Hand-built bullet trains, made-to-order
August 28, 2009 6:08 AM   Subscribe

Yamashita Kogyosho (jp) is a small manufacturer of about 30 people based in Kudamatsu, a city in Yamaguchi Prefecture, western Japan. Like many small urban factories (so-called "machikoba"), they specialize in precision metalwork under contract to major corporations. But Yamashita Kogyosho is special: they create the noses for bullet trains. By hand.

(relevant scenes begin at 2:54 in the video above)

Kiyoto Yamashita, the founder, began by hammering out the nose cones for the original 0 Series Shinkansen in 1963 for Hitachi. Yamashita Kogyosho craftsmen have since created the noses for the N700 Series and 500 Series Shinkansen, the Taiwan High Speed 700T Train, and the 500 kmh experimental maglev train, among others. Today, the man in charge of actually crafting these nose cones is Jiro Kunimura. Using sheets of aluminum only a few millimeters thick, it takes him approximately three or four weeks to complete one 15 meter-long nose, and he and his team can produce up to 20 per year.

Yamashita and his company were recognized in 2007 by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry with the Monodzukuri Nippon Grand Award, which recognizes unique contributions to Japanese manufacturing. Monodzukuri (or monozukuri) literally means "the making of things," but in Japan refers to an entire way of thinking about manufacturing and the economy. However, the company's chief concern isn't orders -- they have enough for the next three years -- but rather passing on these unique skills to the next generation. It takes ten years to master the technique and only constant practice makes perfect. Interested? They're recruiting.
posted by armage (24 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hmm, they use very much the same techniques as the master coachbuilders of the 1930s-1960s used to build the bodies of bespoke cars. I think this company could certainly gain a (very) profitable sideline in classic car restoration and repair. Although, if they have a three-year order backlog, why should they bother?
posted by Skeptic at 6:19 AM on August 28, 2009


I wonder whether the Hitachi "Javelin" trains they're introducing to the UK (for the Olympic service along part of the Channel Tunnel high-speed line) will have noses handcrafted by Yamashita and company.
posted by acb at 6:22 AM on August 28, 2009


Even though I seem to completely agree with monodzukuri, I still feel an almost overwhelming compulsion to ask if handmade bullet train noses are really as good as/better than/worth the cost.

Financial optimization thinking is so pervasive that it's very hard to shake.
posted by DU at 6:26 AM on August 28, 2009


Panel beating in coachbuilding.
posted by Skeptic at 6:26 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I still feel an almost overwhelming compulsion to ask if handmade bullet train noses are really as good as/better than/worth the cost.

According to what I've read about the process, due to the complexity of the noses it is actually easier and more accurate to produce them this way. I doubt the price would change much even if it were automated simply because so few are produced, and the design changes for each model.
posted by armage at 6:44 AM on August 28, 2009


I am never going to fully understand the word "bespoke."
posted by swift at 6:52 AM on August 28, 2009


It's an old fashioned way of saying "spoken for" — the past tense of "bespeak." It refers to manufactured goods that are already spoken for by a particular buyer before they're even made. Contrast the modern practice of mass producing things with no particular buyer in mind, and then putting 'em up for sale and seeing who bites.

Or was that not the question?
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:06 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I am never going to fully understand the word "bespoke."

Has to be a troll. You would know the word if you'd read The Diamond Age, and I'm not ready to believe that anyone on MeFi is insufficiently nerdy to have not read that.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:11 AM on August 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


Thank you, nebulawindphone. That was helpful.

Sorry for the derail, please continue.
posted by swift at 7:16 AM on August 28, 2009


> I still feel an almost overwhelming compulsion to ask if handmade bullet train noses are really as good as/better than/worth the cost.

Depends on the precision necessary. The cost of tuning the machinery that can mass-produce these to the accuracy that hand craftsmanship is capable of can be greater than making the end product by hand.

The other thing to keep in mind is that railroad engines are factory built at the rate of maybe a dozen a year or less, with the potential for customization for the needs of different territories and countries. There is probably is not a switchyard somewhere in central Japan with a queue of 200 Shinkansen engines waiting for their noses.
posted by ardgedee at 7:39 AM on August 28, 2009


I wonder whether the Hitachi "Javelin" trains they're introducing to the UK (for the Olympic service along part of the Channel Tunnel high-speed line) will have noses handcrafted by Yamashita and company.

I'm curious how these noses will do when they meet their first brick or post-pub stumbler.
posted by srboisvert at 7:46 AM on August 28, 2009


Hana ga takai!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:32 AM on August 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


Nice post, arnage - thanks!

Sorry for the derail, please continue.

Don't worry, swift, it looks like the discussion is back on track now.
posted by carter at 8:41 AM on August 28, 2009


There really is no more economical way to produce these noses. The panels on your car are made by stamping a sheet of steel in one operation, but the inner and outer dies required to form the complex shapes are unique for one particular part and are fabulously expensive to make. Only when there are huge quantities of panels to produce do they become cost effective. Over the past decades the United States fixation on becoming a service economy has directed a negative connotation to jobs requiring manual skills. As a result, these skills and the factories that employed them have been lost probably for ever. In my industry, parts that were routinely produced in US foundries have to be made overseas because that capability just no longer exists.
posted by digsrus at 8:42 AM on August 28, 2009


> I still feel an almost overwhelming compulsion to ask if handmade bullet train noses are really as good as/better than/worth the cost.

Depends on the precision necessary. The cost of tuning the machinery that can mass-produce these to the accuracy that hand craftsmanship is capable of can be greater than making the end product by hand.


Actually, I don't think it's a matter of precision. If you are making the noses out of metal, there just aren't that many alternative ways of making them: it's either manual panel beating, or pressing with a die. Since the cost of a complex die is very high, manual panel beating remains competitive for very small runs.

The only alternative would be to make the noses from fibre-reinforced plastic (glass- or carbonfibre), and while this does not require quite as much skill, it still is very labour-intensive. The replacement rate of the noses would also be much higher, as FRP is quite brittle, and thus far from an ideal material for a part frequently hit by stone chips at high speed. Aluminium, on the other hand, can be just bashed back into shape.

There are thus good technical and economic reasons for making the bullet train noses in such a fashion, and not just a mystical sense of "monozukuri".
posted by Skeptic at 8:47 AM on August 28, 2009


This is an awesome post.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:05 AM on August 28, 2009


Hey, I speak Japanese. Shinkansen are awesome. Maybe I should send in my resume.
posted by pts at 10:27 AM on August 28, 2009


I think a lot more stuff is handmade than people realize. If you've ever opened a laptop up and seen wires taped into place, all that tape got put there by a human hand.
posted by GuyZero at 10:52 AM on August 28, 2009


This is fantastic. Thanks!
posted by clockwork at 11:28 AM on August 28, 2009


Over the past decades the United States fixation on becoming a service economy has directed a negative connotation to jobs requiring manual skills. As a result, these skills and the factories that employed them have been lost probably for ever. In my industry, parts that were routinely produced in US foundries have to be made overseas because that capability just no longer exists.

One of the things I noticed while in Germany was there was a lot more custom metal-work on the buildings and correspondingly a lot of little custom machine shops. It may be economical to make custom bullet-noses but there is definitely a culture (and appreciation) of custom design in Germany and Japan.

It even filters down to trivial things: my boss in germany was trying to buy a futon to sleep on. So he goes into a futon store and asks to buy a futon. The owner of the store asks him how much he weighs, how he sleeps, a whole bunch of personal questions, and then says: "I am sorry, but I cannot sell you that futon, it isn't right for you. We will have to special order one for you from Berlin."
posted by geos at 12:37 PM on August 28, 2009


This is indeed a great post. One of the interesting things about these factories is that they are everywhere. You can come across small factories just about anywhere in Japan, even in areas that seem entirely residential. Many of the largest companies in Japan (Honda/Toyota, etc) outsource their parts manufacturing to dozens, if not hundreds of companies, marking a direct contrast to American (and, I imagine, European) firms which either make many of their own parts, or buy them from a single manufacturing company.

They both have their plusses and minuses, but one of the things here is that, say, when the economy takes a dip, or demand drops, these factories will layoff workers at the drop of a hat. Many of the workers at these factories are part-time workers, and they aren't usually included in tallies of how many workers were let go by larger companies. This year, when the news was full of the giant numbers of layoffs by car manufacturers (and they were pretty staggering), very little was mentioned about the small factory parts providers. When Toyota suspended manufacturing of cars, I can see these factories taking the largest hit.

Of course, Yamashita seems to have a pretty solid system set up, and they get to make some of the snazziest parts in the world.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:57 PM on August 28, 2009


marking a direct contrast to American (and, I imagine, European) firms which either make many of their own parts, or buy them from a single manufacturing company

Not to my knowedge though maybe all those not-run-by-a-car-company plants I see around are making parts for domestically-assembled Japanese cars. But there are definitely plenty of third-party parts suppliers for domestic manufacturers.
posted by GuyZero at 3:16 PM on August 28, 2009


Many of the largest companies in Japan (Honda/Toyota, etc) outsource their parts manufacturing to dozens, if not hundreds of companies, marking a direct contrast to American (and, I imagine, European) firms which either make many of their own parts, or buy them from a single manufacturing company.

I doubt that's true even for US car makers - the car industry is full of specialized companies that do everything from individual parts to entire subsystems, quite often on a just-in-time basis (sequence suppliers). A quick check indicates that we have roughly a thousand companies only in Sweden that work primarily as suppliers to the car industry (or as subcontractors to suppliers). Large volume car production is as much logistics as manufacturing capacity these days.
posted by effbot at 7:00 PM on August 28, 2009


My first job out of high school was working as a parts guy in a big machine shop that made custom oilfield equipment. A lot of the stuff they made was routine bread and butter (wellheads, valves and pigs of various kinds), but they were always taking on weird shit like 900 lb. blocks of brass to be turned into high-pressure hydraulic controller thingies, or custom plant control units, most of which was small numbers and entirely handmade. In retrospect, some of the guys there had very creative jobs (some didn't, too) - and there was a whole lot of team thinking to see how they could get the thing done and out the door and still make a few bucks.
posted by sneebler at 8:50 PM on August 28, 2009


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