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Nikon Sendai plant visit

Avtor:Matjaž Intihar
23.08.2007 13:24

Even on the outside, everything is very clean.

Actually, I was a bit underwhelmed by the plant itself. While I was expecting high technology on every step, what we got was a pretty standard metal workshop with CNC machines and hand activated presses.

The next hall, however, was more what I had in mind. First, we were given coats and hats, making us look like bakers, and then it was off to shutter manufacturing. We went through the whole process of shutter assembly and their testing. Surprisingly, this is still very much manual labour - there are some Sanyo chips that are attached automatically, and then it's off to manual assembly with precision tools. The shutters seem to be assembled primarily by women. And all the time, you can hear shutters going off. Each shutter goes through at least 1000 activations, while random samples, which are later discarded, go through more then 50,000.

The last department we visited produced Nikon D3. The D300 is produced in Thailand, where almost 3000 Thai workers underwent special training to produce the camera. In any case, a visit such as this one is something of a revelation, as it's easier to understand why, for instance, even brand new cameras may have sensor dust. And this is despite all the fancy technology used, which includes special clothing, air blasting, washing of each component and meticulous drying and so on. Still, sensor dust is a fact of life – and it's not that hard to get rid of, either.

The production lines we visited were extremely interesting. A Nikon D3 consists of about 2000 parts, and it takes one worker about 80 minutes to assemble. However, while the Nikon F6 is still assembled by one person alone, the D3 includes some pre-manufactured assemblies, such as the sensor or the shutter. The sensor is thoroughly cleaned before it's installed, getting rid of every dust particle that's larger than 5 micrometres.

Off we go to the first manufacturing hall.

Initially, I was underwhelmed, as we were only showed the process where camera parts are produced - from small screws to large metal parts of the body.

Most of the manufacturing process is automated. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take pictures, so they were all very kindly provided by Nikon. For that reason, there are no pictures of, for instance, manual reworking of some parts.

Finished lens mounts.

Integrated circuit production machines.

This part of the factory houses the most advanced machinery used for manufacturing of integrated circuits.

A detailed shot of the production process. Nowadays, electronics are a very important part of the camera.

This line is used to assemble shutters. Most labour is still manual.

Shutter testing. Unfortunately, I don't speak Japanese, and that would have been the only way to learn about shutter precision. Before the advent of digital, shutter precision was an important part of camera testing, as it was dependent on many factors, especially the temperature. Very rarely is a 1/1000 s shutter time really 1/1000 s – it's often 1/800 or 1/1200, and the higher the speed, the bigger the error. Back in film days, Nikon's shutters were always more precise than Canon shutters.

I couldn't believe my eyes. Before assembly, every part o the camera is immersed in a special liquid to wash off any dust particles. Now that's attention to detail.

The sensor assembly line requires the utmost in air purity.

Sensor cleaning before it's installed into the camera. Using special lighting and a microscope, even the smallest particles are visible. Anything bigger than 5 micrometres must be removed.

Final assembly.

It's less about high tech and more about highly skilled and motivated work force.

It takes one worker 80 minutes to assemble a D3.

On 24 August, the production was already in full swing.

Considering everything I saw, all the components and manual labour involved, I think cameras are too cheap. Really.

This is me, looking like a right berk and saying Hi from the Sendai plant. While we might have a preconception of the Japanese as a nation of workaholics, the workers I saw seemed rather relaxed. Apparently, not only is their technology excellent, they can also organise work processes better than anyone else.

Holding a camera now is a completely different experience. I'm fully aware how many people were involved in its manufacturing and how important quality control is. It's the quality control that's the most important part of the overall camera experience, and this has always been Nikon's forte. When digital photography finally passes the current obsession with megapixels and noise, it'll be back to the way we tested film cameras – shutter precision, metering accuracy and so on, the things that really matter for image quality.

I believe these will be the main topics in the future. Also, I hope to be able to visit a quality control department, where cameras are tested and calibrated. Due to the current high demand, this has to be the bottleneck of the whole process. And based on what I saw, I'm sure that pro cameras are thoroughly tested. What about amateur cameras and amateur lenses? Well, I just hope I have the chance to find out.

By Matjaz Intihar. Translation by Jože Svetičič


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