James goes to Japan: Seiko Factory Part 1
Seiko was founded in Tokyo, it was the site of their original factory and the firm is still headquartered there, but their factories are all several hours away. The reason for this is that during WWII Seiko was producing not only watches, clocks and cockpit instruments but also timing devices and their sole customer was the armed forces of the Japanese Empire. Once the US Army Air Corps began bombing the Japanese mainland on a regular basis it became essential to move production to safer locations; which is why the production of mechanical Grand Seiko & Credor watches is carried out in Morioka 540 kilometres north; it would take around 6 hours to drive but the Hayabusa Bullet train covers the distance in 2 hours 11 minutes. And that was how I made my way there, relaxing in a comfy seat and browsing TimeZone courtesy of the free on board WiFi.
The area around Morioka is mountainous & heavily wooded, but the city itself sits in a plain at the junction of three rivers. Even though the area around the city was spared most of the WWII bombing, the Seiko factory is around 30 minutes outside town; set, almost invisibly amongst trees, a few hundred yards from the main road.
As the taxi pulled up, several of the management came out to welcome us, we walked inside, removed our shoes and donned slippers and then retired to a meeting room for a quick briefing on the plant, their history and what they do there; I learned some very interesting facts:
Here is a scale model of the factory to give you an idea of the mammoth scale of the place.
Then it was time for the real purpose of my trip, a guided tour of the factory. The really interesting thing for me is the dual purpose of the factories; on the ground floor is a mammoth production area devoted solely to the production of quartz movements; they make several dozen thousands a day. But they are NOT Seiko movements, rather they are signed ‘Time Module’ and are sold to watch firms all over the world who install them in inexpensive watches and then put their own names on the dials.
In contrast to this industrial behemoth, one floor up is the area where the mechanical Grand Seiko and Credor watches are made. On the wall outside the area are photographs & certificates for all the workers therein, sorted by the three grades into which they fall.
The area is quite small probably 100 yards by 20 yards and less than a hundred people work in an area split into four or five rooms; it has a glass wall on the long north side, looking out on to a tree covered landscape whilst the south side is also a glass wall with a corridor where visitors can see the artisans at work; fortunately I was allowed inside.
Here you can see the view from the corridor into the assembly area and out on to the view of the woods.
Here you can see the corridor with a raised platform so that visitors can get a good view of the workers.
The first room we entered was the testing room, the first thing that I noticed was the preponderance of binocular microscopes; which were used much more than in any Swiss factory I have ever visited. The testing of mechanical GS watches makes a mockery of the COSC tests; every movement is tested for 17 days and then once the watch is finally assembled, the completed watch is then tested for a further 14 days.
Then, it was time to enter the ‘holy of holies’; the actual assembly area; in order to do this, we had to don full protective gear, anti static overall & cap, protective bootees over our shoes and then enter an airlock where strong blasts of compressed air blew off any dust clinging to us. The other purpose of the airlock is because the assembly area is kept at an overpressure to the rest of the factory, meaning that if a door is opened; air will rush out, not in & so no dust can enter. Once you enter the area your first couple of steps are onto a sticky mat, so that anything, which had adhered to the soles of your bootees, will be removed. The level of cleanliness was somewhere between a surgical operating room & a microchip production facility.
The sight that greeted me was almost domestic in scale; around 40 workers sat at identical benches bent over microscopes.
Each worker sat on a very expensive Herman Miller Aeron chair at a bench which had been built to their specific requirements & physique; the benches were made by local craftsmen from a really beautiful dark local wood, which bore more than a passing resemblance to ebony. Each bench bore the name of the person who worked on it.
The system used here is that one person is responsible for the assembly of one movement from start to finish & their name is kept with the records of that movement, so that if a watch comes back for service, then the person who built that movement will be the one to service it; a level of responsibility I have never previously encountered. I was then allowed to see one of the craftsmen assemble a GS automatic movement from scratch.
I was pleased to see that the gentleman assembling the watch was wearing one of his own.
This current GS Automatic movement, the 9S, was introduced in 1998 but has no relation to the previous GS automatic from the 1970s. But whilst the focus was on GS, I was actually more impressed by the Credor movements made in the same room; if the GS ‘production facility’ was quite small, the Credor one was miniscule, only two watchmakers work on these and produce just a few hundred movements a year. But what movements they are; measuring just 1.9mm thick, it is genuinely amazing to look at.
This is one of the movements compared to a Japanese coin; it is about the thickness of a US 5c coin.
What I love about it isn’t the decoration or the skeletonization of the movement, rather it is the layout of the plates and bridges, there has been some obvious respect for the aesthetic aspect of the movement design, in many ways it reminds me of the movements that Patek made during the 1950s and 1960s. Nowadays too many movements are designed with no thought for the way they look.
The next room is where the assembled movements are cased; the cases come from an associated Seiko company nearby. Here are some Credor cases, awaiting the super slim movements I showed earlier (the script at the bottom of the dial reads ‘UTM’, meaning Ultra Thin Movement)
Once cased, it is time for more testing; as I said earlier, the completed GS watches are then tested for fourteen days; the first job is to place them in a box which winds all the automatic watches.
The next room was quality control; parts arrive from other divisions of the firm and are then checked for quality and consistency.
Then it was back downstairs to visit a little room, much too small to be called a museum, but one that contained some of the most interesting exhibits of my entire visit. I don’t know how many of you know about Seiko’s success in the Swiss chronometer trials of the late 1960s. These were competitions between manufacturers using specially designed and constructed movements to see who could make the most accurate watch. In 1969, Seiko dominated the results beating all the famed Swiss makers with this movement, nicknamed the ‘Potato’.
As with all chronometer test watches, it had a remarkably unassuming dial.
I believe it was part of the chronometer rules that this style of dial had to be used, compare it to my Longines 30Z made a little earlier for the same competitions.
Then it was back downstairs to put my shoes back on; as I looked up from tying my shoe laces I saw something strange from the corner of my eye and wandered over to have a look; it was, without doubt, the strangest Seiko timepiece I have ever seen.
It was made by the factory’s employees in their spare time and, more than anything, disproves the idea that the Japanese do not have a sense of humor.
This is the end of the first factory visit report; so, if all you are interested in is watches, then goodbye. But, back at the station, I saw something really interesting, so I thought I might share it with the rest of you. Everyone knows that the Shinkansen (bullet trains) are always on time, not only that, but they stop EXACTLY where they should. We were in car 9, so this is where we had to stand.
A few minutes early, our train pulls into the station and sits there with the doors closed, so I wander down to the end of the train to have a look.
The Hayabusa Bullet Trains have almost impossibly long noses, as part of their aerodynamic design and the front and rear are identical.
As I got to the tail, there was a whirring noise and the extreme tail of the train opened up like a clamshell to reveal some strange machinery.
A moment later another Shinkansen came in on the same line, with its front clamshell doors open.
It came within six feet of our train before stopping, then a railroad employee signalled the driver and it inched slowly forward until they touched and the two blocks locked on to each other.
Later, I was sent this image from a Seiko employee of Rob Wilson from Seiko International & I looking at the ‘mating’ and I realised that the hatched outline on the floor marks the point at which the trains connect.
If you want to see a video of the ‘mating’, here you go:
If you have read this far, thank you & stay tuned for part II, where I visit the Suwa plant where all the quartz & Spring Drive Grand Seiko & Credor watches are made. Part III will be my lengthy interview with Mr. Hattori and a visit to the Seiko Museum, whilst the final part will be Mr. Hattori’s answer to our readers’ questions.