said.
Kabuku has raised about 1 billion yen ($9.29 million) so far. Attracted by Kabuku's digital manufacturing platform, companies are increasingly looking to join hands with it, including video game developer Square Enix and major retailer Loft.
Widespread use of AI and robotics is changing the face of manufacturing. This is significant for Japan, because manufacturing is the country's core industry, employing 10 million people, and is a pillar of the government's growth strategy.
This shift is opening the door to newcomers like Kabuku, who are shaking up the status quo and creating new markets. According to Japan Venture Research, venture investments in Japan totaled 153.2 billion yen in 2015, topping the level before the Lehman Brothers collapse of 2008. Some observers see these startups as the key to jump-starting Japan's limp economy.
On April 16, Fuji Xerox held an event at its research and development center in Yokohama to hear proposals for products that could be introduced after the year 2020. The presenters were selected from people who had submitted their ideas via the internet.
The first presentation, made in front of Fuji Xerox executives, was by a young man who said, "Conferences could be made more productive if there was a robot there that presented difficult messages on behalf of the participants."
The event was proposed by A Inc. Founded in 2012, the company collects ideas at the request of client companies from a pool of 10,000 registered users of its website. When a client asks for ideas, the users vote on their favorite ones, A Inc. selects the top five to 10 picks and submits them to the client. If an idea is turned into a product or service, A Inc. receives a portion of the revenue and shares it with the relevant parties.
At the Fuji Xerox event, 11 ideas were presented. The company decided to study all of them to determine whether they were commercially viable.
"We hope activities like this will help nurture innovation-minded workers in our organization," said Toru Miyamoto, senior vice president at Fuji Xerox.
Japanese manufacturers still have potential, said A Inc. founder Ayumu Yamada. "We would like to establish a culture that encourages companies to incorporate internal and external wisdom," he said.