Nikko Inc Creates an Ubiquitous and Safe Surface Treatment
By John Dodd
Japan - land of concrete
As any visitor to Japan will testify, Japan is the land of construction and concrete. It seems that few rivers, beaches, or mountain roadsides have been left untouched by the hand of bureaucracy and concrete trucks. Indeed, during the heyday of Japanese public works, from 1991 through 2000, the Japanese government tried kickstarting the moribund economy by pumping an unprecedented JPY430trillion (US$3.6trillion) into public works projects! Most of this went on people, corporate profits, some alleged kick-backs, and of course the basic raw material – concrete.
Concrete is a product of cement and aggregate. Its key ingredient is cement, which is in turn made of limestone with its moisture content roasted off, special sands, and other additives to increase hardness and/or usability. Most people think of cement as a modern invention, however, the earliest surviving concrete building, testament to the durability of the material, is in fact the Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome built by the Romans in AD205. In fact, even before the Romans, the ancient Egyptians used concrete to construct buildings, but it was the Romans who refined the ingredients of concrete into a lasting material.
The history of cement in Japan dates back to 1875 when the newly established Meiji government decided to embark on a crash course of modernization. The government sent its experts overseas and they came back with the blueprints for a technically educated, industrialized society. Concrete was deemed a critical building material, especially in light of the sparse physical resources in the country, and the Meiji government itself commissioned and ran the first domestic cement factory in 1875. Luckily, one of the few natural resources that Japan is rich in is limestone, and this was sourced in large amounts from Chugoku and Kyushu before being shipped for use in the major metropolitan areas.
The oldest surviving cement company in the nation today is also its largest, Taiheiyo Cement. This firm was formed by a merger of Chichibu-Onoda Cement and Nippon Cement (previously called Asano Cement) in 1998. Historically, Asano Cement was the starting point for Taiheiyo, as well as being the highly profitable cornerstone of the Asano Zaibatsu, once Japan’s fifth most powerful Zaibatsu before its disbandment by the allied occupation authorities in 1947.
Today, the Japanese cement industry has 18 major cement companies operating 32 cement plants. As of February 2007, their combined annual output was 59m tons, 54m tons of which was for domestic consumption. The heyday of public works projects, and thus the height of concrete consumption was during the 1990s. Since 2000, the industry entered into a period of consolidation, and domestic demand has shrunk by more than 26% over the last 6 years, due to deep cuts in public works. Since 2005, production has recovered modestly thanks to a short-term surge in building construction in the major centers. As a result, domestic consumption of concrete for 2007 is expected to be around 57m tons, down just 3% from the year earlier. The top companies in the cement industry account for 80% of all production, and they are: Taiheiyo, Ube-Mitsubishi, Sumitomo Osaka Cement, and Tokuyama.
Versatility and extent of use
Concrete is a highly versatile material and modern Japan made a massive move from timber to concrete in the early 1960s, prompted in part by the need for infrastructure for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Further major strides were made in building construction techniques in the mid-'80s, when earthquake regulations were changed, and the requirement for more steel reinforcement in office and apartment buildings also meant that architects could go higher than previously possible – because saving money through less steel was now a non-issue. Today, Japan leads the world in the design and construction of premium housing and high-quality public facilities that are cast in reinforced concrete. According to Japan Cement Association, approximately 99% of all apartments built in Japan are made of concrete, primarily cast on site. As the population ages and demand for inner city domestic dwellings increases, the rate of multistory domestic buildings is expected to rise as well.
The irony is that although the quality of concrete buildings these days is excellent and there is a theoretical lifetime of around 50-60 years, the average Japanese concrete building is torn down after only 25-30 years. The reason for such a short cycle time is that not only were there changes in the earthquake building design law but also because after 20 years of exposure to Tokyo’s dirty and acid-laden air, concrete exteriors can easily become cracked, discolored, and very unsightly. Until recently, wrecking and rebuilding was cheaper and easier than making repairs.
The logical response to premature aging of concrete thus far has been to either rebuild more frequently, or use some form of surface treatment during construction to make the concrete and other materials last longer. 30 years ago, the economy was still surging and cost was a bigger consideration than longevity – giving rise to the need at present to wreck-and-rebuild. However, with the Kobe earthquake and its effects on the aged concrete piers on highways and office buildings, awareness increased at the public works level, and bureaucrats started to require construction firms to make the nation’s concrete and steel infrastructure stronger and better protected.
This awareness has coincided with advances in surface coating technologies over the last 15 years. Now surface coatings are standard in public works projects. And in convention-obsessed Japan, what has become a standard for public works projects is slowly becoming a standard in the private sector. Thus surface coatings are staging a strong increase in acceptance.
A good surface treatment should be environmentally safe, fire resistant, practically impervious to the elements, and be resilient to typical cleaning chemicals that are used on a daily basis. Unless some special capability is desired, the treatment should be relatively inexpensive compared to its durability pay-off, and should be easy to apply. One family of surface coatings which offer most of these characteristics is polymers – a catch-all term for plastics primarily derived from petrochemicals and which can be hardened or made heat resistant. Overseas, probably the best known brand of polymer surface treatment for concrete is that of Perma-Crete, a Nashville, Tennessee company in the USA. The company is the largest producer of protective acrylic polymer cement compounds for resurfacing new or worn concrete surfaces. Perma-Crete purposes its products for protecting and/or restoring concrete surfaces in swimming pools (the inventors’ original target market), building interiors /exteriors, auto pavements, airport runways, and pedestrian walkways – to name but a few.
The point of surface coatings is not to replace concrete, but instead to strengthen and protect or beautify structures made of concrete. Typically a polymer surface coating is applied by brush or spray in layers of 3.2 mm (1/8”) to 50.8 mm (2”). The new surface can be made to carry color, texture, or be treated to offer special levels of hardness, clarity, heat and cold resistance, and resistance to damage from mold, abrasion (sand), chemicals, oils and so on.
Problems with polymers
The problem with current surface coating technology, however, is that the products are based on petrochemical polymers, and thus there is a growing concern about whether using such products in living spaces is really safe. This is particularly true of polymers based on Bisphenol A, which appear to be giving rise to claims of genetic damage, cancer, disruption of the endocrine system and a number of other health problems. Perhaps not surprisingly, industrysponsored studies attempting to identify causal links between exposure to Bisphenol A and health problems offer little evidence of any risks.
However, consumer fears such as these have kept surface coatings to public spaces and outdoor structures. Especially since the sick-house syndrome has been popularized by the media.
Nikko valuation proposition
Which leads us to Nikko Incorporated. Established in April, 1991, by founder Masatoshi Shiota, this modestly funded company has risen over the last 5 years to become a leader in environmentally safe non-organic surface coatings for concrete. The company is small, with just 10 staff, outsourcing almost all of its production and distribution to partners who over the years have become staunch supporters of the technology. Sales of the company are heating up. Last year, through to March 31, 2006 revenues were around JPY500million, but this year they are expected to soar to around JPY2billion. Shiota says that the reason for the rapid growth is that his company is reaching critical mass in terms of wordof- mouth referrals and major government and corporate contracts.
Building on a technology pioneered by Shiota, the Nikko product range is based on an inorganic glass-like compound held together with a proprietary water-based binder. Effectively, the Nikko product covers the surface of the target object with nano-processed quartz particles, giving the object similar qualities to those of natural quartz: i.e extreme hardness, resistance to heat and cold and water, and resistance to most chemicals and fuels. Most important of all the Nikko product range is environmentally safe, with no emission of potentially dangerous compounds into the air or transfer by touch. Indeed, one version of the Nikko product contains a natural negative ion compound that actually removes such sick-house particles from the air on contact and neutralizes them.
The Nikko line-up consists of 13 different products, each featuring a different set of characteristics to match the intended purpose. These can be subdivided into four major categories:
1. Anti-fouling properties
2. High durability
3. Anti-contamination properties
4. Rust inhibiting properties
Some of the projects that these products have been used on include:
Clearly this is an impressive and highly credible list. As a result of these government orders, and in tandem with the rise in land prices, and thus a renewed focus on adding value to expensive properties, order volumes from the private sector are now starting to create a classic bell curve. The company expects that sales will quadruple annually for the next 2-3 years (based on back-logged orders).
One of the products which stands out from the line-up is the GS-600 compound. This product creates a vitreous surface on the target object, but without the application of heat to apply it. Seeing this product in action is a bit disorienting. There is very little odour that normally accompanies polymerbased products and it applies like a stiff varnish to the object. It’s hard to believe that this is glass. However, once the product dries, a process that takes between 4 and 24 hours, you can write on and heat an object coated with this product just as you would a regular Pyrex disk for cooking.
Ever the showman, Shiota showed us a piece of regular timber coated with GS- 600 and proceeded to expose the plank to a bright blue propane flame for 15- 20 seconds. While there was some modest singeing around the coating, the protected area stayed intact. Just to prove a point, he then heated an untreated part of the plank and of course it started smoking within a couple of seconds.
The GS-600 product is formulated to specifically resist discoloration due to aging, penetration of moisture, and resist marks and scuffs. Its smooth quartz-glass surface is ideal for walls and flooring in meeting rooms, public spaces, or for children’s rooms, as it will take paints, pens, and other writing instruments, and yet can be wiped clean (with solvents if necessary) after use.
The GS-600 product can also be tinted, to dramatically improve the appearance of an already discolored surface – making it ideal for renovators looking to change the selling price of a property that has not aged well. GS-600 can be used to coat most materials other than rubber and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products.
Another stand-out product is the Homer N compound. This white mix contains hard charcoal (white carbon), which provides the compound with a negative ion product able to clean the air of mites, dust, fungi, pollen, and other air-borne allergens, on contact. Like GS-600, the Homer-N compound can be tinted – and in the photo to the right, the off-white/pink creates a strong, modernizing effect to the wall of a well-lived in home.
A third noteworthy product is the Seal Coat 007 compound, which is designed to not only reduce airborne contaminants in the environment but also to inhibit the formation of rust. The compound is applied in two steps, as a primer then as an overcoat, or in conjunction with a second compound, as a primer only. Seal Coat 007 is ideal for marine applications and for materials continually exposed to extreme weather conditions. One common use of it so far, due to the value of the material being protected, is for stainless steel fittings on boats, and barrier poles for cordoned off areas. Shiota notes that Seal Coat 007 has better adhesion compared to competing products, but ideally it needs to be applied in two coats.
A good selection of image shots of buildings receiving a Nikko surface coating may be seen at:
Creating a legacy: Who is Masatoshi Shiota?
Meeting 69-year old Masatoshi Shiota for the first time is to meet someone bigger than life. Unlike many of his more conservative salaried countrymen (who would have retired 9 years earlier in any case) he is an ebullient soul with a lot of energy and freely dispensed observations about how the world works. He was born in Shikoku in 1937, the eldest son of a farmer. Bred to fly the family flag a little higher, he graduated in 1985 with a PhD in molecular biology. Armed with these outstanding credentials, he went on to have a successful career as a civil engineer with a publicly listed construction firm. Then, with a senior management position in his sights, at the age of 52 he had a mid-life change of heart and suddenly decided that the future lay not with a corporate retirement package but in bringing some of his pet theories and interests into reality by way of forming his own company. In effect, he wanted to leave a legacy. His friends were aghast, but his wife knew her husband well and supported him in his new endeavor. Now that Shiota is well into his life work, he feels that running the business is not just something to do to make money but a way to help society and in the process build a legacy. His motto is to enjoy life by giving, and to take a humble approach in his interaction with those around him. He counsels his staff to treat customers well and to allow them to reach their own decisions about the quality of the products, without pressure sales or trickery.
His company mission statement says it all: "Creating a valuable asset that will last for our children's children safe natural surface coating materials that enhance existing structures, rather than having to destroy and rebuild."
The development process
Initially Shiota started off his product development in the same petrochemical field as his competitors. Within a few months, although he saw opportunities for some niche products he also realized that his competitors had squadrons of engineers in the same field and would soon pick up on his discoveries and swamp him. After about 18 months, while pondering what he could do that was different, he started thinking about how unpleasant it was to work with petrochemical compounds, especially the fumes and the side effects on the skin. He then realized that his mission could be to produce a safer product that was based on an altogether different material. He wound up deciding on one of the most common minerals on the planet - quartz, which is made from silica.
Taking the environmentally friendly approach one step further, he decided that whatever binder he used would also have to be safe. He wanted it to be water based and non-toxic, and herein lies Nikko's real know-how, which is covered by a basic global patent. The resulting compounds from his early research cover a wide range of applications from concrete and civil engineering to electronic parts. Shiota's perseverance in staying true to his safety-first principles has yielded a surprising range of products with the following features:
The Nikko anti-fouling product is designed to preserve surfaces for up to 200 years. Shiota smiles when we ask if he will guarantee the life span, saying, "Anything better than 20 years is already way ahead of our competitors. But I'm sure that my grandkids will still be seeing the benefits of the preservation work we are doing today."
What resellers are saying
We spoke to the Sales Manager, Kenichi Matsumoto, of a leading distributor and reseller for the Nikko surface protection product range, called Ida Technos. His company is listed on the JASDAQ (1735) and they do a significant amount of work for the government. Matsumoto told us that Nikko's product range is approved by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in Japan - a considerable feat for such a small company. He said that he found Nikko's technology hard to believe when he first heard about it. After 5 years of selling the range of compounds he has seen proof of the results. Matsumoto comments, Having the product approved by the government and being the only inorganic and environmentally friendly product doesn't hurt sales growth either.
The problem for Matsumoto when he first began selling the Nikko range was of course that its capabilities don't really show themselves until the aging process is underway, a necessarily long process. It takes up to 10-12 years before you can really start to see the difference, after which customers are easily convinced of the products merits. This proof-of-concept incubation period reached its proving point in 2002, and since then, sales have become much easier to make. Ida Technos took on the product range around the same time. Nowadays the incontrovertible proof of the compounds effectiveness is causing Matsumoto's sales to quickly increase.
In 2005-2006, significant project wins for Ida Technos included dam and roads maintenance, and coverage of several older (pre-1985) downtown concrete office buildings that would have otherwise been torn down. The application of the product on domestic dwellings is also just starting to pick up, since a round of favorable coverage for the products by the national media began about two years ago, and of course then there is the fact that the government is stepping up its orders for the product.
On a practical level, Matsumoto had several things that he likes about Nikko's products.
Recently a major Japanese polymer producer, named Kaneka, announced in the national press that it would build a silicone (another type of polymer) sealant plant in the USA to provide about 10,000 tons of product to that market on an annual basis. This is in addition to the already large volume of 40,000 tons being produced in Japan. Numbers like this prove that the Japanese polymer manufacturers are indeed world class and have a market outside of Japan. Shiota believes that with such traditional firms making strong headway into overseas markets, there must surely be opportunities for Nikko's more consumer friendly products internationally as well.
And it is for that reason that Shiota is actively soliciting manufacturing tie-ups around the world. He estimates that a basic manufacturing plant can be established for around JPY100million (US$1.2million). He plans to supply the magic ingredient, the binder, from Japan, but all other elements of the manufacturing process will be in the hands of the foreign licensee.
Some of the new product ideas that he feels would be interesting to try out include:
1. Disneyland-type theme parks, where the Nikko compounds are applied to the sidewalks, allowing kids to draw on the ground with crayons while they are queuing for a ride. (This writer's family would love this idea, especially since we already only go to restaurants that can supply the kids with crayons and drawing paper.) The Disney cleaners could make short work of the street artistry at the end of each day.
2.A version of the GS-600 for inclusion in cosmetics - Shiota says that they observed some interesting side benefits of this compound when applied to damaged skin in measured amounts.
3. Asbestos remediation. Shiota says that he doesn't understand why authorities are spending so much time trying to remove and dispose of such a troublesome material when it would make more sense to simply encapsulate it in glass and possibly even reuse it.
Shiota is most interested in hearing from J@pan Inc readers who are involved in civil engineering, construction, or new home building products. He wishes to discuss sub-licensing, manufacturing, and export sales. You can contact him at the address and phone number below. Japanese only, so be sure to "pack" an interpreter.
Executive Councilor: Mr. Masatoshi Shiota
(69 years old)