A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to be among the first group of journalists ever to be allowed into a Shimano factory. Making sure I packed a camera and an empty bag for the much hoped-for swag, hopped on a plane and endured a thirteen hour flight to Japan and the Shimano world headquarters in Sakai, Osaka, Japan’s traditional industrial heartland. While we were there the team at Sakai, where much of the product development and production engineering takes place, showed us around a number of their production lines and test facilities. The excuse? Shimano is eighty years old this year.
Being the world-market leader is, presumably, a lonely place and it’s easy to think that life at the top is sweet. But Shimano is essentially a family business, albeit a grossly outsized one, with an almost fanatical obsession with quality. And it is that quality, coupled with a passion for innovation that has made it the world number one. Word has it that the current Shimano President, and son of the founder, Yoshi Shimano used to ensure that the factory was kept spotlessly clean by donning a white boiler-suit and lying down on the floor. Any muck on the suit when he stood up and there’d be hell to pay! A bit harsh maybe, but a walk along the spotless bottom bracket assembly line shows that Yoshi knows how to make people clean up.
You really can see your face in that floor…
And clean up is what they’ve done. In eighty years Shimano have built up from just one product, a single-freewheel, to being market leaders in all forms of cycling, see History of Shimano. The UN52 bottom bracket kind of sums it up to me: an essential, bombproof product that costs very little. That’s what they do best.
At one end of the UN52 production line is a big roll of aluminium rod, and at the other just couple of minutes later is a box full of the most popular bottom brackets in the world.
Ever wondered what your UN52 looks like inside?
The most interesting part of the UN52 assembly line for me, not being an engineer, was the robot that puts the axle and bearings into the shells. The robot measures each axle and shell before choosing the most appropriate bearing from a selection of nine, each a micron larger than the previous. Very clever. The bracket is assembled and then filled with grease before being sealed and checked against the ‘perfect model’.
It is paying this sort of attention to detail on such a big product range that sets Shimano apart from, well pretty much everyone else. The scale is very, very impressive. Take the drivetrain test machine, pictured below, which in order to be relevant has to use samples of mud from all over the world. So that’s what they use, samples of mud from all over the world.
Shimano chuck samples of mud from all over the world that in here
So they’re a great company, they aren’t afraid to look in the mirror from time to time. But where do they think the future of biking lies?
No doubt that the recent slowing, some might say bubble bursting, of the world wide mountain bike market has posed Shimano some fundamental, ‘where’s the cash going to come from now’ type questions to answer. Chairman of the company Yoshi Shimano, the youngest son of the founder Shozabura, believes that as the human population ages the future company bread basket will be filled by the over 50’s: a group of people with disposable income; an interest in a healthy lifestyle; and quality products. Self-styled, flamboyant, media friendly, front man Yoshi revealed that: “55% of all Shimano product ends up in Europe, and 26.9% of it in the USA. It is projected that by 2010 50% of the population will be above 50 years old.” With statistics like that floating around, his vision warrants consideration.
One of the first D12 electronic mech prototypes
The new Shimano Di2 (Digital Integrated Intelligence) project aims closer integrate bicycles and computer technology. The project’s first priority is to reduce the cost, and time, involved in bringing new products to market, Being Japanese, Shimano’s solution is a computer aided one: three-dimensional Computer Aided Design (CAD) allows products to be modelled, and then analysed, by engineers on computer without the need to costly and time-consuming prototype technology. And mind-bendingly efficient production lines keep manufacturing costs to an absolute minimum. Heading the Di2 project is Masahiko Jimbo, the man behind Dura Ace and the inventor of Shimano Total Integration (STI) integrated brake and gear levers, to name a couple of his career highlights.
‘Jimbo’, as he asked us to call him, told us: “We believe technology should be applied to (the) bicycle the same as with other products.” He went on: As a result of the Shimano European Bicycle Design Competition (which ran for five years) we are working towards a range of bio-mechanical shifting and suspension (automatic gears and suspension) products. These will monitor heart rate, pedalling speed, calorie consumption to set the bike up for you on the move”.
Di2, the first step towards this dream, automatically calculates the most suitable gear and suspension settings from the pedal, and wheel, speeds. The system can be retrofitted onto pretty much any bicycle with 24in, and above, wheels. Available provisionally on Nexus and Nexave product ranges Di2 will be on the market towards the end of this year. Further evidence of the shift in product research is seen in the 2002, fully hydraulic Nexave disc brake system.
The final, and perhaps obvious, question is probably best left for Yoshi Shimano to answer. Why have Shimano worked so hard on electric shifting rather than electrically assisted bikes? “I believe that bicycles should be human powered.” And the one we didn’t ask? Is it really that hard to change gear?