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Japan takes toilet innovation throne

TOKYO -- Japanese toilet makers have for years been developing water-saving technology and bringing more comfort to the lavatory experience. They are now working to develop toilets that can contribute to people's health, power generation and even agriculture.

     Yukihiro Fukuda, general manager of Japanese toilet maker Toto's research institute, called the Toto Universal Design Center, has a unique vision. "I would like to transform a home toilet into a health check room," he said. At the R&D center in Chigasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture, he and his colleagues are working on the prototype of a heath-checking toilet that they aim to commercialize around 2020.

     At a glance, the prototype looks just like any other toilet. But it is designed to measure the gas concentrations in stools and check the health condition of bowels. "Odor-causing gas has a lot to do with bacteria conditions in the intestines," he said.

     Good bacteria are conducive to digestion and absorption, and help strengthen the immune system. The more good bacteria there is, the less gas the intestines produce. This means the smell becomes weak. By contrast, the smell becomes bad when bowels are in bad condition and there are more toxin-causing bad bacteria.

     Toto's prototype toilet gauges the level of this gas concentration. The data is stored and managed via cloud computing. When combined with other data, such as body temperature and blood pressure, from health check-up devices, the toilet could open up possibilities for better health awareness. "We hope this data can be used as a health barometer just like body fat percentage," said Fukuda. Toto is collaborating with information technology and medical companies, aiming to find commercial uses for the technology in the near future.

Backup power

Rival housing equipment maker Lixil has a completely different approach to toilet development. It is aiming to turn a toilet into a power generation facility, said Hisashi Ishii, Zeh Zeb research group leader at Lixil's Research and Development Division.

     His idea is to install a small waterwheel-type power generation device inside a toilet's water-supply pipe. This miniature "hydro-power generation station" can serve as a source of temporary backup power in blackouts.

     Lixil has been conducting verification tests in partnership with Tohoku University's graduate school of engineering. The company has so far generated 2 watts using a men's urinal and 1 watt using a toilet basin. "We can make better use of wasted energy," said Ishii.

     For a long time, Japanese toilet manufacturers have focused on two major technical themes: how to save water and how to improve amenities by, for example, developing warm-water washing toilet seats.

     Toto has employed a supercomputer to analyze water flows on the toilet bowl's surface. The company has tried different ways to flush water and come up with various bowl shapes. Through these efforts, it has developed a new method for washing away stains.

     Nevertheless, there is not much room left for this kind of technological improvement. In Japan, warm-water washing toilet seats have penetrated nearly 80% of the domestic market. Given that, toilet companies increasingly face the need to integrate innovative ideas and technology to create new value in fields such as health and energy.

     To that end, Lixil has developed and brought a waterless toilet system to Kenya. The company says its ecological sanitation system will help reform local agriculture. Waterless toilets can function even without basic social infrastructure, such as electricity and water systems. A waterless toilet has a structure under the seat that separates solid waste from urine, making it easier to reduce odor and get rid of bodily waste.

     In Kenya, food shortages have been a grave social issue. Lixil thinks that compost made from fermented bodily waste would help stabilize farming in the African country. Moreover, success in Kenya would allow the company to apply this business model to other developing countries.

Thinking time

Toto recently opened a toilet showroom at Narita Airport.

Japanese toilet makers need to have a long-term perspective and commitment to developing new markets in emerging nations.

     For instance, lavatory bowls come in different shapes and forms in overseas markets, meaning that Japanese warm-water washing toilet seats do not always match. In recent years, Lixil has acquired a string of overseas companies -- including ASD Americas Holding, the parent company of American Standard Brands -- to expand its global network of production and sales bases. But the move also aims to overcome regional differences stemming from daily customs and household equipment.

     On the other hand, Toto is eyeing foreign tourists as its new target. The company regards lavatories in public and commercial facilities as "showrooms" for foreign visitors. In April, it opened the Gallery Toto in Narita Airport. It features a number of its latest toilets.

     "You can't know how good our warm-water washing toilets are until you actually use one," said Toto President Madoka Kitamura.

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