A recent issue of Monocle carried an intriguing story of innovation in an area that would seem impervious to re-invention: the pencil.
The story covers the work of Kyo Nakayama, a researcher at Mitsubishi Pencil who was given the assignment to develop a breakthrough in mechanical pencils. The result was the Kuru Toga, released in 2008, which has since had sales of 50 million units in 40 countries. Writes Monocle:
Kyo Nakayama can’t stop thinking about pencils. Not the old-school wooden kind that you sharpen with a razor but the mechanical variety. A researcher at Mitsubishi Pencil’s lab in Yokohama, Nakayama has been working on designing a better pencil for more than a decade. “There isn’t anyone who spends as much time thinking about mechanical pencils as I do,” he says. “I have a running debate inside my head while eating, when I’m out drinking – almost every waking moment.”
All this pondering led Nakayama to come up with a seemingly minor improvement: a mechanical pencil with a cone-shaped tip that would always stay sharp. Every time the pencil is lifted off the page, a tiny spring-loaded mechanism inside rotates the piece of lead so the part of the tip that’s wearing down is never the same for long.
The popularity of the Kuru Toga surprised marketers at Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Pencil, known for its Uniball pens. “People inside the company thought it wouldn’t really solve an existing problem,” says Nakayama.
Founded in 1887 as a wooden pencil manufacturer, Mitsubishi Pencil is the second-largest of Japan’s pen, pencil and marker producers with annual sales worth ¥55.9bn (€420m). The company invests about ¥2.9bn (€22m) on research a year. Its labs have developed pens that compensate for changes in air-cabin pressure to avoid in-flight leaks and a smooth-writing ballpoint pen called the Jetstream that took researchers 4,000 prototypes and four years to get right. Mechanical pencils haven’t seen much innovation since appearing on the market in the 1960s – and that’s exactly what led Mitsubishi Pencil to give Nakayama his assignment.
Nakayama reckons he made half a dozen prototypes before the product was ready. Since then his colleagues have developed a new type of lead with a hard inner core and a soft exterior that works best in the Kuru Toga. “A lot of people here were asking, ‘Why go to such lengths?’” says Nakayama. “But I guess that’s what it takes if you want to make something that’s innovative.”