does not roll out the red carpet for media very often. May 14, 2018, marked the first time in 11 years that the world's largest bicycle component maker opened their doors to journalists for a tour of their factory headquarters in Osaka’s Sakai City. Clothed in secrecy, this is the place where Shimano conceives, develops and manufactures its premier component groups. Shimano’s decision to invite the media was to showcase their ground-up redesign of XTR, and provide an opportunity to watch some of those components move down the production lines while they were being created.
Sakai City was founded centuries ago by Japan’s first metal workers – the ones who crafted the swords for the Samurai warriors. And, much like those legendary blades, which humbly enter the forge as three rectangles of iron and steel, XTR and Deore XT enter Shimano’s factory as simple raw materials which will be stamped, forged, molded, finished, and assembled into mechanical marvels in an industrial campus that envelops four city blocks.
To Westerners, the mystery of Japan is that so much feels similar, but nothing is the same. That also can be said about Shimano. It’s been over two decades since I last visited. I used to make the journey twice a year back when I was designing bikes, so I became about as familiar with the factory
as any outsider was allowed to be. But I was in for a bit of a shock this time around. Shimano had just recently completed a massive restructuring of its manufacturing facilities and, although I recognized some features from the past, it seemed that every building had been refurbished or replaced completely.
There is a new entrance hall, with a museum that depicts the various technologies used to create Shimano’s cycling and fishing products. Next door, the old foyer is still there, its limestone floors polished like new. Behind that old entry hall is the same meeting room where I would sit with our group of product managers and executives on one side of a long mahogany table, while Shimano’s staff, seated on the opposite side, revealed next season’s products.
The atmosphere of those product meetings was gracious, but formal. Occasionally, we would be allowed to peep into one or two buildings to see some essential aspect of Shimano’s design or manufacturing process, but a full-fledged factory tour? That only happened once, and quite by accident.
My First Factory Tour
Shimano is a publicly traded corporation, but it has been controlled and directed by the Shimano family since Shozaburo Shimano founded the brand in a 430 square-foot machine shop back in 1921 to manufacture a better freewheel cog.
By most accounts, Shozaburo’s work ethic, his belief that a superior product would sell itself, and his conservative business practice set the tone for Shimano’s future leadership. Shozo Shimano, who succeeded the founder as the company’s president, built a cycling empire upon those ideals and ran the family business with military precision.
By contrast, his brother Keizo,
who became Shimano’s third president, was a jovial man - a creative problem solver who often rode his bike to work and seemed happiest when he was in the bowels of the factory. I also grew up in factories, so we got along quite well. Keizo would occasionally pop in on our product meetings, most often wearing his lab coat, smudged with fingerprints. It was during one of those meetings when Keizo asked me out of the blue: “What products do you think Shimano needs to make?
“Two-sided clip-in pedals, some sort of trigger shifting levers, and a permanently lubricated chain,” I said.
Keizo trotted out of the room and reappeared shortly after with rough prototypes of a dual-sided pedal binding and a shoe to match. He announced that a new shifting system was near production, and that the device I was playing with was the beginning of their research into the possibility of a two-sided mountain bike pedal “The chain?” he shrugged. “We have been working on the chain, but that will be a long way off.” The Shimano side of the conference table erupted into a nervous discussion. It was in Japanese, but it was clear to me that this was not part of the official presentation. Keizo waved his comrades off and then invited me away from the meeting, where we spent the better part of the afternoon in the factory.
Like his father, Keizo Shimano was at home in the factory and happy to tackle any mechanical challenge. - Marin Museum of Bicycling photo
I say “factory,” but in reality, Shimano’s Sakai headquarters is a number of buildings joined by alleys and overhead walkways.
The beating heart of the complex was the forging and machining facility, which was in full swing as Keiso and I strolled down the aisles between machining centers, stamping presses and assembly fixtures – each with a uniformed man or woman waiting at their station, flanked by crates of parts in the making.
The building was as clean and organized as a heavy manufacturing plant that was operating almost continuously could be kept. The warm air was tainted with the smell of hot steel and chemical lubricants. The concrete floor was crisscrossed by well-worn pathways left by forklifts and foot traffic, and electric motors and hydraulic pumps were droning to the rhythm of their designated tasks. Along the back wall, a line of forging presses
that towered from floor to ceiling sounded off like monster bass drums: ba – Boom …ba – Boom …ba – Boom …you could feel them through your shoes.
Not too far from the machining facility, Keizo walked me through a completely different world – a hermetically clean and air-conditioned workplace, where a small team dressed in lab coats and wearing white gloves quietly monitored a number of automated assembly lines. Here, small pallets were shuffling down tracks to a number of stations where robotic arms were busy assembling bits onto the fixtures, which eventually transformed into rear derailleurs. There were a few stations between the machines where human hands did the work that robots could not be trusted with, or performed inspections.
Keizo said that Shimano realized early on that automation was going to be key to their survival, so they began the learning process by building their own assembly robots – first, developing some of the automation in the machining and forging factory, and culminating with their precision assembly process. Shimano’s experiment grew into a new enterprise and at some point, they were building robots for other industries as well. Connecting the dots, it could not have been a stretch for Shimano to automate a derailleur shifting system after inventing the robots that assembled those components in the first place.
There was a room near the engineering and design departments that was filled with pieces of electrical panels, automobile dashboard parts, furniture, and all sorts of latches and levers collected from technological sources outside the cycling industry. The room was created to give Shimano’s designers a quiet space to escape from their workplaces, be alone with their thoughts, and dream up ideas that might relate to the projects they were tasked with.
Our makeshift tour ended too soon. It was a treasured opportunity to peer into the soul of Shimano, and it would be the last time I would speak with Keizo, who passed on a short time later after losing his fight with cancer. Inside Shimano’s Sakai Intelligent Plant
Fast forward to May 15, 2018. We are assembled in Shimano’s spacious Manufacturing Technology Gallery, where fishing reels, XTR, and Dura Ace components have been disassembled down to their tiniest springs and screws, then mounted in sequence on illuminated panels. Displays show the forging and bonding progression of Shimano’s latest cranksets, and how cassette cogs transform under the forges from steel and titanium sheets to sprockets with precisely profiled shifting ramps and tooth profiles. It’s impressive.
“No cameras, no cell phones please.” We are guided through elevated walkways, high above Shimano’s new five-level factory where we peer through the glass onto a fully automated miniature city. Musical forklifts that seem to appear out of nowhere are driving themselves down aisles to feed and retrieve parts from rows of machining centers which are inter-connected by overhead tracks - and to massive forges that are busy smashing out XTR crankarms at the rate of about one each second. The 2,000 ton forge is fed by a slightly smaller monster that prepares one-inch-thick coils of aluminum bar into pre-shaped billets that travel to its larger neighbor to be squished into near-perfect crank-arm halves.
One floor up, we watched while chainrings and crankarms were being assembled, once again by robots, but this was an exponential leap forward from the automated assembly line I knew. The pace was much more rapid and there were no “manned” stations where human hands and eyes intervened with the process.
To my left, chainrings were zipping overhead on their way to final assembly and inspection, while on my right, the aluminum halves of XTR crankarms were being prepared with glue, checked by 3D infrared laser optics, joined, and heat cured – all in a wonderfully organized sequence, with every step 100-percent inspected.
The level of automation on display had reduced the labor force to a dozen or so workers on the same footprint where sixty were employed two decades earlier. It would be easy for many to assume that Shimano valued production numbers far more than its workers, but the reverse is true. Under orders of current president Yozo Shimano, the new complex was built and its existing buildings were refurbished to enhance the human experience and to minimize Shimano’s impact on the environment.
Soundproof, rectangular glass enclosures planted with trees and shrubs reach upwards from ground level to the open sky to give workers quiet places to temporarily escape the busy factory and depressurize in a natural setting. Where large bay windows are not practical, motorized rooftop solar refractors flood the workspace with natural sunlight.
Every machine has a vacuum recirculation and filter system that prevents fumes from mixing with the workplace atmosphere, while massive air ducts are trained to continuously refresh the building. In the basement, Shimano installed a purification and recovery system for its cooling and lubricating chemicals. Solar installations further reduce the factory’s carbon footprint.
Shimano provides showers, changing rooms and indoor parking for 500 bicycles at the street level, and they maintain a spacious, rooftop cafeteria with fresh-prepared healthy meals. The outsides of the buildings are landscaped with mature trees and foliage, and arranged to encourage outdoor meetings and activities. The vibe is healthy. There is no question that Shimano’s employees are hired to
get their jobs done, but it’s also clear that there is an understanding at the highest level that Shimano employees will spend a large part of their waking moments at work, so the best way to enhance their lives is to make the workplace a more positive and fulfilling experience.What's Different, What's Unchanged
The Shimano factory that I visited in the early '90s could have been one of many well-run manufacturing facilities in the US or Europe. By contrast, Shimano's latest incarnation of the Sakai City campus seems way over the top. In a practical sense, the predominance of automation is both a necessity for a Japan-based manufacturer to remain competitive in a global marketplace, and an asset for a brand that stakes its reputation upon the quality and consistent performance of its products. Granted, Shimano only builds its highest priced components here in Sakai City, but considering that all of their component groups will eventually benefit from Dura-Ace, XTR, and XT, having a unified workforce that performs every step of the process from pipe dreams to mass production in one facility must generate a fountain of improvements and fresh ideas towards that end.
What I did not expect to see was the massive investment that Shimano made to enhance the workplace environment. Anyone who has returned from a lunch ride can vouch for the mental and emotional recharge that fresh air, greenery, and natural sunlight provides. Shimano's aptly renamed Sakai Intelligent Plant integrates those natural elements into the work environment to a degree that seems out of place in the context of a manufacturing facility - until you've been there for a while. Shimano has upheld that its products connect people with nature. The redesign of their Sakai City complex seems like an affirmation that those ideals should also be expressed where those products are made.
Shimano is often derided for its intense secrecy and for being slow to respond to changing trends. Fair enough. It's common knowledge that new products usually take four years or more before Shimano deems them worthy to release, and its heavy reliance on automation could be a large part of those lead times. The mountain bike marketplace is very dynamic, and four years without any news of a new product can seem like an eternity. As much as we were given an official tour of the new factory, we were sequestered behind glass windows and to elevated walkways, and forbidden to photograph anywhere production took place. Most of the images you see here were provided by Shimano and censored for sensitive information.
The best thing and the worst thing about a person are always the same thing. The flip sides of Shimano's conservative production schedule and strict code of secrecy are also the cornerstones of its success. Shimano's strength is its relentless quest for perfection. Its big innovations spring from layers of small breakthroughs and improvements - any of which could provide an ah-ha moment for a competitor. Perhaps more important, is that developing products in strict secrecy allows its team to experiment, to take risks that may lead to failure as well as success in a learning environment without consequence. That said, there may be a simpler explanation.
Shimano may have grown into a 4.3 billion dollar corporation
with 52 offices and factories around the globe, but it still operates on the simple principles established by Shozaburo in his one-room machine shop. Freewheel cogs were the most difficult component of a bicycle to make in 1921. Shozaburo founded Shimano Iron Works. to make a better, more reliable one and when he achieved that goal, he was confident that the quality of his freewheel cogs would sell themselves - and they did..
Shozaburo's principles may seem archaic in today's marketing-driven consumer economy, but simple values are still held in high esteem in Japan. Shimano exists to manufacture great things. I don't think they can see it any other way. Shimano probably would have made the new XTR 9100 group just to prove to themselves that they could do better - and something tells me that Shimano did not implement those environmentally friendly features into their Sakai headquarters in an effort to show the world how green they had become. They wanted to make a better factory. It was the right thing to do.