TOKYO -- As one of the world's biggest brake and transmission makers, Japanese supplier Aisin Seiki can be forgiven for not turning heads as a trendsetter in styling and design.
But the industry's fifth-biggest auto supplier aims to change all that by doubling the size of its global design division as it expands into new products and targets new customers.
The impetus for doubling down on design: Aisin is paying more attention to components that people actually see and touch, such as door handles, spoilers and navigation interfaces.
Appearance means much more for those items than for gears and clutch discs.
"The door handle is just one part, but it is the first item that the customers touch, so design is very important," said Yuichiro Oka, general manager of Aisin's global design department.
Today, the company has a total design staff of just 34 people, 30 of whom work at the global headquarters in Kariya, Japan, outside Nagoya. Three more are at the company's North American technical center in Northville, Mich., near Detroit, and one is in Nice, France.
All of them are engineers, and each one is a Japanese national.
But over the next five years, Aisin aims to double the number of stylists, open overseas studios and hire non-Japanese who are truly designers, Oka said. The head count at Aisin's design studio in Michigan also will double over that time, he added.
"We want to add designers from many countries," Oka said at a March 17 news event here. "Each location has different ideas, and they compete against each other to come up with new ideas."
Aisin needs to up its game as the supplier seeks new revenue streams beyond the business it has traditionally counted on from Toyota Motor Corp., its biggest shareholder. A top priority for executives is winning new orders from rival automakers in Europe and North America.
It also aims to parlay its automotive technology into diversified fields, such as sewing machines, beds, medical devices such as wheelchairs and even automated washlet toilet seats.
To underscore its design ambitions, Aisin will show a new micromini personal mobility concept device at next month's Milan Design Week, the world's biggest design exhibition, in Italy.
Co-developed with Japan's Chiba Institute of Technology, the Ily-A concept is a mix of a wheelchair, grocery cart and kickboard scooter. The three-wheeled runabout can be folded into four configurations. One acts as a battery-powered mobile chair. Another allows users to push it around like a scooter. Reconfigure it again, and it becomes a luggage/grocery cart.
And with one more twist of its frame, the whole product collapses into a compact package that can be pulled easily behind the user onto a train, into a bus or through an airport.
The lithium ion battery delivers an electric-drive range of 12 miles, Oka said.
But don't expect it in stores anytime soon. Oka dangled an on-sale date around 2020 -- but that's only if Aisin can overcome several hurdles, including regulatory and legal liability issues.