Japan House London presents ‘Prototyping in Tokyo’ to illustrate design-led innovation

‘I’m told there is something Japanese in my prototyping,’ says professor Yamanaka Shunji, ‘that it has this “Japanese style”’, he smiles as he guides us around ‘Prototyping in Tokyo: Illustrating Design-led Innovation’ (until 17 March, 2019). The design engineer and University of Tokyo professor continues: ‘I don’t go about trying to be so, but perhaps there is something in the attitude that is Japanese.’

We are at the latest exhibition in Japan House London. Exhibited on long floating white tables, in this minimalist basement gallery of the deco building, are examples of objects showing the possibilities of advanced design and engineering in positively shaping our future. Perhaps it is the meticulousness of this collection, the earnestness of each object on display, as well as the modest presentation of the creator which makes the show distinctly Japanese in style.

‘Prototyping in Tokyo’ takes on three main themes: additive manufacturing, bio-likeness robots and prosthetics. The first looks at prototyping and rapidly evolving technologies like 3D printing which allow engineers and designers to create infinitely more complex structures in a fraction of a time it would take to do this otherwise.

Bio-likeness robots proposes adding life-like motion and behaviour to typically mechanical metal-and-motor robots. Yamanaka has therefore injected the impression of intelligence to these man-made objects. For example, the robot ‘Apostroph’ examines mechanisms that allow living organisms to stand. Or ‘Ready to Crawl’ are a series of working robots, created to be fully formed just like a living thing. This means all the various parts were created and fully-assembled simultaneously, with form and movement closely mirroring living species. The professor moves his hands across the sensors and one by one these intricate little robots come alive. We are encouraged to touch and interact with select displays, to feel the structures and textures of the future.

The final section feels like the area closest to impacting on reality. Prosthetics presents various interpretations of elements of the human body – limbs etc – and the advantages of working with 3D printing in terms of speed and accuracy of construction. For instance, ’Rabbit’ are a series of bespoke prostheses designed for competitive running. They are made to measure for Takakuwa Saki, the Japanese Paralympics athlete who is now part of the development team at the Yamanaka’s laboratory.

He is keen to also show how new tech can advance old tech. For this the professor takes on the karakuri ningyo automaton, popular puppets that perform continuous movements, yet their clothing traditionally hides the clever mechanics beneath. Yamanaka wants to highlight the beauty of the machinery, commissioning a ninth-generation master craftsman to make a doll of bare mechanics as the wooden ‘Young Archer’ plucks an arrow out of the quiver, notches it to the bow, and shoots.

‘Prototyping in Tokyo’ is a glimpse into the future with a touch of the present. This is about exploring the potential of prototypes to act as a link between cutting-edge technology and society. These 3D printed objects, moving mini robots and prosthetics offer a human touch to machinery. This is warm tech – technology not made for the ego, but for progressing life.

Yamanaka returns to his initial statement: ‘A professor from the US described his understanding of “Japanese style”, as the fusion of organic and machine-made. Although what I am doing is simply searching for the common ground between science and beauty.’

Images © Kato Yasushi and Shimizu Yukio. In order: ‘Apostroph’ explores the act of standing; ‘Ready to Crawl’ mini robots with natural movements; ‘Rami’ – additively manufactured running specific prosthetics; ‘Archer on a Boat’ skeletal automation 

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