Photo/IllutrationTsutomu Owada shows off a Laurel Top cone featuring a flower-like design in his right hand and a cone known as "Dessert Cone" in his left hand in Higashi-Matsuyama, Saitama Prefecture. (Takashi Kurata)

  • Photo/Illustraion

HIGASHI-MATSUYAMA, Saitama Prefecture--Although Tsutomu Owada doesn’t like sweets himself, he knows how to cater to the sweet tooths of customers.

Owada, who has been designing molds for ice cream cones for decades, believes that ice cream is complete only when served in a cone.

Owada, 54, joined soft-serve ice cream maker Nissei Co., which is based in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture, in 1987. That was simply because the company is “in the Kansai region where my home is situated,” he said.

Nissei produces 70 percent of the ice cream cones consumed in Japan. Hundreds of millions of cones of about 20 kinds are made a year at its only production plant here, where Owada currently works.

Owada has been involved in the development of more than 200 types of metal molds, which produce a total of 22 million cones annually.

His most well-known invention is the Laurel Top mold, which is shaped like laurel leaves. After the mold’s gorgeous design drew considerable attention in the global sweets industry, Owada found many similar cones made by overseas firms at a sweets fair in Italy several years after his Laurel Top was marketed.

Owada initially thought “my idea had been lifted,” but he quickly changed his mind and thought they must have imitated his work “because I created an appealing mold.”

While what are called regular cones are made with molds, those known as waffle cones are made by rolling baked dough. Owada is primarily engaged in designing molds for regular cones.

In the ice cream cone manufacturing process, a mixture of flour, sugar, fats, oil, water and other ingredients in molds is baked in special ovens, then taken out of the molds, and transferred on a conveyor belt.

Owada designs the molds based on various rough ideas and requests, such as ones to make “an unprecedented mold” and “a flower-patterned one,” from both in and outside the company.

He then collects data needed to manufacture the designed molds with machine tools and commissions mold producers to mass-produce his works. Owada uses 40 types of large and small end mills--a cutting device used by mold makers--so easier-to-produce molds can be developed.

As Owada has to use advanced design software, he spends most of his work hours in front of his computer.

Dough spread to 1 to 3 millimeters thick in molds is baked at 180 to 200 degrees. If the dough is not baked evenly, some parts become too hard or get burnt and make holes.

Because of that, cone molds need to be designed in a way dough can spread evenly in them, though it is difficult to predict how unbaked dough will spread. Owada thus bakes dough with a prototype mold to change the design by a tenth of a millimeter on the PC monitor “only based on my past knowledge.”

It sometimes takes more than a year to complete a mold.

Despite such difficulties, Owada has exclusively engaged in mold design for years.

When he started working in the section that develops manufacturing lines and ingredients immediately after entering Nissei, he saw his senior employees drawing designs for ice cream cones and was surprised that “there is such work.”

Cone molds of the time consisted of only circle and line designs, and the simple design was rarely drastically changed.

“I thought there would be no future for ice cream cones unless more types of molds are developed,” Owada said.

Seven years after entering Nissei, Owada asked his boss to allow him to “concentrate on designing molds.” Although Owada thought his request would be rejected, his boss readily accepted.

Owada introduced special design software to create cubic objects with complex designs and developed the Laurel Top cone, whose top features a flower-like design, by trial and error.

As the design was epoch-making in the mid-1990s, Nissei made waves with the cone when it was released in 1998 though Laurel Top was more expensive than ordinary ice cream cones.

“Soft-serve ice cream was at the time a special food that should be consumed on special occasions,” said a public relations official of Nissei. “Laurel Top satisfied the needs of people who wanted more gorgeous cones.”

Owada said cones are not just an accessory for ice cream.

“Please check what is in your hands when eating soft-serve ice cream,” he said. “You can surely find my well-designed works there.”