Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Mysterious Kotobuki

There’s a lurker in the shadows.

Pentel, Pilot, Papermate, Staedtler, Faber-Castell – all familiar names, all significant players in the mechanical pencil industry, along with many others I haven’t mentioned. Off to the side though, in the “peripheral shadows” of the industry there are the component and contract manufacturers, less well known names like Schmidt and Gutberlet. But also lurking in these shadows there is a giant, a “600-pound gorilla”, the mysterious Kotobuki of Japan. If Pentel are the leader, the big boy of mechanical pencils, then Kotobuki are probably the ones keeping them on their toes.

Now, Kotobuki are one of those shy gorillas, so my knowledge of them is very sketchy and very limited. Much of what little I know is from “Japan and the Mechanical Pencil” (Dec. 2000) an Economics 230 paper by J Gregory, Colorado College. Web searches reveal a few other snippets here and there about Kotobuki, and my pencil contacts in Japan tell me that Kotobuki don’t even have a Japanese website.

So, what do we know about Kotobuki? Well from 1976 to 2000 there were 167 United States patents granted that relate to mechanical pencils. 117 (70%) of these US patents were granted to Japanese entities, and the two largest of the Japanese were Pentel with 28 patents and…you guessed it, Kotobuki with a surprising 37 patents, that’s 22% of all US patents were Kotobuki’s, making them the biggest “patenter” by far.

I found an online patent website, and looked up Kotobuki’s USA patents for the last 10 years (1997 onwards). From the patent header descriptions there were 15 Kotobuki patents for “mechanical pencils”, 10 for “double-chuck mechanisms for mechanical pencils”, 31 for “writing instruments” and 9 for “stick mechanisms”, e.g. cosmetic or eraser sticks. The late 90’s and early 00’s seem to be the time of most double-clutch mechanism activity.

Now patents certainly don’t necessarily equate to company size, but it does show who is busy trying to be inventive and innovative. You don’t keep all that R&D effort going for long periods of time if you aren’t a big player in the game. Trust me, on the list of patents most of the pencil brands you are familiar with are conspicuous by their absence or rarity.

Back in 2000 or so, Kotobuki had about 150 employees, that’s about 1/10th the number of Pentel employees, but they were much more narrowly focused on pencils, so the size difference is exaggerated. Ever seen a pencil branded Kotobuki? Thought not. Well actually I’ve got one, but that’s a story for another day. Obviously the vast majority of Kotobuki’s output is sold under other peoples brandnames. 10 bucks says many a Papermate, Staedtler or whatever started out in a Kotobuki factory. In Malaysia though, there is the PENAC Group who are the Kotobuki distributor for SE Asia. Their website claims Kotobuki has 700 employees and produces 1 million writing instruments per day. Other business information sites list the brand “PENAC” as being owned by Kotobuki. In Europe it appears Standardgraph distribute some Kotobuki product.

So, who knows who really makes what these days? Take a look at the Staedtler USA website and you will see they source a lot of their product from Staedtler Japan, but most of Staedtler’s other international operations don’t seem to have much Staedtler Japan product. Now, take a look at these two pencils (thanks Mark) – firstly the Staedtler-USA Elite 9705, made in Japanand now the Faber-Castell Grip 1335/37.
Oh yeah, look familiar? (Anyone out there actually got both these pencils? Are they totally identical?) So did both Staedtler and Faber-Castell independently design the same pencil, did one copy the other, is one making it for the other, is a third-party manufacturer making it for them both…?

Go looking elsewhere and you’ll find plenty of mix and match pencils, maybe even the “Staedtler 9705 – FC 1335/37” under yet more brandnames – take the pocket clip off that brand X pencil, put it on that brand Y one, and hey, it’s the same pencil. Or swap the end-caps over, and hey presto, two become one. So in many cases even though X and Y are both well known companies, either they didn’t make their own pencils or one of them is manufacturing for its opposition. Actually in most industries there are lots of contract manufacturers, and even the big boys buy some finished products from contract manufacturers and just have their brand applied to it. Sometimes decades of corporate deals and takeovers lead to crazy circumstances where a manufacturer’s exclusive agent in one country is the direct competitor of his agent in another country, and so on. Totally confused? – me too.

Hmmm, lately I seem to be writing posts about stuff I don’t know, rather than about stuff I do know.

10 comments:

lastwinj said...

Not suprising. Look at some Jedo's. one looks exactly like a Pentel Sharp P205. Andrey's Pencils carries it. Some other examples I can't think of right now.
Germ

Stephen said...

And what about luxury brands - are some of them using the same Kotobuki parts as the discount brands, but with nicer surface trimmings?

Henrik said...

You seem to know quite a bit about things you do not know...Keep it up. "Kotobuki" as a manga is "one with no name" maybe somebody is having us on? Noname pencils?

kiwi-d said...

Yes well some of the luxury brands are reasonably open about just being designers or a “brand”, and that all manufacturing is contracted out. Others are a little evasive. Its pretty obvious when you pull a few luxury items apart - you can see the pencil mechanism inserts, ballpoint or rollerball inserts are all the same on various brands, i.e. whoever makes the body makes them to take internal componentry by Schmidt, or someone similar. I assume the unit sales of most luxury brand items must be totally uneconomic to justify most brands having their own manufacturing facilities so they must contract out. One hopes the luxury brands use the good quality componentry!

Anonymous said...

Welcome

Mark

Anonymous said...

Faber-Castell Grip 1335/1337 + Staedtler 9705 = Mitsubishi Pencils ...

Anonymous said...

Hi,

did you ever consider that Kotobuki itself does outsourcing? The small size of the company is due to an elaborate system of homework, where local Japanese families pick up the parts and jigs at a Kotobuki warehouse and do the assembly at home. When they return the finished pens, they pick up the next batch of parts ... and so on.

kiwi-d said...

Hello Anonymous. Thanks for your comment - you seem to have some knowledge of the industry. I would be interested in 'talking' further. Appreciate if you contacted me via the email address up in the blog header.
Dave

Anonymous said...

Does anyone in the United States still retail these?

Pedro de Souza said...

I've seen an PENAC pencil few months ago in downtown rio de janeiro. Penac was its brand, engraved on the pencil's body. The looks were really tight with the p205. Will investigate further.