Behind the scenes: An interview with the heads of Canon's L lens factory
|From left to right, Mr Hayakawa, Mr Okada and Mr Izuki, the three men in charge of development and keeping things running smoothly at Canon's Utsunomiya lens plant.|
Following the CP+ 2017 show in Japan, we headed to Canon's Utsunomiya lens factory to take a tour (see what we found) and interview the gentlemen who oversee all operations and development. This included Kenichi Izuki, the Plant Manager, Masato Okada, Deputy Chief Executive of Image Communication and Products Operations and Shingo Hayakawa, Deputy Group Executive of Image Communication and Products Operations.
The Utsunomiya plant is where all Canon's L series, cinema, and broadcast lenses are produced. It's also where all Canon lenses are designed. Many of those designs can be attributed to the three men pictured above. In fact just before we started the interview Mr Izuki informed us that he had been lead designer of the EF 35mm F2 IS lens we'd chosen to document the factory tour. So there's also a pretty good chance you have one of them to thank for your favorite Canon glass!
Please note that this interview was conducted through an interpreter, and has been edited slightly for clarity and flow.
|The magic place where all Canon L lenses are born.|
What percentage of L lenses are manufactured in the Utsunomiya lens plant?
Because this is the 'mother' factory, 100% of L lenses are made here.
How many different lenses can be manufactured simultaneously in this plant?
Basically, we create all lenses every day [including L-series EF, Cinema EOS and broadcast]. The only exception is some of the broadcast lenses.
Which lenses in particular are the most difficult to manufacture and why?
Any large super telephoto lenses because of the size of the glass elements. In terms of skill required for lens assembly: the TV broadcast lenses are most difficult.
How many lenses are produced at this lens plant every year, both in terms of types of lenses and total units?
We do not disclose total production for this plant. That said, Canon has produced a total of 120 million lenses over the years. Of course, many of those are kit lenses, which are not produced here, but in our facility in Taiwan.
|Mr Izuki, the plant manager, teaching us about the lens production process.|
Tell us a little bit about the history of the plant.
The facility as a whole has been here for forty years, however prior to 2005, we were located in an older building on the other side of the property. And the land where the current plant sits was initially owned by the Du Pont family. When they returned it to the prefecture, we bought it.
The current lens facility opened in 2005. When we moved in we completely revamped our lens-making machines and devices. Not all, but the majority. This helped to push [us] to a higher standard of quality.
Over the past 40 years, lenses have changed a lot, with autofocus introduced, aspherics, etc., what was the largest paradigm shift in lens technology?
We are reaching the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the EOS line. It was at that time, in 1987, that we moved into autofocus. When we did that, I believe we were the first ones to go fully-electronic mount autofocus. Because the motors were built into the lens we had a significant competitive edge.
As DSLR resolution increases, it can be a challenge to achieve precise focus because AF errors are more noticeable. How do you reduce this risk in the manufacturing and quality control process?
Overall precision is something customers are increasingly requiring. In this factory, we have increased the level of precision of our machines so that lenses have more accurate autofocus.
|A lens going through QC testing. Information from the test will be saved on a chip in the lens.|
During the tour it was mentioned that Canon lenses now store their quality control test data using on-board memory. Can that data be used to improve autofocus reliability?
We do store data from final lens testing on each unit. I won’t be able to speak in greater detail other than saying, yes, in theory, that data could be used to achieve higher autofocus performance [better AF precision] with a DSLR.
How long does it take a lens like the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM to make its way from start to finish in the assembly line?
From raw material being polished, to the final tested product being boxed: about 24 hours of work, in theory. But the physical production would actually take longer. This is because we are producing parts in batches and there are machines that need to be fitted. These variables aside, if you take the actual time of labor, assembly and packaging, it is about 24 hours.
You mentioned you were looking to hit an 80% automation rate in this facility. What kind of efficiency gain does that represent?
It’s difficult to say in terms of time, but I can say it use to take about 70 people to make a lens like that prior to automation, now we need about 6 or 7.
As production becomes more automated will you require fewer skilled manual workers?
In one sense yes. But it’s not about firing the rest of these people, it’s about allowing them the time to build up their skills. This way they can face challenges and difficulties like increasing precision and performance. So we’ve essentially been able to allocate these workers to a different environment.
|A lens in the final assembly process. It can take 25-30 years to become an Assembly Meister at Canon's Utsunomiya plant.|
Typically how long does someone train before they attain the title of 'Meister'?
In terms of the level of 'Lens Meister,' it would take 30-35 years. For 'Assembly Meisters", 25-30 years.
Now that the process for assembly, element polishing and quality control is so automated, we're curious how many lenses pass QC the first time vs those that have to go back for re-calibration.
In terms of maintaining a level of quality before going into mass production, we do a lot of checking and scenario building [using a super computer] to make sure everything will go right. Once a lens goes into mass production we can safely say that we have seen no lenses returned for further calibration.
What impact did the 2011 have on this facility and how long did it take to recover?
A lot of the ceilings came down. We took a big hit in that regard. But, we were able to come back into operation within about 2 to 3 months.
Did you implement any changes as a result of the earthquake?
We have fortified the building, so that it is more earthquake-proof. And the assembly tools we use are put together in such as way that they are shake-proof.
Are there major differences in how you QC test broadcast and cinema lenses vs EF lenses?
The concept for testing is basically the same. But, in terms of broadcast/cinema lenses there are some unique customizations that we offer depending on the particular cameraman or filmmaker. If they want to zoom by hand, for instance, we can accommodate the pressure of the mechanism to their requirements.
A lot of your users use EF lenses for video creation. Has that changed the way you design some EF lenses?
In terms of stills shooter, when it comes to autofocus, the faster the better. On the other hand, videographers tend to require a variance in autofocus speed. Sometimes they want a slow effect. So we had to create a motor that could actually do both fast and slow focus. This is why we introduced Nano-USM. It's in both the 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 IS USM and the 70-300mm F4-5.6 IS II USM.
Will that kind of autofocus be used more in the future as video becomes more of a requirement for users?
At any given time, how many new lenses are in development at this facility?
I can not give you a number, unfortunately. But I can say that new lenses are in development as we speak. So I hope you look forward to them.
|Results of a QC test.|
Editors note (by Dan Bracaglia):
Let me begin by saying how grateful I was to be given access to Canon's lens factory and what an honor and privilege it was to sit down and interview the creators of some of Canon's most legendary glass. In my six and a half years writing about photography, this was one of my most memorable and rewarding experiences.
As you might expect, there were nearly endless points of fascination. Some of which are covered in this interview, others in our factory tour slideshow. Something that particularly interested me is the fact that all the information from a lens' final calibration and quality control check is saved on a chip within the lens itself. The idea here is this information can been used, in theory, when a lens comes back in for cleaning or recalibration. It also means that at some point, perhaps camera bodies will be able to access this information, which could lead to better AF precision. This is solid forward thinking on Canon's part.
I was also intrigued to find that Canon manufactures every L lens in the same factory. Not only that but every current lens in the L series is being made every day. As you might imagine, security at the facility is very tight.
Also hearing Canon put a concrete number on their automation goals (80%) was interesting. Of course you could read that as Canon displacing workers with machines, but throughout the tour and the interview, our guides made it clear that automation wasn't about replacing workers, rather dedicating more workers to research and development. Canon, it seems, recognizes just how important pushing lens development is, all while maintaining a high level of quality control. Automation offers just this.
And I'm not ordinarily one to be starstruck, but when Mr. Izuki told me he designed the Canon EF 35mm F2 IS, my jaw dropped a little. There's nothing quite like standing of front of the creator of one of your favorite lenses. Speaking of favorites, we also asked Mr. Hayakawa, Mr Okada and Mr Izuki which Canon lens they've designed/worked on over the years they are most proud of. We got some great answers. We'll be posting those in a separate article soon, so stay tuned!
|Barney, just prior to entering the factory floor. We also went through a room that blasted us with air. Dust is the enemy in a lens factory.|
|Putting up Christmas Decorations by Grasshop78|
from christmas portrait
|Azure Kingfisher by Denjw|
from A big year - birds 2018
|New Years Morning Mt Hood by rainrunner|
from -Landscape shot of the month - January - (in Full Colours Only)
Glove and Boots take a humorous look into the history of photographs and how far technology has come since the days of caveman hand selfies.
We've been shooting with a beta version of the Sony a9's upcoming firmware 5.0. While there's much more analysis to come, we can say it makes for a dead simple AF tracking user experience. Take a look at some of our samples.
A statement following internal investigation by DJI alleges a number of employee were part of an internal corruption scandal that overcharged DJI for parts and materials.
Astrophotography fans will be treated to the sight a rare super blood wolf Moon this weekend, and lots of helpful people are offering advice on how best to photograph it.
Accessory maker K&F Concept is offering a range of adapters, allowing the use of non-Nikon as well as Nikon F lenses on the new Nikon Z mirrorless cameras.
Lens maker Tamron has confirmed that new firmware issued at the end of last year to make certain lenses compatible with Nikon’s Z7 camera will also work for owners of the Z6.
NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has captured a photo of Earth that's being compared to the iconic 'Pale Blue Dot' captured by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1990.
GoPro has updated its Fusion ecosystem with new firmware for the Fusion camera and updates to the Fusion Studio software as well as the Adobe Premiere and After Effects plug-ins.
The Tamron 17-35mm F2.8-4 is a compact and light-weight lens for full-frame Canon and Nikon DSLRs. We took it on grand tour of Seattle's top tourist spots and found it makes a pleasant, albeit wide, walking around lens.
Olympus has published the third teaser video for its upcoming sports-oriented mirrorless camera, due for release next week.
Fujifilm has announced its new GF 100-200mm F5.6 R LM OIS WR tele-zoom lens. The lens, equivalent to 79-158mm when mounted on a GFX camera, has image stabilization (with a claimed 5 stops of shake reduction), a linear AF motor and weather-sealing.
Amongst all of the camera news yesterday, Sony also announced its new Imaging Edge mobile app, which replaces PlayMemories Mobile. Three desktop applications have also been updated, adding support for time-lapse movie creation.
We've been busy shooting with Sony's newest mirrorless camera, the mid-range a6400. Have a look at our initial samples.
Adobe has taken the new year as an opportunity to introduce an updated Behance with improved user profiles and more prominent project pages.
OPPO's 5x zoom prototype never made it into a production unit but now the company is about to release an even longer optical zoom for smartphones.
Our intrepid team is in San Diego, for the launch of the new Sony a6400. In this short overview video, Carey, Chris and Jordan talk through the main specifications of the new camera, and what they might mean for photographers and videographers.
After further testing, Sigma has updated its lens compatibility notice to highlight what lenses work with Canon's EOS R full-frame mirrorless camera.
The Sony a6400 is the company's new midrange mirrorless camera, whose standout features include an advanced autofocus system, flip-up touchscreen LCD and oversampled 4K footage with Log support. Learn more as we go hands-on with the a6400.
OWC has released the Helios FX 650 eGPU, a modular chassis that works with macOS and Windows computer over Thunderbolt 3.
Adorama has announced the availability of a new studio flash head from its own Flashpoint range.
Instagram has quietly added the iOS-exclusive ability to post images or videos to multiple Instagram accounts at once on the same device.
Sony has announced major firmware updates for the a7R III, a7 III and a9. All three cameras gain improved Eye-AF, the ability to recognize and focus on animals' eyes, and timelapse capability. The a9 gets more sophisticated subject tracking.
Sony has announced the a6400, an updated 24.2MP mirrorless camera with a flip-up rear touchscreen and the processor and autofocus system 'borrowed from the a9'.
We're live blogging at Sony's launch event in San Diego, where the company is rumored to be announcing a new mirrorless camera with an APS-C sensor.
The latest CamFi model lets you tether your camera wirelessly to your computer and transfer images directly into 3rd-party apps such as Capture One, Lightroom or EOS utility.
United States Transportation Secretary Eleain Chao introduced a proposed rule change that could make it easier for commercial operators to use drones at night and above crowds of people.
SmugMug Films has released its latest film from its award-winning series. 'Framing the Journey' follows photographer Karen Hutton around the landscapes and cityscapes of Slovenia.
Timelapse+ has announced its VIEW intervalometer now offers support for select Fujifilm and Panasonic camera systems.
The Miami Beach Police Department is using a camera blimp to get around a drone surveillance ban that went into effect in 2015.