By Mark Tuttle Jr.
Launch Google Earth on your computer, go to the coordinates 34 40’24.46″ N, 135 11’17.50″ E, and in a flash you’ll be staring at a satellite photo of an enormous 55,000-ton bulk carrier ship in Kobe, Japan. A few weeks ago I was standing on the bridge of that nearly completed ship, in the No. 4 Building Berth of Kawasaki’s 89-acre Kobe Works shipyard.
What? Kawasaki builds ships? Yep, and the enormous marine engines for them, as well as submarines, trains, satellites, industrial robots, jet engines, gas turbines — even industrial plants, environmental protection facilities, aircraft and construction machinery.
Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) has dozens of factories, subsidiaries and affiliates in Japan and around the world, in fact, some 100 companies and nearly 30,000 employees. The Consumer Products division that makes the motorcycles, ATVs, PWCs and such is indeed the single largest and most profitable with
28 percent of KHI’s annual turnover of more than $11 billion. Yet the other 72 percent is divided among a mind-boggling list of other segments that include shipbuilding, gas turbine and machinery, rolling stock, plant and infrastructure, even aerospace.
I had an inkling of all this before going with Kawasaki USA on a media tour of some of KHI’s facilities and accomplishments in Japan recently. But since much of the access we had to its motorcycle, ship and rolling stock (think trains) factories was unprecedented, the reality of the company’s breadth and capability were previously unimaginable.
We watched, for example, at the Kobe Works as workers put the finishing touches on a
578-ton, five-cylinder diesel two-stroke engine probably four stories high, with pistons more than three feet in diameter, a stroke measured in meters and a crankshaft that weighs 40 tons. After it’s been test fired, disassembled again and installed in something like that bulk carrier, this engine will put out more than 12,000 horsepower at a whopping 90 rpm. Among its marine engines this isn’t even the largest Kawasaki regularly builds, and I imagine company founder Shozo Kawasaki, who established Kawasaki Tsukiji Shipyard in Tokyo in 1878, would be staggered by a 10-cylinder version with more than 100,000 horsepower.
At the other end of Kawasaki’s vast engine spectrum is a tiny 18cc engine for string trimmers and the like, made at its 121-acre Akashi Works a few miles away. Akashi is also where the motorcycles are made, in plants like No. 24, which cranks out 1,000 motorcycles per day ranging in displacement from 65cc to 2,000cc. Proprietary processes and machinery abound here, the main reason we weren’t allowed to even carry cameras in the facility and the photos for this story were supplied by KHI. Assembly, painting, plating and chassis construction for 60 models takes place in No. 24, much of it in about 11?2 hours per bike on a nearly 100-yard assembly line. Although automated processes, such as laser cutting and robotic welding, are used for the tougher, dirtier jobs, much of the production is still done by hand, especially on a line to one side used for more difficult-to-assemble bikes, such as the Vulcan 2000 and ZRX1200 in evidence during our visit.
A short ways off at the No. 39 motorcycle engine plant, 600 machines produce camshafts, crankshafts, con rods, cases and such while 29 lines assemble five engine models per line in a flurry of activity — during our visit, two shifts were making 16,000 engines per month. The scope of what is accomplished here at Akashi with just motorcycles takes your breath away…and we didn’t even see the industrial robot, gas turbine and jet engine plants in other buildings nearby. Not surprisingly, a request to look around Kawasaki’s vast central R&D facilities at Akashi was answered with just a smile.
Like most modern motorcycle assembly plants, Kawasaki uses its own variation of the kaizen production system, most often associated with Toyota. Called the Kawasaki Production System, it incorporates efficiencies like mixed-model production to keep pace with demand, and just-in-time parts delivery 30 minutes before they’re needed from one day’s worth of stock kept on hand. Workers are encouraged to stop the production line in case of any abnormality and find a solution on the spot. As with most things in Japan, space is at a premium, so the lines go up and down nearly as much as across, with shelves, baskets and barrels of parts walling-off the assembly lines and zipping up and down the aisle ways in long trains driven or towed by workers who jog more than walk. Just watching a new Concours 14, for example, go from final assembly to the checkout dyno and then off to packing made me want to lie down.
I had a chance for a nap on the whisper-quiet and smooth Shinkansen, or bullet train, we rode south from Kobe at speeds up to 174 mph, a bit faster I’m happy to say than I’ve ever gone on any Kawasaki product. That’s right, Kawasaki builds Japan’s famous bullets at its 55-acre Hyogo Works in Kobe, along with dozens of other subway and railcar types and “bogies,” or wheel trucks with electric motors. At capacity, an average of 80 cars and eight locomotives per month are produced at Hyogo, and this rolling stock is sold and used all over the world, from the London Underground to the Panama Canal as well as in Japan. Railcars and subway trains for the U.S. are also built at Kawasaki’s Yonkers, New York and Lincoln, Nebraska plants, the latter of which makes most of the world’s ATVs, PWCs and Mules as well.
Hyogo Works is most famous for the Shinkansen bullet train, of course, understandable as the newer 700-series wedge-shaped locomotives — mostly hand-formed of thin aluminum — can pull eight-car trains at speeds up to 186 mph. In addition to the 1,500 miles of Japan Railway and other Shinkansen in Japan, Kawasaki has participated in high-speed railway projects in Taiwan and China. Rail riders always want to go faster, so it’s constantly working on lighter cars and improved systems, such as corner tilting so the trains can hold their speed in corners.
Between and around KHI’s many manufacturing plants and facilities in Japan, evidence of its history and influence on Kobe and the country is plentiful. The recently opened Good Times World Museum within the Kobe Maritime Museum is visible from the top floor of its 32-story Crystal Tower headquarters building in Kobe, where one evening our group enjoyed dinner with Mr. Tamba, president of Kawasaki’s consumer and machinery companies.
Earlier in the week, we crossed the two-towered Akashi-Kaikyo bridge between Kobe and Awaji Island, at nearly four kilometers the longest suspension bridge in the world. Kawasaki participated in the construction of the supporting tower on the Awaji side, and manufactured and installed the bridge girders. Perhaps completing its holdings in Japan is the Autopolis International Racing Course in northern Kyushu, which Kawasaki purchased in 2005. Our group was treated to a round of the All-Japan Road Racing Championship at the 2.9-mile race track, which Kawasaki uses for race bike development and other motorcycle testing.
I’m often mystified by the number of changes and improvements that companies like Kawasaki can incorporate into their motorcycles in the span of just one year. When you’re standing atop a 55,000-ton bulk carrier ship completed in just a few months, though, it makes the quality and performance of something like a Concours 14 seem a lot less mysterious.
By Mark Tuttle Jr.