Making Boots With Shimano

The next time you go boarding or are in a snowboard shop, take a minute to really look at the snowboard boot. Would you believe almost 200 people touched the boot while it was being manufactured? For the price you paid, it was actually a great deal.

While the number of workers involved in manufacturing the boot seems pretty impressive, the story is even more complicated, involving multi-national corporations, several international factories, even more subcontractors, R&D teams chasing snow around the globe, daily e-mails between offices in four different countries, countless focus groups, and extensive on- and off-snow testing. All this just to make that boot you're looking at.

To get an inside look at how one company goes about designing snowboard boots, SNOWboarding Busines followed the Shimano snowboard boot design staff for several weeks, visiting its snowboard team house in Government Camp, Oregon; headquarters and binding factories in Japan; and several of its boot factories in Korea. What we found was a team of people dedicated to not just making superior products, but to making snowboarding easier and more fun for all of us.

Shimano Overview Shimano is well known for its expertise in bicycle parts. The company was founded in 1921 as Shimano Iron Works and was listed on the Tokyo stock exchange in 1973. Located in Sakai, Osaka, Japan, the headquarters employs several thousand and manufactures many of its bike parts at its facilities, with all kinds of different parts production and assembly lines in-house. To help protect itself from changes in business volume, the company uses many subcontractors in the local area. The comapny has diversified itself into fishing and now the snowboarding worlds. Currently 70 percent of the company's business is bike related, with the other 30 percent coming from fishing and action sports.

In the early 90s, Shimano teamed up with K2 to develop, launch, and market the Clicker step-in boot and binding system. It was a good match, with Shimano's engineering and production background and K2's marketing and snow-sports strengths. The two prepared to change the snowboard industry and pioneer the new boot and binding category.

As a goal of offering the consumer more boot-model choices, Shimano developed its own boot line to be sold in conjunction with K2's models. To further expand the step-in choices, Nitro, Raichle, and Northwave also license the Clicker system for boots. Shimano actually runs all the binding production, most of which is done by subcontractors in the Osaka area.

Shimpei Okajima is the director of both the snowboarding program and the bike footwear. Working with him in the office is Shuichi “Shu” Hirayama, is the main designer, and a small staff dedicated to the snowboarding division. This group is complemented by the Irvine, California office which houses Carrie Kizuka who works on women's and kids' boots and John Telfer, who overseas sales, team, and just about everything else. They are also aided by Brian Dennis, a full-time freelance designer who lives and works just outside Hood River, Oregon. Dennis runs the summer house in Government Camp and tests new designs all summer. He accominied me on the trip to Japan and Korea as tour guide.

To be quite honest, Shimpei doesn't think the step-in growth has happened as quickly as he thought it would. “History says that new businesses can take ten years to develop sometimes,” he says in a tone that hints of long-range planning and extreme patience. It's the opposite of the Western, must-make-money-immediately attitude. However, like their Western counterparts, he wonders out loud if the Shimano management will allow the snowboard division to operate that long before it shows a profit. After all, they answer to shareholders now as well.

He also feels that Shimano must contribute back to the industry d says that he's willing, in the future, to share research and information that he gathers “We've taken a lot from others like Burton and have to give back.”

Shinpei has other concerns as well. “I hope Burton will promote step-ins,” he says. “The worst thing they can do is to say snowboarders shouldn't try step-ins. That would hurt all of us.”

The Factory

Shimano's snowboard boots are produced by a company called Wooyun, based in Kimhae, Korea, just outside of Pusan. It was founded around eleven years ago as a joint venture between some Korean businessmen and Shimano, which actually owns 49 percent of the company. This enables the factory to get regular production business from Shimano, but without Shimano having to take all the financial burdens associated with changing production levels.

The Wooyun complex is a series of medium size white buildings climbing up a small hill with parking lots and walkways connecting them all. There are two large busses in front, used to bring in the employees from the city every day. There are also quite a few cars in the lot, a mixture of sedans and SUV's. All employees own stock and are motivated. One woman hasn't missed a day of work in ten years.

In 1997, Wooyun founded a factory in Lianyungang, China to help with production volumes and bring down costs. Now, total boot construction from beginning to end can take place in China, but depending on volumes and model runs, sometimes only the labor-intensive upper stitching is done in China, leaving the final construction to take place in Korea.

Although not as intensive as the upper construction, the boot assembly still requires a factory line of 46 people from start to finish. (The same line can be used for Shimano's bike shoe construction as well.)

Building Boots The Wooyun assembly line is located on the first floor in one of the main center buildings. It takes a while to prepare the line for the different products, but once up and running, there's a constant flow of activity.

The uppers are brought from China factory, while the steel Clicker cleat parts come from Japan. The rubber sole is injected around the steel parts at another facility in Korea, then brought to the assembly line where the final product is put together.

On the line, the upper is stapled to a lasting board (which looks like a plastic foot) and then heated up to 109 degrees celsius to soften up for the lasting machine. The lasting machine stretches the leather and other materials used to make the boots into the actual foot shape. This is done for both the toe and heel shape of the boot, and some assembly lines even do it for the sides of the boot.

Since all the material in this process came from flat pieces of fabric, making them stretch into curved, three-dimensional shapes sometimes causes the material to bunch up. After the lasting machine, excess material is buffed off with a belt sander much like you'd use to sand the bottom of a snowboard.

At this point, the upper is beginning to take a boot shape. It's heated again and padding added to the bottom. Then comes two coats of glue with a heating process between each coat, and finally the sole is placed on the bottom. The whole thing is then put in a super-squeezer machine to make sure there's good contact between the two surfaces. It's then cooled for another five minutes to a temperature of -2 degrees Celsius, and the last is finally removed from the now almost final boot.

In the final stretch, a footbed is inserted and extra glue is added just along the visible edges if needed. At this point, the boots are looked over by the eagle eyes of the Quality Control department and are clicked into two different Clicker bindings just to make sure they work right.

Hangtags are added and finally the boots are wrapped and boxed. Size stickers and identifying barcodes are added to the boxes and the barcodes are scanned and recorded as the boxes move into the warehouse. At this point, the boots can be tracked all the way to the shops for delivery information.

Behind The Line Although the production takes place on the assembly line, it's what happens in the rest of the building that brings the boots to the level of where they are. The Wooyun staff takes the designs, testing and feedback from the Shimano staff and incorporate them into the manufacturing process. Wooyun's New Technology Vice President DJ Oh oversees things in the different departments such as the Development Planning Team and the New Model Development Team. Each group focuses on its area and is integral to the final process.

Indeed the parts are greater than the whole and the staff at Wooyun are constantly thinking about making the snowboard boots better, oftentimes anticipating what their U.S. and Japanese counterparts will come up with out in the field.

Other Factories While in Korea, sometimes things just pop up unexpectedly. Late one morning a footbed subcontractor is in the office and an impromtu meeting is held. Other companies' samples are shown to illustrate what the different capabilities are, although some of the designs and technology are propietary to the other companies. Brian Dennis had been working on one footbed design conception for a while now, and he finally got to ask the supplier if samples could be made. After explaining the design, the supplier said he could do it once a design sheet was looked at. Another thing for Dennis to work on.

Wooyun actually owns several different companies. There is another boot assembly facility where some K2 models are made. Although both K2 and Shimano are building boots for the Clicker system, there's a great deal of attention made to separate the two production processes and to differentiate the lines.

Another affilitate company is called Core Composits. It specialized in carbon fiber construction. The company builds the carbon soles for some of Shimano's bike shoes, and has done some work with the Clicker bindings. In addition, it also has a polymers and buckle development departments. The ladder is intergral in developing new parts that will show up on next year's Shimano step-in boots. This is another part of the puzzle where the company doesn't have to rely on suppliers, but can use its own resources and affiliates in the development process.

(For more details on Shimano's boot production process, lot on to www.snowboarding-online and check out the related stories.) ntifying barcodes are added to the boxes and the barcodes are scanned and recorded as the boxes move into the warehouse. At this point, the boots can be tracked all the way to the shops for delivery information.

Behind The Line Although the production takes place on the assembly line, it's what happens in the rest of the building that brings the boots to the level of where they are. The Wooyun staff takes the designs, testing and feedback from the Shimano staff and incorporate them into the manufacturing process. Wooyun's New Technology Vice President DJ Oh oversees things in the different departments such as the Development Planning Team and the New Model Development Team. Each group focuses on its area and is integral to the final process.

Indeed the parts are greater than the whole and the staff at Wooyun are constantly thinking about making the snowboard boots better, oftentimes anticipating what their U.S. and Japanese counterparts will come up with out in the field.

Other Factories While in Korea, sometimes things just pop up unexpectedly. Late one morning a footbed subcontractor is in the office and an impromtu meeting is held. Other companies' samples are shown to illustrate what the different capabilities are, although some of the designs and technology are propietary to the other companies. Brian Dennis had been working on one footbed design conception for a while now, and he finally got to ask the supplier if samples could be made. After explaining the design, the supplier said he could do it once a design sheet was looked at. Another thing for Dennis to work on.

Wooyun actually owns several different companies. There is another boot assembly facility where some K2 models are made. Although both K2 and Shimano are building boots for the Clicker system, there's a great deal of attention made to separate the two production processes and to differentiate the lines.

Another affilitate company is called Core Composits. It specialized in carbon fiber construction. The company builds the carbon soles for some of Shimano's bike shoes, and has done some work with the Clicker bindings. In addition, it also has a polymers and buckle development departments. The ladder is intergral in developing new parts that will show up on next year's Shimano step-in boots. This is another part of the puzzle where the company doesn't have to rely on suppliers, but can use its own resources and affiliates in the development process.

(For more details on Shimano's boot production process, lot on to www.snowboarding-online and check out the related stories.)