James goes to Japan: Seiko Factory Tour (Part 2)
The following morning I was up bright & early, met my Seiko escorts in the hotel lobby and made our way to the train station, after a 30 minute cross town journey we arrived at Shinjuku station where we boarded a train to Shiojiri where Seiko’s other watch factory is located, near the city of Suwa. The factory is located around 80 miles east of Tokyo, but although that is less than a quarter of the distance to the Morioka plant, there are no Bullet Trains on this route, so the journey takes rather longer. On the trip, it is evident that the train is slowing down as we gradually climb, I see steep slopes and the occasional cliff from the train windows.
And everywhere I see sheaves of freshly harvested rice drying in the late September sun.
I am reminded of how big a company Seiko really as we pass several Seiko operations visible from the train window.
When we arrive at our destination the first thing I see is the station clock.
Then it is into another Toyota Prius taxi, these seem to be ubiquitous in Japan, except in Tokyo where the old fashioned Crown is the vehicle of choice. Speaking of taxis; there is a quote that the average iPhone has more computing power than Apollo 11 needed to get to the moon & back; well the average Tokyo taxi has more computing power than NASA’s control room at Kennedy needed to control that mission.
On the journey to the factory, I was amazed to see vineyards everywhere, until it was explained to me that this is Japan’s wine area.
It was almost time to harvest the grapes & so to protect them from insects in these final weeks prior to the harvest, they are protected by being encased in white paper bags, which also have the added effect of acting like miniature greenhouses, keeping the sun’s heat in during the chilly nights, it is a method I have never seen before.
But after a 20 minute trip we were at the factory.
The Seiko Factory at Shiojiri
The eagle eyed amongst you will have seen that the factory bears the two names Seiko and Epson. I will explain the relationship between these two companies in a footnote* for those of you who are interested.
Once again, a warm welcome awaited us as we entered and, again, it was off with the shoes and on with the slippers and off to a small conference room for a quick introduction to the facility. Some quick facts about the place; they moved here from Tokyo in 1942, there are six building spread out around the complex, employing around 600 staff but less than a quarter of them work in the areas I had come to see, the Quartz GS, the Spring Drive & the Micro Artist Studio where the very high end Credor pieces are produced.
As well as those pieces, they also make the Kinetic watches, 5 million of which they have produced so far, as well as the one they are most proud of, the Astron GPS Solar. Despite only having introduced it two years ago, last year saw a completely new movement for the watch, which even thought it now included a chronograph was 40% smaller than the first version. For example the original movement used two circuit boards whilst the new one has just one.
The lower compartments in the tray show the older versions & the upper the new ones, look at the difference in the sizes of the accumulators (rechargeable battery) shown on the left and the GPS antennae shown on the right. The new battery is 50% smaller than the first, the antenna is now only 35mm diameter rather than 38mm; meaning it is now possible to introduce a ladies version of the watch. Even though almost all the components have been reduced in size, the motor used to drive the hands now produces more torque, enabling it to drive longer & thicker hands with no problem. Part of the improved efficiency comes from a new in-house developed coating for the glass which now allows 99% of the light received to pass straight through to the solar cells below.
Overall the new movement is 3.2mm thinner and 20 grams lighter than the previous one, yet has more functions & has a more powerful motor. If the original Astron GPS Solar was revolutionary, the new one is a major evolutionary change within a very short time. I await, with bated breath, what these folks will do next.
Then we left the meeting room & proceeded to the factory, after walking along some corridors, we turned a corner and I was confronted with this sign.
I had my Sony RX-1 in my hand, with my notebook in the other and obviously looked crestfallen at the sight of the sign, but my host smiled and said “Don’t worry James, take whatever photographs you like; if there is anything we don’t want you to photograph, we will let you know”. Reassured, we moved on.
The first thing I saw was the inspection department, once again binocular microscopes were everywhere; but what really intrigued me were the huge rectangular boxes in front of every desk.
Behind the young lady you can see the rear of these; in fact they are huge air filters, air is drawn in at the back, all dust (of any size down to a few microns) is trapped in a series of screens and completely dust free air is, very gently, wafted out of the whole front over the whole of the individual work area. These were, of course, designed and produced in house and, after over 50 factory visits, I have never seen anything like them.
Then it was on to the assembly area for the spring drive watches; if you were expecting some vast production line, you would be sadly mistaken, as it is smaller than the area for the assembly of quartz Grand Seiko watches. Understandable when you realise that their current capacity is fully stretched with their production of 8 Spring Drive watches & 3 Spring Drive chronographs per day.
But if the production of Spring Drives is limited, then the output of the next department I visited can best be described as ‘miniscule’; the Micro Arts Studio has 11 employees and over the last five years has produced only 26 of their Sonnerie watches.
And their other watch, the Minute Repeater has an infitessimally small production run, so far, of only 3 watches.
But, as the Sonnerie sells for 15 million Yen (around $150,000 US) and the Minute Repeater for 34 million Yen (around $340,000 US); the market isn’t exactly huge. However, they have just introduced a new watch to the catalogue, the Eichii II a simple three hand watch, of which they expect to produce around 20 a year, even though at 5.5 million Yes (around $55,000US) it can hardly be described as either mass produced or cheap. But it is stunning; if you realise that the original employees of the Micro Arts Studio went to Switzerland to study & train with Philippe Dufour prior to setting up the studio, you can understand the input he has had into the aesthetic of the watch.
Just look at the enamel dial, hand made and hand painted in the time honoured way. A solid piece of lapis is crushed down to a fine powder in a mortar, oil is added to create the pigment and it is applied with a fine squirrel hair brush to the dial.
The dial is then fired in an oven and the process is repeated several times until the correct depth of enamel is obtained.
Whilst the dial is gorgeous, I almost feel that the movement is even nicer; I think it is one of the most beautifully designed movements I have seen in a very long time.
Look at the satin finish on the plates, look at the anglage on those plates, that high polish finish is obtained by hand rubbing with a stick made of Gentian wood. The irony is that it was the Swiss who first discovered the natural lubricating properties of Gentian & it was they who used it for hand finishing movements. For a while Seiko imported small quantities from Switzerland before discovering that it is actually an Asian plant & now they use Japanese Gentian.
Cast your eyes over the chrysanthemum pattern cut into the bottom of the mainspring barrel and how the chrysanthemum is used once again as the logo of the Micro Arts Studio down by the balance.
Just outside the studio, was this plaque bearing the philosophy & mission of the Micro Arts Studio
Reading the English translation of the top one, I suppose you could say that “You never own a Micro Arts Studio watch, you merely take care of it for the next generation, and the one after that”.
Then it was into the area where the Grand Seiko quartz and Spring Drive pieces; if you think that they are just nicely cased Seiko watches with ordinary quartz movements; the truth is far from that. The movements are as nicely finished as the Grand Seiko mechanical watches.
Once again, the rule here is one watch, one person; and, again the use of binocular microscopes is amazing.
Once cased, the watches are then tested, both for watertightness and for accuracy.
At the end of the room is a bank of pressure testers, where every watch undergoes testing to 25% over its rated depth.
Sitting beside the machines was a tray of Spring Drive Marinemasters awaiting their turn at testing in the cabinets, which are used for temperature testing.
Note that one has a red tag, indicating high temperature testing, whilst the other has a blue one showing that it is conducting low temperature tests.
If anyone has ever read some of the stuff I have written about Grand Seiko, you will remember that I give my highest praise for the hands of these watches, and I was then lucky enough to see not only the hands being done but also the baton indices.
There are many ways of making a blued steel hand, using a coloured alloy, chemical treatment; or the old fashioned way, by heating the steel to an exact temperature and then dousing it to stop the colour change. For the high end Seiko watches; only the old fashioned way is good enough.
He places one hand on to a metal frame and then puts it on to a hotplate, stands over it until he sees that it has reached the correct tone & swiftly removes it. This is about as far from mass production as you can get; he produces a hand every 2 minutes.
Seeing the dial batons being made was, in some ways, even more impressive; they are applied individually to a large rotating wheel; this is set in motion and the operator applies differing degrees of abrasive pads to them as the wheel revolves.
This, in itself, is not so impressive; but what really amazed me was the fact that each index has NINE surfaces, each receiving several polishes, thereby producing the perfect facets.
From there, it was on to the case making department, where, once again, the level of detail was impressive. The cases are polished one at a time by an operator who examines the progress of the job through a large magnifying glass fixed in between him & the polishing wheel.
By this point it was almost time to go; but there was one thing they wanted me to see, yet it was the only department I wasn’t allowed to physically visit; the Astron GPS Solar production line. Whilst I wasn’t allowed to visit it, this wasn’t because of secrecy; rather the levels of cleanliness in this area were higher than in an operating theatre and equal to those seen in one of Intel’s fabrication plants.
So I got to view it from behind a window; interestingly, the entire line is flanked by windows, so that a viewer can see all of the process, admittedly whilst looking at the backs of the operatives. Much of the work is done by very high tech machines which Seiko/Epson had designed themselves. This is the machine which fixes the hands in exactly the right position for the correct time.
Note the screen at the left showing highly magnified hands, ready to be lifted by the machine & positioned on the dial.
Here the screen is showing exactly where this particular hour hand needs to be positioned.
I would love to have seen more of the Astron GPS Solar production, but my time was up & we didn’t want to miss our train; so I left Shiojiri still unfulfilled, but most certainly looking forward to the next day’s appointment with Shinji Hattori; President & CEO of Seiko; to say nothing of my visit to the Seiko Museum.
* Footnote. When Seiko developed the Seiko Crystal Chronometer QC-951, the world’s first portable quartz timepiece, they realised it would be perfect for the upcoming 1964 Olympic Games due to be held in Tokyo.
However, it did not have the stop/start facilities needed for a sports timer; so they took the ‘guts’ of the machine & added further components which allowed the timer to be started and stopped by means of an electronic signal. This signal could come from the flash of a starting gun or via the breaking of a light beam. With this new technology events were now able to be timed to 1/100th of a second; but that wasn’t the real breakthrough. What was truly amazing for the day was that the device incorporated an integral printer, which spat out the results on a paper adding machine roll. This device was called the EP01, standing for Electronic Printer 1st model. After the Olympics were over, Seiko was inundated by requests to buy the printers but without the associated timer; almost inadvertently Seiko had invented the Dot Matrix Printer. It was decided that a new division of Seiko should be formed to produce & sell these new printers; much less thought was put into the name of the firm than had been put into inventing the products. As the genesis of the project was the EP 01, this new business was, essentially the ‘son’ of the EP01; so they called it Epson.
Seiko Epson remains a part of the Seiko Group but has different shareholders than Seiko Watch Co or Seiko Holdings, but the Hattori family remain the predominant shareholders.