Located in Sakai, Osaka, Japan, the Shimano headquarters and factory spans several city blocks. It is an impressive mix of industrial buildings and formal corporate offices that sit side by side in the industrial district of town. Walking down an access road between buildings, one can look through large metal doors into assembly lines and factory facilities. It’s noisy and busy, with machines moving quickly and parts moving around and around. One must pay attention or become an injury statistic.

I follow Brian Dennis into one building and we head upstairs, above another automated assembly line to a large open office where we meet Shinpei Okajima, director of Shimano’s snowboard boot and bike shoe business. He proceeds to give us a tour of the facilities and spend some time explaining Shimano’s corporate structure and history.

The company was actually founded in 1921 as Shimano Iron works and was listed on the Tokyo stock exchange in 1973. While its reputation was made in the bicycle world, the company has diversified itself into the fishing and now snowboarding worlds. Currently, 70 percent of the company’s business is bike parts, with the other 30 percent coming from fishing and action sports.

Employees dressed casual, but wore blue lab coats over their polo shirts. In the offices, they abide by Japanese tradition and take off their shoes and walk around in sandals. Most of the space is open with desks next to each other in rows. All have computers and phones. Meeting rooms are divided by glass walls, but are still quite visible, with samples of shoes, boots, and bike parts on shelves in just about every corner.

Shimano is a manufacturing company made up of engineers who constantly try to improve designs. According to Shinpei, the company is ISO 9001 certified and is working on a new manufacturing standard called 6 Sigma. The program basically means that the manufacturing only experiences a four-out-of-a-million failure rate.

He also talks about such modern business strategies as one-to-one marketing and just-in-time delivery and how the company is trying to adapt quickly to these new ideas. Custom ordering over the Internet isn’t that far away either, he says, and the company is preparing now.

Brief History

Shimano started with its snowboard program in 1993 through its Clicker partnership with K2. The Japanese brought the manufacturing expertise and experience from the SPD bike pedal which the Clicker system was patterned after. K2 brought in marketing experience and wintersports legitimacy.

While the company is huge, the snowboard team is just a fraction. “The snowboard program comprises eight people in Japan and three people in the U.S.,” says Shinpei. “The R&D department has four people in Japan and three in U.S.” John Telfer, Carrie Kizuka, and Brian Dennis. Some customer service, product delivery, and all repping is done through K2.”

But the number of people actually involved goes up when factory employees are included, even though they aren’t actually Shimano employees. There are more than twenty people at the boot factory helping with R&D, testing, and production – besides the assembly line manufacturers.

Shinpei says development of the action-sport division was a direct result of the company trying to capture a younger audience, although the movement to step-in bindings in the snowboard market hasn’t happened as quickly as they thought.

“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.

Our conversation lasts a few hours. We talk about many different things including quality, R&DD and testing, the team riders in Japan, and about several different staff members like Kei Ishii who’s been riding for seventeen years and is an ISF judge in Japan.

Another interesting story: the company now ships its boots in refrigerated containers because the heat and humidity was shrinking the leather and changing the sizing on the trip from China to Europe. However, the containers going from China to the U.S. didn’t experience the same heat and weren’t changing sizes.

I learn that Shimano is working with the University of Reno, Nevada to study the biomechanics of snowboarding. The company is hooking electronic equipment up to boards and bindings to study the forces that are involved with riding and how to make better products and even share this information with other snowboard companies.

“We have to contribute back to the industry,” Shinpei says. “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. I was a little confused by this statement, thinking that Shimano would rather do without the competition. But he looked at it another way.

“The worst thing they can do is to say snowboarders shouldn’t try step-ins. That would hurt all of us.”

Again, I understood that he was looking at a bigger picture, beyond his own business and realizing that what was good for snowboarding would be good for his business, not the other way around. I couldn’t argue with that.

Monday afternoon, Shimano visit

In the afternoon, we head out to see some of the different subsidiaries that work on the Clicker binding production. The bindings area actually assembled in a series of different small sheds and garages that are behind houses. The bindings are shipped from one to another to do each of the different assembly processes. One wonders why it’s not all done on one big assembly line, but using the subcontractors makes sense for the small quantities and short production times. This way Shimano doesn’t have to pay for staffing, equipment, and all the other variables involved in production.

I’m told it would take a day to visit all the different subcontractors that only work on the snowboard bindings. We visit four, three of which are straight assembly with small teams of five to ten people working at attaching the cleats to the baseplate, attaching the highback to the baseplate, and so on.

One was different, though. In a small production facility we got to see the cold forging that pounds pieces of metal into the actual size of the cleats. One slip of the finger and you’d be on disability pay, as the different workers placed the small metal pieces into a mold then a huge hammer came down and crushed it into the correct shape.

The headquarters and binding production visit was interesting and thorough, but I came to Asia to build snowboard boots and tomorrow we’ll be off to Korea to finally see that action. Tune in again to see what really happens in a snowboard boot factory.