Source: From the Hiragana Times (Apr 2009)

Nurturing Students to be Engineeers Through Patent Education

The Japanese have submitted more patents than anyone elese in the world. In Japan, there are higher education institutions where they nurture exceptional engineers by incorporating originality and ingenuity into education. The number of technical colleges has now grown to 62 since the first was established in 1961. Thes eschools provide a five-year education and an associate degree upon graduation.

At a technical college, the curriculum provides classes where the students have to come up with their own ideas. Many ideas are born here for patent applications and commercialization. “ComCombininb patents with education, allows the growth of engieers who love to think and are highly-motivated, ” says FUJIMOTO hi Hiroshi, a teacher at the Department of Mechanical & Eletrical Engieneering, TOkuyama College of Technology (TCT, Shunana City Yamaguchi Prefecture).

In Japan, a robot contest for technical college students (RObo-con) is held every year, and this contest is even aired on TB. Winners of regional contests come together and use robots of their own making to compete against other schools. Themes and rules are set every year and the technical college students and their robots face stern challenges such as walking across balance beams and rope jumping.

In 2003, the movie “Robo-con:Robot contest” (starring NASAWA Masami) was released. The fact that TCT was a regular award winner and that the institution was located on a hill looking over an industrial complex and the Seto Inland Sea resulted in the school being chosen as a location for the film. Many of the TCT faculty and students enrolled at that time appear in the movie. The robots were originally created for three-minute competitions, so they broke down on numerous occasions during the shooting. Each time, the college students were on hand to repair them.

TCT holds “Idea Contests” annually for which students must submit ideas. Fifth-year student NAGANUMA Shinya’s “You Holder,”  which he came up with in just 10 minutes, was so well received it was commercialized. It is currentlyu sold at 1,000 yen, but it was a painstaking journey until it hit the shops.

In Japan, many people put decorative straps on their cellphones, and younger people especially tend to hang many additional straps from their main strap. One day, Naganuma’s main strap broke he lost all his other straps. This inspired him of think of a strap that will not tangle or break so easily even with many others on it.

Naganuma used the fishing swivel, a tool he uses for his hobby, as the base of the idea. Naganuma looks back and says with the little experience he had, drafting and creating the prototype was difficult, but the most demanding process of all was the patent application. “When the release of the product was deceided, I felt a great sense of accomplishment, but at the same time, I was filled with a sense of appreciation for the many people who had supported me through the process.

The ‘You holder’ is available in two types of material: metal and plastic. My schoolteacher is using the metal version which we mass-produced, but the weight is probably the cause of its shaky sales. Due to budget imitations, the plastic verson was not mass-produced, but I am currently using one of the prototypes. People who see it for the first time look surprised at first, but they soon say they would like one too,” he says.

“Once you look at the inconveniences of everyday life, ideas are waiting for you unexpectedly close,” says IKUDA Akina, who transferred to a university in the US. Ikudo hated being asked by her mother to “go and wake her family up” every morning.

As a result she invented the “100% Wake Up Alarm Clock” Her idea was based on pulling blankets off the bed, which was the most effective way to wake her father up. The alarm clock installed in the pillow was set so that it would not stop unless the futon was folded and the sensors detected light.

After he graduated, KANEYUKI Hidekazu attended the Graduate School of Engineering at Hiroshima University. He now works at a major car manufacturer. His invention, called the “Ashiwaza,” a foot-controlled mouse gets attention even from magazines overseas. The idea of a foot-controlled mouse was triggered during a hands free input device discussion. “The first prototype was completed quite smoothly, but bringing it to completion was more difficult than I thought,” Kaneyuki says.

Before “Ashizawa”, the idea of a foot-controlled mouse already existed on the market, most often in the shape of a slipper. Not only do these cause strain on the calf and thigh, but they also make delicate movements difficult then he realized it was hard to control. So he cut the back part off and tried the mouse with his ankle on the floor.

He found this was less straining on the foot, and further worked on modifications. “Ashiwaza” is now sold at 23,800 yen. It is popular with people who have upper limb disabilities. Moreover, doctors also use them, since the mouse allows them to work hands free while filling out digital patient files.

Other unique ideas from the college include, ” Collision Safety Car,” a car with the seat set backwards making the seat in the back a shock absorber, and a “Bicycle Safety Key that Nobody Can Touch.” Another idea under consideration for manufacturing is the ” Blackboard Eraser Cleaner Kind to Teachers and Students, ” which is quieter due to the soundproof material surrounding the suction part.

After graduation, most students attending the school start working at manufacturing companies or attend engineering universities. ” Our hope is for the students to grow and become the manpower to create new things, and to care about others through creative education, patent education, Robo-con and so on,” says Mr Fujimoto.