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Recreating the beauty of lacquerware with environmentally friendly materials: Once an amateur, now the master craftsman who led the way to the creation of NeCycle® bioplastic

Did you know that a master craftsman was behind the invention of a uniquely beautiful bioplastic? Toshie Miyamoto (52), a bioplastic materials development engineer for NEC, was selected to receive the 2022 Modern Master Craftsman award, which is presented to outstanding technicians who excel in monozukuri (the Japanese art of manufacturing). This award was given to Ms. Miyamoto in recognition of her contributions to the birth of NeCycle®, which possesses a beauty rivaling that of traditional Japanese lacquerware, through her many years of involvement in bioplastic development. Here we will be unveiling the details behind NEC's bioplastic development journey and the advantages of NeCycle® through stories told by the master craftsman behind this product and her supervisor at the time.

Single-handedly taking the plastic molding process to a higher level: "Her observations are equivalent to those of a researcher"

According to Shukichi Tanaka, a researcher who works alongside Ms. Miyamoto, "This award recognizes everyone involved in the development of bioplastic." As stated when this award was presented, "Ms. Miyamoto is a versatile engineer who has been engaged in bioplastic development for many years. . . pioneering its application to cell phones, PCs, electronic terminals, and more," NEC's cumulative efforts in bioplastic development led to the creation of NeCycle®, which is at the core of this tremendous achievement. NeCycle® is now being mass-produced as a new environmentally friendly material by NEC Platforms.

NeCycle® boasts three key features. First, it is made using cellulose extracted from wood, straw, and other inedible plant materials (biomass) that do not impact food security issues. Second, it balances biodegradability and durability, slowly decomposing in nature. Third, its beauty is unparalleled. Having said that, however, simply being environmentally friendly is not enough to make pricing competitive. To add new value toward commercialization, NEC pursued "beauty" in the development of this material, achieving a depth and warmth akin to that of lacquerware and introducing it to the world as "Urushi Black" (the color of traditional Japanese lacquerware).

So how did this master craftsman contribute to the creation of NeCycle®? Plastic molding, for which Ms. Miyamoto was in charge, can be broken down into four processes: chemical synthesis, the process of creating plastic resin from raw materials; kneading, the process of adding additives to enhance strength and heat resistance; injection molding, the process of placing resin in molds to form shapes; and physical property evaluation, the process of measuring strength and other properties after molding. While different engineers technicians are typically in charge of each of these four processes, Ms. Miyamoto is capable of performing all four of them on her own. This is what makes her a master craftsman.

A thorough understanding of temperature, pressure, and other conditions as well as an awareness of the overall picture is crucial when it comes to development. According to Mr. Tanaka, "Ms. Miyamoto understands all of the processes, so she is able to discuss them at the same level as researchers. Without her observations and sense of speed, NeCycle® would have never been created."

Toshie Miyamoto, bioplastic materials development engineer
Shukichi Tanaka, Director, Research & Development Division

"Sending our pride and joy out into the world"
The highly acclaimed tea plates given out at an international conference

Ms. Miyamoto reflects on how she came to this level of understanding, saying, "Everyone was so busy that I offered to work on the synthesis and kneading processes. Somewhere along the way, I learned how to do it all myself." However, to create a material with all three of the above-mentioned features, including beauty, Ms. Miyamoto faced numerous obstacles, such as a lack of luster and insufficient strength. This meant she had to repeat synthesis, injection, molding, and evaluation tests daily. By the time she had finally achieved the ideal beauty of traditional Japanese lacquerware and strength, two years had passed since the prototype stage.

NeCycle's Urushi Black has even made its way to the international stage. At the Green Innovation Summit reception held at the Japanese Prime Minister's official residence in 2019, Japanese confectioneries served on small Urushi Black tea plates were handed out to 250 guests, and it is said that nearly all of them brought home the tea plates as mementos. "It felt like we were sending our pride and joy out into the world," said Ms. Miyamoto. An Urushi Black smartphone case also made its debut and was sold through a crowdfunding campaign, quickly reaching its target.

Another of her achievements is the "Miyamoto Instruction Manual." Skills like those possessed by Ms. Miyamoto often rely on personal experience and written notes. This means that even the existence of a master craftsman does not guarantee their skills will be passed on. However, Ms. Miyamoto created her own manual by compiling all the records she so diligently kept. Mr. Tanaka explained the reason her manual has been so well received by members it has been passed down to, saying, "This manual is surprisingly simple and easy to understand. By making the transfer of duties so efficient, we are able to keep moving forward without slowing down even when the person in charge changes."

"I find enjoyment in what I do and NEC is a fun place to work"
The desire to share this joy with family

Ms. Miyamoto joined NEC in 1991 with the intention of becoming a systems engineer. However, she unexpectedly found herself assigned to a Fundamental Research Laboratories, starting out her career conducting research on nematodes, something she had never dealt with before.

Ms. Miyamoto still vividly remembers the words spoken by her leader at the time: "What seems obvious to a researcher may give rise to questions by someone like yourself who has never before seen a nematode. Such insight can be a powerful asset. That's why I want you to feel free to ask me anything." She added, "This is why my motto to this day is to 'report anything and ask anything.'"

Ms. Miyamoto has not changed her stance since joining NEC, even after moving on from basic research on nematodes to the development of bioplastics for commercialization. She has also been blessed with three children since then. Ms. Miyamoto told us, "My children seem to think that NEC is a fun place, which I am sure is because they see that I enjoy what I do. Knowing they feel that way really motivates me."

Of all the winners of the FY2022 Modern Master Craftsman award, nine of the winners—including Ms. Miyamoto—were women. NEC takes pride in the technical prowess and expertise of its very own master craftsman, who is the product of a workplace where you can ask and say anything. Ms. Miyamoto had this to say about receiving the award, "In my work I am able to discover something new every day, which brings me constant excitement. It was truly gratifying to receive this award for something I have enjoyed doing."

Going forward, NEC will continue to create new value and deliver it to society with the expertise of its master craftsman.