Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to go on a Shimano Factory tour. I am told that this is a rare privilege, Shimano only has 2-3 tours a year that is open to dealers. Along with a group of New Zealand retailers and Shimano staff we headed to the first of three factories, Shimano Singapore.
The Singapore factory was the first manufacturing plant outside of Japan, it was established in 1973. It employs approx. 580 people at this plant out of a total of 13342 worldwide, the plant has R&D, product design and engineering, cold forging, stamping, heat treatment, electo plating and tool fabrication.
First up a welcome speech and corporate profile presentation in which it was emphasized how the factory is very green in every aspect inc noise reduction. It is Singapore after all! Before our tour, we had to surrender our phone- NO PHOTO’S! The factory ones I have grabbed on this blog are from other sources on the internet and are not taken by me. I got growled at for taking one afterwards looking into the stamping area. Pic deleted!
First up, we are taken to the stamping area, the guide who spoke excellent English through the headphones that we had fitted explained at this factory they had significant stamping machines that produced a large number of cassette sprockets, chain rings, front derailleur cages etc. Not having been to a factory before, it was fascinating to watch a roll of steel go in at one end and sprockets coming out the other end at a rate of 1 every couple of seconds.
There was numerous massive cold forging machines producing stuff like mid range alloy cranks. What caught my attention was the guy who was trimming the extra aluminium off the crank by hand with a knife after it was cold forged. We were going to see a lot more finishing by hand before the tour was over.
The guide explained how many items made would be shipped to any other factory for further processing and assemble. I was surprised at the relative low level of noise. It wasn’t quiet but not rowdy. Many of the machines at this factory were automated and not a huge number of staff were seen operating them. This was to change at our next factory in Malaysia.
A stop for an excellent drink and off to Shimano Cycling World right by the Singapore Sports Museum. This is open to the public every day. At Shimano Cycling World, visitors can view, walk through and interact with a multitude of cycling exhibits including a moving piece of installation art. The Shimano Cycling World is more than a showcase of bicycles. As an experiential center, it aims to enrich and develop the local cycling culture and promote cycling as a lifestyle in Singapore. It also serves to heighten awareness on the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of cycling. That’s how they tell it.
To me SCW is a fascinating journey of how Shimano cycling products have changed and developed. I have been in the cycle industry all my adult life, its not where I saw myself staying. I wanted to be an engineer but discovered a love for fixing bikes and cycling. There were early products on display, more modern interactive displays of Shimano equipment. It was pretty cool to be able to turn a pedal and watch gears change as you hit the DI2 shifter button. Also, a display of some very innovative bikes from across the ages. If you find yourself with time to kill in Singapore, go check it out. I think it’s free?
Our group headed back to our excellent hotel for a break, I had some free time so had instructions from home to go to Mustafa shopping centre. Turns out it was an hour walk there in 34 degrees. My wife’s idea of a bargain and mine differs. Mustafa was spread over two block and 2 stories. It was the most cramped, busy retail experience ever that included a maze of isles, food, and everything to the ceiling. I am sure there was bargains to be found but I could not get out fast enough.
On our way back we bumped into the MD of Shimano NZ Steve Corfield and Shimano’s Harley Gee having a beer by one of the water cannels. Be rude not to join them with my Coke No sugar. When I travel my middle ear gets upset and I get vertigo. Booze makes it bad, soft drinks for me! It saved me from some late nights and partying.
The Second day of our trip and we are off across the border to Shimano Malaysia. Going from the modern city of Singapore to Malaysia was a bit of a shock. After about a 1.4 hour bus trip we arrived at the factory in what seemed to be the bronkx. Wasn’t expecting this!
The factory was modern and large. It specialises in lower grade components, brakes, front chainrings, pedals and fishing reels. Once again, we were taken around on a close up tour of the factory, no phones allowed. This factory employs approx. 3700 people 40% females, all dressed in company white and blue uniform. The factory was the real eye opener. So much is assembled by hand it was hard to believe. Still many noisier stamping, cold forging, cnc machines going about their business. Not so much talk about green here.
As we got further into the factory, it was explained to us how important quality control is to Shimano. There were numerous stations set up where a person who checks each brake rotor for true, then adjust them so they were, same for main chainrings on Tiagra road cranks. They might be checking the hardness of a chainring etc. You know the grease on the end of the crank when you take them out of the box, a lady puts it there from a grease stick! People were working in a high quality control room assembling bottom brackets by hand. No dust here thanks.
The staggering one for me was the mountain bike disc pads assemble area, I had heard about this before but didn’t really believe. It was closed room with windows, people with high quality face masks were mixing the pad compound by hand in a little cup, stirring and pouring into individual moulds which held 24 pads at a time. They were processed and them removed by hand. Kids this is why you stay at school! Our guide told us that they were close to automating this job. I guess labour is cheap in Malaysia.
The next area was the fishing reel assemble area, once again a very clean large room with about 100 people assembling reels by hand. Every reel made by Shimano is assembled by hand. We asked the guide why no robots for this labour-intensive task. He told us robots just weren’t fine enough on adjustments or able to work with such small parts. Staggering stuff.
Lunch was another awesome affair put on by the Shimano Malaysia. Being intolerant of seafood I had to watch what I was eating; crispy chicken and chicken curry was awesome. There such was some other “interesting” dishes.
Back across the border and another few hours of spare time. Bike International GM Craig Robertson, Shimano’s Harley Gee, Pushbikes Richard Allin and I decided to check out the iconic Raffles bar. We found out that the bar was closed for renovations, but they had a small pop up bar. This place was awesome. Complimentary peanuts still in the shell that you eat and chucked the shell on the floor combined with Raffles classic Singapore Sling or in my case Virgin Sling made this place a classic. Two hours later and we had to head away for tea. We spent $500 on us for in 2 hours. This place is expensive to drink.
For the final part of our trip, our group was off to Osaka Japan were the headquarters of Shimano waits us. The day is lost with traveling, we arrived at our hotel late in the night. Rumbling tums meant we had to find somewhere to eat. We got the big X from each place we went into and in broken language somewhere else was suggested. We wandered the streets till we found a 24 hour food place on dingy lite corner. It looked good to us, the older Muma-San couldn’t speak a word of English, google translate didn’t work well on the menu till we found the English link. She understood beer and we understood no more at midnight. Food was great and cheap, thanks Shimano. On the way back, the group found a “Jazz Bar” Another late night for them, not so bad for me.
Early morning rise and we are off to the Sakai Intelligent Plant Factory tour. If we thought the other factories where good, this place was staggering. Shimano top end products are made here, Durace, XTR XT etc and top end fishing reels. The entrance display was outstanding with breakdown of some components on display. Talk about modern and mind-blowing. The tour took us around the factory on high board walks about the factory floor. We watched Durace cranks being made, then glued together by robot. In case you don’t know, top end cranks by Shimano are hollow. One side is a cold forged, the other an alloy stamping which is glued together. We saw the many process’s that is required to make Durace brakes, XTR disc brake caliper but we didn’t see how they are put together. I suspect it is done by hand. We asked but got a shrug by our guide.
The equipment was modern, not long ago much of the CNC machining in this high-end plant was outsourced to a firm nearby but today there are 52 CNC machines, a broaching machine, 5 'special' machines and 21 others.
We started off in the forging room. We were told that cold, hot and closed die forging (for complicated shapes like brake calipers) were occurring before our eyes. Some of the machines were over 2 stories tall and they were apparently crushing metal ingots into the approximate shape of bike parts. There were remarkably few employees on this floor
One area we did not go into was area of the factory that was dedicated to surface treatment. It suffered a fire in March 2018 and was not yet functioning. Anodizing, heat treating, and polishing surfaces makes components more durable and resistant to scuffs. It also makes them pretty, something Shimano takes seriously
The most impressive element of the factory was the inventory automation. The system knows what dies and other heavy materials are needed on the shop floor and at what time. These items, often weighing several tons, are stored in an area without lights (they were turned on for us) or air conditioning. The area happily goes about their business, returning to docking stations to charge at regular intervals. Once the appropriate tool or material is sourced it is then passed to an Auto Guided Vehicle to be transported ice cream truck style to the correct location. And everyone is happy (or so the monitors suggest).
Next off, we go to Shimano Square. Another public display set up in a café to highlight Shimano Products, it was a dam cool place to hang out, right next door to the Coke Cola concept store, who would have thought? Shimano Square is run by a Shimano employee who, years ago, was planted on the North Shore for a season to absorb the culture. After that Hideki Ikemoto became the project manager for XTR. Changing jobs, even from one department to another, is common at Shimano.
The final visit for us was the Bicycle Museum Cycle Center, displayed was bikes from the beginning, may originals on display. The basement was the highlight for me, many old competitor’s bikes were there. A bloke name Lance had left his 1991 Eddy Mercyx behind. I understood the museum to be Mr. Shimano’s personal collection
Shimano put on an incredible event for a small group of NZ retailers. The official evening where we got to meet #2 from Shimano was a highlight, the ceremony was awesome, the food fantastic and the Sake was pretty good apparently. We were told the evening finishes at 8 sharp, turns out it is rude not to finish the Sake and #2 likes his Sake! I was given a small pine wooden box to drink my sake from, the smell that it left permeated in my bag for days.
Thank you, Shimano NZ and other dealers, for the trip of a lifetime!
Did I say we went to Kyoto for a bike ride and tourist stuff?