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Inside Shimano: Cunningly arranged to show us much while revealing little

Geoff Waugh
11 Apr 2017

Cyclist travels to Japan in an attempt to see what lies beneath the shiny surface of one of cycling's most recognisable brands, Shimano

I’m standing on platform 22 at Osaka’s City Station and something is clearly not right. The railway guards pace the platform trying to retain an air of cool but the simple fact is the bullet train to take us to Shimano’s factory in Shimonoseki, Japan, is running 45 minutes late. 

Surely heads will roll. Large snowflakes are falling onto the tracks and the indicators are blaming the weather for the delays to a rail system renowned for its to-the-second timing.

The wrong kind of snow, it seems, affects more than the beleaguered UK commuter. 

Once on board, the bullet train is fast – Strava clocks it at a max of 375kmh – but it’s nearly 600km down the coast to Shimonoseki and we’re way off schedule.

As such, the factory tour turns into such a flying visit – ‘you have 12 minutes to eat lunch’ – that we barely see anything before we’re whisked back to the station so as not to miss our return train.

This is only one part of a trip that should allow me to see the whole Shimano set-up, including the Shimonoseki factory and the new Sakai Intelligent Plant (SIP) and Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Osaka.

While it’s a shame the first part has been so unrevealing, I can’t help but wonder how much Shimano really wants outsiders to know anyway.

Our tour seems to be cunningly arranged to show us much while revealing very little.

Cutting edge

It’s no surprise that Shimano was founded in Sakai city in the Osaka Prefecture. The region is renowned for its steel manufacturing and in particular the production of specialist knives.

In 1543 the Portuguese landed in the port and began trading guns and tobacco. The tobacco leaves required a certain kind of knife – like a tall cleaver – and local blacksmiths set about making them.

They developed a network of small artisan shops that focused exclusively on different parts of the knife-making process, such as grinding, handle making and engraving.

Although produced under many different brand names, the knives all used the Sakai Wazashu seal of quality.

Thus Sakai City became synonymous with quality knives. You could call it the Sheffield of the East. 

Inside the Sakai Intelligent Plant we see lightboxes displaying beautiful arrangements of each part that goes into a Shimano pedal, brake, or shifting system.

It’s all very shiny and pretty, but we’re here to see the production process in action, so the excitement rises as we’re led to the factory floor.

Except it’s not quite the floor itself, but a walkway 10 metres above the ground built for factory tours.

It offers a bird’s-eye view, while keeping nosy journalists a safe distance from where the real work goes on.

The inside of the huge building reminds me of a villain’s lair from a James Bond movie. Everything is spotless; large machines whir; workers in overalls and hard hats go about their duties, overseen by a room full of men staring intently at monitors.

I fully expect to see Blofeld looking down from his control room while stroking his white cat. 

I take out my camera, but I’m asked politely to put it away. I should have remembered my tie-pin spy camera.

The building is pristine like an operating theatre. The SIP is where the high-end componentry such as Ultegra and Dura-Ace is made, and most of the work is performed by automated machines.

Even the essential labour of transporting raw material around is done by robot forklifts, which dance around each other in perfect harmony. 

The men at the screens are the nerve centre of production, from where all work is programmed. They can even perform tasks in other Shimano factories overseas remotely.

Room with a view

At the end of each walkway is a viewing room with a video screen to demonstrate the process and a wall unit containing components in the various stages of their production from a lump of cold aluminium to a gleaming Dura-Ace crank. 

From our high vantage point we can see sprockets and other drivetrain pieces being spat out of the machines every five seconds.

In Shimonoseki about 80,000 to 150,000 cranks can be made per month, but according to global marketing manager Manabu Tatekawa that number can be upped if the demand exists. 

In lieu of being able to get up close with a camera to the manufacturing, I start to quiz Tatekawa about the Shimano way of working.

‘New technology is made in Sakai City and then copied and pasted to our various factories worldwide to produce the same thing,’ he says.

‘So even though we ship out to China and other locations to reduce manufacturing costs we retain the Japanese tradition of high quality.

'At Shimonoseki we have all processes under one roof, from getting the raw materials to cutting them to forming, machining and finish and shipping.

'Every process is really flexible. We could be making Nexus hubs one day and swap to front chainring assembly the next.’ 

Metal gurus

Tatekawa tells us Shimano uses only metals from Japan because that way it can be confident of the quality and how each particular metal behaves under manufacturing processes. 

‘We trust what we know,’ he says. ‘We have factories in China but we import Japanese aluminium and steel rather than source locally.

'It’s not the case that a lower-grade groupset will necessarily have lower-grade materials. It really depends on the end use.

'A mid to low-range group may be on a bike that will be outside in all weather with low maintenance and it has to be very durable.

'At the high end there is no compromise because it is about racing and performance, so we use a lot of titanium and high-grade aluminium.

'There is no compromise at that level because it only takes a centimetre to lose a race.’

Would Shimano consider carbon fibre groupsets? ‘We can make an aluminium crank that equals the performance of any carbon crank,’ says Tatekawa.

‘We don’t need to charge more to the consumer. Lower cost and better performance is our goal.

'You can make a black crank and chainrings and put a sticker on to make it look like carbon, but it’s not all about looks.

'In our tests we achieved 98% efficiency in power transfer from the pedal to the ground.’

It’s plain that Shimano is in no hurry to embrace the black stuff, and Tatekawa gets equally animated when I bring up the subject of disc brakes: ‘Everyone is talking about disc brakes on road bikes now.

'They think we can simply transfer our mountain bike disc brake mounts to the road bike, but they are so different.

'The mountain bike has a big, fat and stiff leg but the road bike fork leg is thin and the power transfer is very different, so a completely new mount had to be designed.’ 

Tatekawa explains that each new Dura-Ace groupset is the result of four years’ design and testing, and once launched it’s back to the drawing board to start a new one from scratch. 

‘Every four years the technology gets updated and redesigned. We don’t make any compromise to lose a few grams. We now have Dura-Ace and Ultegra with Di2. Not 105 yet.

'We keep getting asked but we need to get it exactly right. Of course, we buy the batteries and other parts from outside, but since 2009 we were searching for the right electric cables and couldn’t find any.

'We asked every company – Sony, Panasonic, Phillips – to produce a waterproof cable for us and they said no way. So we made the right cable ourselves. That’s our passion.’

Asked who he rates as rivals, Tatekawa gets philosophical: ‘For me the biggest competition doesn’t come from other bicycle component makers, it comes from Xbox, Nintendo and PlayStation – things that keep people inside their houses when they could be outside riding and feeling the benefits.

'We want people to get outside and enjoy nature.’

Lost in translation

Will Shimano go wireless in response to SRAM’s revolutionary eTap shifting system? Road brand manager Takao Harada steps in to give a typically Shimano-esque answer: ‘We have been using cable shifting for many years now.

'Our professional riders all say they are satisfied with the cable shifting of Di2 and we will continue that way.

'Professional cyclists are slower to uptake new changes because they are the ones that use the equipment day in, day out, and need to have confidence in it.

'We need to show them what is possible and eventually they may change.’

I’m not sure if that’s a yes or no. Similar vagueness meets the next enquiry about electronic shifting filtering down into the groupsets below Ultegra.

‘It is a dream for us to make our systems electronic,’ Harada says enigmatically.

And Shimano doesn’t count out a 12-speed groupset some time in the future, but don’t expect a clear answer either on when that might be.

‘They are definitely a possibility,’ says brand manager Tsutomu Muraoka.

‘But we need to build a new platform for durability. It is a dream for us to make this available to riders, and certainly not out of the question.’

By the time my tour is over, I feel I have seen some fascinating things, met some interesting people and been treated with great respect.

It’s certainly an honour to be allowed to visit Shimano, but I’m not sure I’m any wiser as to the company’s methods, its ethos or its plan for the future.

Perhaps that’s the point – you don’t become the biggest name in the cycling industry by giving away your secrets easily.

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