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NEC sales staff serves as “bridge” connecting “safety of the city” and “state-of-the-art technology” Demonstration experiments with Toyota City to improve the efficiency of bridge inspections

September 1, 2023 marks the 100th years of the Great Kanto Earthquake. In Japan, a disaster-prone country, the maintenance and refurbishment of infrastructures that support people's daily lives have become major issues. NEC is therefore focusing on developing and providing advanced disaster prevention technologies and solutions with the aim of creating safe and secure cities. In order to make such technologies useful to society, it is essential to conduct demonstration experiments that connect research with its practical application. Today, we will talk about the passion of an NEC sales representative that led to the connection of these two areas, and NEC's efforts to protect people's lives.

Voluntary participation in an in-house exhibition and there finding the “key to solving customer issues”

In this article, we will focus on bridges. Many of the 730,000 bridges in Japan were built during the period of high economic growth and are now aging at a rapid pace. It has therefore become increasingly important to conduct inspections once every five years as stipulated by law. The shortage of human resources, however, has become more serious, and the enormous amount of time and effort required for inspections is becoming a major burden. 

NEC in fact has a technology that can be used to streamline the inspection of bridges as a way to solve this problem. The enthusiasm of NEC sales representative Yoichi Kinoshita (NEC Public Solutions Integration Department) became the starting point for the demonstration experiments that Toyota City (Aichi Prefecture) and NEC began in June 2023.

He first encountered this key technology one year ago at NEC’s annual large-scale in-house exhibition of technologies and new businesses. He voluntarily participated in the event in the hope of finding hints that would make NEC's technologies useful to customers. It was not because his supervisor instructed him to go, nor was there a guarantee that he could gain something directly connected to his work.

At that time, he was in charge of government DX for Toyota City, and although he was not in direct contact with the department in charge of roads, he conducted interviews with them regarding the issues faced by Toyota City as a whole, beyond the boundaries of his responsibilities. During those interviews, the keyword he often encountered was “infrastructure” and how the city was facing problems related to maintenance cost and inspection.

So, when he came across a technology that can predict the changes and progress of damage using 3D data of structures at an in-house exhibition, he realized that it might be a good match for Toyota City's problems.

This technology utilizes a digital twin that reproduces bridges in the real world into the digital world. The key point of the technology is the combination of 3D data and 2D photographs. Once a 3D model of the bridge is created using past images of a structure, its state of damage can thereafter be predicted with an error of a few centimeters using only the information in 2D photos. It has potential to improve the efficiency of inspection work because it can make high-accuracy predictions just by taking photographs. The use of 2D photographs also reduces costs compared to using only 3D data.

Kinoshita approached NEC's Research Laboratory and Toyota City's Road Preventive Maintenance Division, with which he had no previous contact, and organized a demonstration experiment.

Contagious enthusiasm - Nurturing an unfinished technology together with the customer

“This is the first time for me to see a sales representative who proposes actively to bring together research and practical application,” recalls Kazumine Ogura of NEC Visual Intelligence Research Laboratories, who leads the technology development.

“More than just selling existing products, he understood the importance of NEC technologies in R&D and connected our customers with technologies that might not immediately lead to sales.” It is also of great value for R&D to be able to conduct demonstration experiments with customers to understand a customer’s need and develop for it before its commercialization. 

He himself also traveled to Toyota City to participate in taking photographs for the demonstration that began this summer. “Taking pictures of bridges at the actual sites made me keenly aware of how difficult inspections and recording work are, and reaffirmed the effectiveness of this technology that can automate those operations,” he said with a sense of accomplishment in what they were doing. 

Kinoshita also impressed the person in charge of ensuring the safety of the city at the city hall.
 
Masataka Hoshikawa, Road Preservation Division, Construction Department, Toyota City said that “Mr. Kinoshita's infectious enthusiasm” gave him a sense of the potential of “working together on the demonstration of an advanced technology, although it is not yet complete.” Using NEC's technology enables predicting the deterioration of bridges and making accurate and realistic repair plans. He also hopes that the technology will be further developed to ensure the safety and security of residents and eventually lead to the efficient maintenance and management of bridges throughout Japan.

A team up between sales and research - Aiming for the safety and security of Japan

NEC’s mission is to solve social issues. “I would like to use technology to solve the current problem of improving the efficiency of maintenance and refurbishment of all infrastructures,” says Ogura of his aspirations. In response, Kinoshita, who made it possible to bring these aspirations closer to their realization, said “I want to create opportunities to propose business from research themes aimed at the future. I hope that there will be more opportunities for sales and research labs to come into contact with each other going forward.” 

Following the successful demonstration experiment with Toyota City this fiscal year, NEC aims to commercialize this technology for administrators and inspectors of bridges in FY2025, and to promote DX in all areas of infrastructure facility management in the future. 

Indeed, if sales representatives firmly understand NEC's unique technologies and act as a “bridge” with customers, they will be able to nurture NEC's technologies and also solve customers' problems. “It would be great if this would lead to the safety and security of Japan as a whole.” The Toyota City official and NEC's Ogura and Kinoshita all have the same dream.

This year, as the country commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake, Japan is seeing a heightened awareness of the need to rethink urban development. Each and every member of NEC is aiming to become a “bridge” to realize its 2030VISION of “creating sustainable societies by shaping new industries and workstyles” and its Purpose of “creating the social values of safety, security, equality, and efficiency and to realize a sustainable society where everyone has the chance to reach their full potential.”

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