Dienstag, 16. März 2010

Homatherm: Housing insulation biz heats up

In Eurobiz, der Publikation der europäischen Handelskammer in Japan, erschien kürzlich der folgende Artikel von mir. Meine These zu den auf den ersten Blick guten Wachstumsmöglichkeiten deutscher Baumaterialhersteller auf dem Hausbaumarkt in Japan: Großer Markt mit kleinen Chancen. Japans Energieeffizienzstandards sind so niedrig, dass sich etwas teurere umweltschonende Baustoffe, in denen Deutschland Lichtjahre Vorsprung vor Japan genießt, nur schwer gegen die herkömmliche Massenware durchsetzen lassen. Ausnahmen bestätigen die Regel, und eine dieser Ausnahmen könnte der Isoliermattenhersteller Homatherm sein.

Homatherm: Housing insulation biz heats up

When a fire abruptly shut his wood-fibre insulation plant in Germany, Homatherm president Horst Mosler really began to appreciate his Japanese partners. In a flash, the just-established plant in Hokkaido ramped up production and supplied its German sister plant. “They jumped from one shift to three shifts in just one week,” Mosler recalls. “It is amazing what is possible in Japan.”

In fact, the market entry of Homatherm, makers of wood-fibre insulation slabs, into the notoriously closed Japanese construction industry is a small wonder in itself. For a foreign construction materials manufacturer to succeed in Japan is a rare feat, but for a small European company to make a meaningful impression on Japan’s huge construction market of wooden houses is almost unheard of.

After years of visiting trade fairs and building contacts, Homatherm and its local partner, the Natural Energy Research Center, gained not only approval to produce their insulation material in Japan, but also substantial subsidies to set up the €25m plant from the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries, as well as Hokkaido prefecture.

“We were pushing at an open door,” says Mosler. The key to their success, he believes, is the product itself. Their wood-fibre slabs not only insulate better than conventional rock wool insulation, but also store much more humidity without losing their insulation properties or developing harmful mould. Plus, they are easier to use.

But what really attracted Japanese bureaucrats was the product’s ability to revive local forestry by providing a demand for wood.

First, however, they had to choose a business model. After procuring the services of ECOS consulting, a German consultancy specializing in small and medium-sized enterprises entering the Japanese market, they opted for a licensing system. A local partner would be the principal licensee of the technology, while Homatherm would get royalties and provide technological and managerial support.

Next, they had to find the right partners. They chose the Natural Energy Research Center (NERC) because of its links with science, ministries and the local industry. The head of NERC, Norio Ohtomo, a professor at Hokkaido University, in turn set up a company, Wood Fiber (Kinoseki), with local partners. Among them was Nakayamagumi, a leading construction company in Hokkaido.

Their third, and ongoing, challenge is to sell the material, says Mosler. Fortunately, the potential is huge, not least because Japanese construction material is so far behind that of Germany. Mosler keeps wondering why the Japanese, who relentlessly pursue quality in many other fields, settle for outdated technology in their homes. Single-glazed windows are still standard, whereas in Germany triple-glazed windows are becoming the norm (and are cheaper than Japanese double-glazed windows, even when imported to Japan).

But he knows that success will need a change of thinking by the construction industry. The conventional wisdom among builders, mirrored in construction standards, is to wrap a wooden building in plastic geomembrane, to keep out mould-inducing humidity, the number one enemy of wooden houses.

Humidity is our friend

But that betrays a lack of understanding of modern building physics, claims Mosler. “With our material, humidity becomes our friend,” he says. German homes allow humidity to permeate walls, but remain airtight and warm, even in winter. Special smart films, that change the direction of the humidity flow according to the seasons, are already available – even in Japan.

Despite the good start, Mosler is modest: “It would be a little much to say we have established ourselves.” Their one plant can only supply enough insulation for 10,000 homes, a tiny fraction of the huge Japanese market. But the Tokyo Home & Building Show last year suggested plenty of potential. In three days Wood Fiber collected 400 meaningful contacts and was approached by 100 companies that want to try out the insulation.
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