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Established in 1974, Matsunaga Manufactory Co. is one of the leading wheelchair manufacturers in Japan, both in terms of production volume and revenue. The company has used Autodesk Inventor 3D CAD software for more than 15 years. Originally, the company’s designers worked with 2D CAD drawings. Then they began using a 3D printer to check the shape of its designs and create CG images to visualise parts for instruction manuals. Gradually, the company expanded its use of 3D data. Today, the company designs and analyses virtually all of its innovative products with 3D CAD files.
The first all-3D project Matsunaga attempted was a memorable one: an all-resin wheelchair called the Morph that was developed jointly with major airlines to help people move from the terminal to the plane with more efficiency and less hassle.
Haneda Airport in Tokyo has offered wheelchairs to travellers for many years. But it has never been able to solve the problem of how to get them through metal detectors quickly prior to boarding.
“The detector responds to the metal parts when the passenger passes through the inspection area in a wheelchair, which means the passenger has to undergo a pat-down search,” says Tomochi Hibino, director of development for Matsunaga. “This project started when I was approached by an airline to discuss how to address this issue in a cost-effective way.”
While everyone has to go through a security inspection, wheelchair users were forced to bear an additional burden—even if they followed the rules. This was not only inconvenient for them but it also caused long lines that affected all travellers.
“If there were a wheelchair that did not trigger the detector, the problem would be solved,” Hibino says. “The airline wanted to ensure smooth traffic flow from check-in to inspection to boarding.”
Using nonmetallic materials to manufacture the body of the wheelchair was the obvious solution, but one that posed a variety of additional challenges.
"There were wheelchairs that used resin parts, but not one with an all-resin body. It was a very challenging product. From the beginning, we used 3D CAD design with Autodesk Inventor to design and develop it."
—Tomochi Hibino, Director of Development, Matsunaga Manufactory
The material needed to be strong enough to replace steel or aluminum, so that the wheelchair would meet the same performance and safety standards as any other wheelchair, in accordance with Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS). After a great deal of trial-and-error analysis, the Matsunaga team decided on resin.
Another challenge was getting travellers from the ticket counter to their seat on the plane using the same wheelchair. This meant the wheelchair had to be very narrow. Ultimately, what the Matsunaga team decided on was a mechanism that would allow large wheels to be attached and detached as necessary to get travellers into their seats.
“There were wheelchairs that used resin parts, but not one with an all-resin body,” Hibino says. “It was a very challenging product. From the beginning, we used 3D CAD design with Autodesk Inventor to design and develop it.”
Before Matsunaga could take on the challenge of developing an all-resin wheelchair, however, it had to begin its transition to 3D design.
“We did a great deal of preparation for the transition, and now we are seeing great results,” says Hirokazu Sobajima, Matsunaga engineering division and development department, who led the company’s move to 3D CAD.
In the past, Matsunaga managed 3D data created in Inventor using a conventional folder structure. Many similar drawings were stored in each folder, and it took a lot of time and effort to locate specific files. The inability to update all files simultaneously with minor speciﬁcation changes was inconvenient. The company created a new data-management system using Autodesk Vault collaboration software, establishing standard rules for file management, approvals, and version tracking.
“We reviewed drawings one by one and rebuilt our design assets, which made it easier to develop new products,” Sobajima says.
One of these new products was a custom-made wheelchair called the Max Performance (MP) Custom, which influenced the design of the Morph. A sports-type wheelchair designed for active users who enjoy sports, the MP Custom incorporated 3D assets from Inventor in a design template.
“One interesting characteristic of the MP series is its custom one-piece construction,” says Masayuki Hirose, Matsunaga development division, who oversaw the MP project. “It is measured for an individual user and built accordingly.” The MP Custom also eliminated the adjustment mechanism used in conventional wheelchairs to achieve significant weight savings. Its stylish design and lightweight body make the chair very popular, and it won the Good Design Award in 2015.
The only issue with the MP Custom was that it took a week for an expert designer to redraw the design for every new order. To shorten delivery time, Sobajima and his team created a design template with 3D CAD data from Inventor.
“The design template itself determines the speciﬁcations,” Sobajima says. “We built a 3D model that makes it easy to design the templates, and we made it in about three months in collaboration with Otsuka Shokai Co. Ltd. If we enter the dimensions from the customer, we can ﬁnish up the completed 3D model in five minutes.”
“Using Inventor and Vault will help us make sure our products are produced precisely and effectively.”
—Tomochi Hibino, Director of Development, Matsunaga Manufactory
From there, the team can easily create customer drawings, as well as production drawings for assembly, welding, and processing, which are automatically generated with a single click. As intended, the lead time for design was greatly reduced with the template-driven approach.
“It not only reduces the burden on the designer, but we can also review the design more easily with the customer and prepare drawings for production in advance,” says Masaaki Takada, engineering division of the development department. “We have also been able to shorten delivery time for customers considerably as a result.”
Another advantage of design templates is that they allow easier knowledge sharing. Previously, only an expert could create these designs.
“Now, the design template includes all the experts’ know-how within the 3D model,” Sobajima says. “Anyone can draw a product that only experts could handle previously. The impact is huge.”
“Now, the design template includes all the experts’ know-how within the 3D model—anyone can draw a product that only experts could handle previously. The impact is huge.”
—Hirokazu Sobajima, Engineering Division, Development Department, Matsunaga Manufactory
With its template-driven design, the MP Custom offers an unprecedented range of sizes and a choice of 44 colours. In addition, the company’s experience developing the MP Custom wheelchair made it easier to meet the requirements of the Morph wheelchair.
“The technology and know-how of wheelchair manufacturing that we have accumulated over many years has greatly blossomed with 3D CAD design in Inventor,” Sobajima says.
The completed Morph design was announced in the spring of 2016, after three years of development. The all-resin design attracted a great deal of attention in Japan, winning the Good Design Gold Award in 2016, as well as an initial order of 64 chairs from the original airline partner. It also won the 2018 German Design Award in the Excellent Product Design category.
Matsunaga plans to promote the Morph wheelchairs at airports nationwide. Inquiries from other airlines have steadily increased, especially as the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo approach. Other opportunities include moving patients in and out of MRI scanning rooms, which do not allow magnetic materials. To pursue all of these objectives, Matsunaga is completing its transition to 3D CAD design using Inventor.
“Making a good product for customers of all ages is our ﬁrst principle,” Hibino says. “Therefore, we continue to have the same strategic objective, which is to meet emerging market needs as quickly as possible and turn them into high-quality products. Using Inventor and Vault will help us make sure our products are produced precisely and effectively.”
Matsunaga Manufactory has become one of the leading wheelchair manufacturers in Japan by volume of production and sales of wheelchairs. Of the company’s mission, President and Representative Director Noriyuki Matsunaga says, “Currently, our focus is mainly on domestic development in Japan, but the desire to ‘live long and healthy’ is common to mankind. Our technology and know-how should be useful all over the world. More global communication is key to making and selling products in different countries. With our increased use of a 3D [design] product, we will be the number-one wheelchair manufacturer in Asia. And eventually, we want to be recognised worldwide.”