Eyewitness: Shimano in Japan

A short, stocky man with a ready smile, Manabu Tatekawa might be the ideal guide for a tour of Shimano’s facilities in Japan.
He has been with Shimano for 25 years, beginning as a salesman to the American market, rising to product manager (the Nexus internal gear hub, since renamed Alfine, was one of his creations), and is now the global marketing chief.
“You want me to sing?” Tatekawa laughs, holding the microphone at the head of a bus taking a score of European journalists back from Shimano’s Shimonoseki factory to a railway station and a 500km journey north to Osaka.
Cue laughter. He has served his current employer for a quarter of a century, and his impromptu Q&A session saves a day that faced ruin from heavy snow and the subsequent curtailing of a schedule that might have yielded more.
Garrulous, armed with a ready wit, and blessed with a practical world view natural in one who has spent a career in engineering, he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Shimano and its products; its frequent successes and occasional failures.
Tatekawa is our guide on this Japanese leg of a press trip intended by Shimano to offer nothing less than an immersion in the company’s culture and a privileged view of its working methods. There is no hard sell; no new product to unveil, only the chance to visit its facilities and meet its people.
Through the snow to Shimonoseki
Our tour of Shimano’s Japense facilities begins in Shimonoseki, some 500km south of our base in Osaka, and on a bitingly cold January day, even the efficiency of the Japanese rail service is undermined by snowstorms. Despite the best efforts of a delayed bullet train, and a waiting coach, our visit is shortened, significantly. Its effect, however, is undimmed.

The Shimonoseki factory is a dated, but still impressive facility. The 105 road groupset and XT mountain bike chainset are among the products made here. Capacity is colossal and flexible: between 80,000 and 100,000 XT cranks are made here each month, and if the market demands double, production can be doubled.
Robots with huge, malevolent-looking ‘beaks’ feed furnaces, but there is a human presence here too, one that has been increased as Shimonoseki has assumed the role of blueprint for Shimano’s lower-cost factories in Malyasia, Sinagpore and the Czech Republic.
Shimonoseki opened its doors in 1970. Huge coils of steel and aluminium arrive in one end of the factory and intricately fashioned sprockets, internal gear hubs, chainsets and more depart from the other. The raw material is carefully chosen: Shimano imports Japanese steel to its plants in China. “We trust what we know,” Tatekawa explains.
Different grades are used, not only for performance, but to meet customer expectation. For the racer, who prizes lightness above all other qualities, titanium and aluminium is used even for cassette sprockets. The leisure cyclist is unlikely to appreciate the service intervals. “Expensive materials mean nothing,” says Tatekawa.
The absence of a carbon chainset from Shimano’s offering might be taken as a case in point. Shimano believes it can make better cranks – specifically, with greater driving efficiency – from aluminium. “Why do we need to charge more to the consumer?” he asks, rhetorically. “We can offer better performance and quality at a lower cost with aluminium. You just want to win the race, right?”

Shimano claims 98 per cent efficiency for its derailleur drivetrains. Ceramic bearings would deliver a still greater level, Tatekawa concedes, before returning to suitability and expectation: ceramic is fine for the professional, whose bike is serviced after each ride, but for the everyday rider, whose machine might enjoy an annual service at best, such exotica might soon become a curse.
People have returned to the factory floor at the Shimonoseki factory as the market has matured to demand greater flexibility. Fully automated during the mountain bike boom of the early 1990s, a trend towards specialisation has required a greater human presence on the shop floor. Black cranks, silver cranks, arm lengths ranging from 170mm to 175mm: all demand a human presence to service the production lines.
Shimano’s popular, mid-level 105 group is made at Shimonoseki, but those we glimpsed were mechanical only. An electronic, Di2 version is “a dream” for Shimano, we were told. Shimano works on a two-year development cycle for new innovation, and allows one-year to ‘trickle down’ those same developments to lower tiers.
Sakai City: intelligent life
Shimano’s Sakai City headquarters is as huge and advanced as one might expect: an impressively modern facility, where giant robots operate with minute precision, and where even the forklift trucks are automated.
The site is home to the company’s administrative headquarters and to the Sakai Intelligence Plant, the cutting edge facility used for the manufacture of Shimano’s flagship Dura-Ace road and XTR mountain bike groupsets, and the second-tier Ultegra and XT collections.
After Shimonoseki, it feels like stepping into a new century, an unsurprising sensation, given that Shimano’s flagship facility was completed less than a year ago, and yet there is a sense of history here, too: it is the same site used by founder Shozaburo Shimano to establish the fledgling Shimano Iron Works in 1921.

Continuing a centuries-old tradition of steel work (think of Sakai City as a Japanese Sheffield) that moved from swords to rifles and later to bicycles, Shozaburo cracked the market at his first attempt with a single-speed freewheel that offered the same quality as its British made competitors at a far more affordable price. A trend was begun.
The factory tour is fascinating, in terms of process (the automated storage system alone is worth the visit) and architecture (the building stands on a giant suspension system, as a defence against earthquakes).
Back in the conference room, there is a chance for the visiting press pack to put questions to Shimano’s product managers, with Tsutomu Muraoka and Takao Harada stepping into bat for the road side, ably assisted, when required, by Tatekawa.
The debate is by turns illuminating and frustrating. We learn that a version of the Syncro Shift automatic, electronic drivetrain already present on the flagship mountain bike groupset, Di2 XTR, will soon be deployed in the road market.
Elsewhere, on the topic of wireless shifting, and Shimano’s inevitable response to SRAM’s eTap system, the debate is muddled. We’re left with the impression that Shimano has a wireless system in development, but more than that they will not say. Absent was a staunch defence of the cabled system they had gone to such time and expense to develop and which, one imagines, they must believe is superior.
In some ways, the context is more important than the content. By and large, the engineers are given the freedom to answer questions openly. Translation is a bigger impediment than company secrets and Tatekawa and his European colleagues operate with a deft touch to ensure that everyone, ultimately, gets what they need. The engineers join us for lunch, and, later that evening, for dinner, where conversation is freer.
The following day, it is time to say sayonara to Japan, and to begin the seven-hour flight south to Singapore and two more of Shimano’s facilities. Check back soon for the second of our Eyewitness accounts from Shimano’s facilities in Asia.

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