A Tour of SIGMA’s Aizuwakamatsu Factory

Last year (2018) Anan Zeevy, our colleague and former Photokina 2016 photographer visited the SIGMA main production factory in Aizuwakamatsu, Japan. We set down with him in our new studio as he shared his experience and thoughts on his visit. The following is his recollection as he described it to us.

During Photokina 2016, LensVid had the privilege to interview Mr. Kazuto Yamaki – SIGMA’s CEO (and the son of the company’s founder, Mr. Michihiro Yamaki). By privilege I mean we’ve met a remarkable person with vision, commitment and a healthy sense of humor, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. After the interview, we chatted a bit longer and Mr. Yamaki invited me to visit SIGMA’s factory. Fast forward to 2018, Sakura honeymoon in Japan and visiting SIGMA!

The story behind SIGMA corporation makes it even more interesting, it’s about the people, those in the company, the suppliers, the locals, and Japan. Mr. Michihiro Yamaki was an engineer in an optics company which went bankrupt. This, in turn, was about to make the suppliers who depended on that company go bankrupt as well, so they turned to him for help.

In 1961 SIGMA was founded with great technological ambitions and a huge commitment to the community. This continues to this day as SIGMA is known to be a vertically integrated factory, a workplace that doesn’t downsize, employs locals, a company that buys from local suppliers, does as much as possible in house and their products are 100% made and assembled in Japan despite much lower costs of overseas labor.

SIGMA’s factory in Aizuwakamatsu is the home of 1400 employees, some parts of the factory work 24 hours non-stop and the employees work in 9-hour shifts. SIGMA’s headquarters in Kawasaki employs 200 more people, over 75% of which are engineers in different R&D departments. This follows SIGMA’s motto to keep management as lean as possible.

Arriving at the factory in Aizuwakamatsu, we were greeted by SIGMA’s Service & Support section chief, Mr. Manabu Sato, he is going to be our host in this factory tour. We started by going to one of the conference rooms for a short introduction to SIGMA’s history, put on our hats and coats and went to meet the engineers. It’s worth mentioning that in no part of our visit we were required to wear protective gear or noticed any scent of volatile materials, the factory is very well ventilated and it feels that SIGMA is working hard to make the factory as safe as possible to their employees.

In Norse mythology, great warriors go to Valhalla, great hunters go to the eternal hunting grounds. Mechanics, tinkerers and certain artists don’t need to die to go to heaven, they can find a job in a place like SIGMA. But I’m getting ahead of myself, we all know that in the far end of SIGMA’s assembly line we have fully assembled lenses, that’s the easy part. I want to take you through the process.

What makes a lens? Metal, glass, plastic, electronics… Into the factory comes glass (most of it comes from Hoya), black plastic pellets, Aluminum, brass, and HSM motors. From this point on, everything to the tiniest screw is produced and assembled in house.

Glass: raw glass arrives in rudimentary thick lens shape and goes through a three-stage grinding, cutting and polishing process to become a lens. Each and every step is closely monitored and every piece of glass is thoroughly inspected. The finished lens then goes through coating, some elements (lenses) are cemented together using UV hardened glue and assembled into groups. These last steps take place in clean rooms into which we did not enter but could see through the windows.

Brass: brass arrives as sheet metal and goes through stamping dies which are designed and produced in house by SIGMA. The finished parts are nickel plated for extended durability.

Aluminum: pieces of aluminum go through just about every possible manipulation, lathes, drills, CNC machines, every step required to turn an aluminum cylinder into a lens part. The finished parts are inspected using 3D measuring machines and sent to be anodized, painted and sometimes silk printed as well.

Plastic: plastic pellets are being fed into a robotic plastic molding machines. Again, as with mostly everything else, the molds are produced in house.

When all the parts have been finished and thoroughly inspected every step of the way, they are finally sent to the clean assembly room where they are assembled together to make a fully working lens. I need to write that again, each and every single part is inspected on each and every step of manufacturing, QA is taken extremely seriously in the factory.

It’s not over yet though, the lenses have still one more stop to go through, the torture chambers. SIGMA test their lenses under extreme conditions of heat, cold, humidity and vibrations to make sure that while your crew may fail, your equipment won’t.

We finished our factory tour having lunch at SIGMA’s mess hall which has enough space for around 600 employees at a time, meaning lunch is served in 3 shifts. The food is hot, good and pretty cheap, making many of the employees prefer it over the traditional bento boxes.

We would like to thank SIGMA Corporation’s CEO, Mr. Kazuto Yamaki for his invitation, Ms. Kie Tango from SIGMA’s international division for preparing our visit, coming all the way from Kawasaki and helping us to get over the language barrier, the manager of General Affairs division Mr. Koshiro Watanabe who arranged all sightseeing and was our driver during the visit to Aizuwakamatsu and finally to SIGMA’s Service & Support section chief, Mr. Manabu Sato for giving us the freedom to take pictures, videos and ask a lot of questions, some of which required consulting with specific engineers.

A last note about Aizuwakamatsu, we haven’t seen many tourists there yet there is so much to see. If you plan to visit Japan, do yourself a favor and visit Samurai City.

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Iddo Genuth
Iddo Genuth is the founder and chief editor of LensVid.com. He has been a technology reporter working for international publications since the late 1990's and covering photography since 2009. Iddo is also a co-founder of a production company specializing in commercial food and product visual content.

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