Photo Review was one of two Australian magazines whose technical journalists were invited to join a party of representatives from leading Australian and New Zealand retail chains on a visit to the Oita Canon factory on 7 February, 2011.


Photo Review was one of two Australian magazines whose technical journalists were invited to join a party of representatives from leading Australian and New Zealand retail chains on a visit to the Oita Canon factory on 7 February, 2011.
The factory is located in the Oita Prefecture in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main island chain. We were told that very few people are allowed into this plant. Even Canon employees who work in other parts of the organisation are seldom invited to visit it, so we felt particularly privileged to have been given this opportunity.

The flight from Tokyo’s Haneda airport to Oita takes roughly 90 minutes and passes over Fuji-san (Mount Fuji), which is visible on a clear day.


A view of the crater and eastern slopes of Mount Fuji, taken on the flight to Oita.
The original Oita Canon factory opened in 1982 as a camera assembly plant located near the Oita airport. However, high demand for the EOS and Ixus cameras it produced required the facility to expand and a new plant was set up across the Beppu Bay in 2005. This requires an hour-long bus journey around the bay to the factory itself.


The entrance to the Oita Canon facility.


The group of Australian and New Zealand industry members who visited the Oita Canon factory. (Source: Canon.)
The factory complex sits on a 126,000 square metre site with 22,500 square metres covered by buildings and interlocking structures. The buildings have been integrated tastefully – and functionally – into the natural environment. Trees have been planted around the buildings to beautify the site, with an emphasis on phoenix trees that suit the local climate and cherry trees to provide beauty and a place for the local community to visit in the traditional blossom-viewing season.

Today, this factory, which has more than 4,4000 employees, is the company’s main Japan-based manufacturing facility. Three main product groups are produced on-site: DSLR cameras, compact digicams and video cameras. All EOS models except the EOS-1 series of cameras are made at the Oita Canon plant. EF lenses, Selphy printers and visual communication cameras are also produced here, making it the centre for the implementation of all of Canon’s leading-edge imaging technologies.


Senior executives, Mr Toshihiro Urabe the plant manager (left) and Mr Makoto Murano the President of Oita Canon (right.)

Oita Canon also provides the primary organisational centre for the Canon Group’s globalisation initiatives and gives technical support to overseas manufacturing facilities. This support includes training engineers and assembly workers, providing key product components and overseeing new product development. But the main role of Oita Canon complex is manufacturing cameras.

Camera production demands a dust-free environment as the smallest contaminants can create havoc with electronic and optical components. Accordingly, the entire building complex that makes up the plant has been designed to maintain pristine conditions. Individual buildings are connected by enclosed corridors and the areas in which cameras and lenses are assembled have down-flowing air conditioning to carry airborne particles away from the assembly areas.

Clean conditions are even more vital in the building where electronic components are mounted onto circuit boards. Because this process requires high-temperature soldering, all processes are carried out within enclosed modules, each of which has a number of points at which individual components are fed in on strips of tape, ready to be attached to the circuit boards.

Inspection stations at the end of the line allow boards with potential defects to be identified and removed. It takes roughly eight seconds to solder each electronic component in place and about 38 minutes to complete the fabrication of an entire circuit board. Completed boards track around the periphery of the module to packaging stations, from where they are transported to the assembly cells that need them.

Another component totally manufactured at Oita Canon is the glass-moulded high-resolution aspherical lenses used in compact digicams and camcorders. These components have enabled designers to produce smaller and lighter camera bodies and more compact and lightweight lenses without compromising image quality.

The glass moulding section of the plant uses more automation than the circuit board assembly area. Before the glass can be inserted into the moulds, it must be heated to around 700 degrees Celsius. Each lens is then polished before it passes through the centring and evaporation processes after which it moves on to the jointing and coating stages. It is then ready for insertion into the camera body.

At the end of 1999 Canon switched from assembly line manufacturing to a new cell production system in which cameras are assembled by small teams of workers. All the buildings at Oita Canon have been designed specifically for the new system. Production ‘cells’ are set up in a large room with underground infrastructure supplying power and communications.


Production cells in Canon’s Oita factory. (Source: Canon.)

When we visited the factory, the production area was working on several different models, with the highest-featured DSLRs on one side of the floor, grading through pro-sumer and entry-level DSLRs to compact digicams and camcorders. The cells we observed were assembling EOS 550D cameras. Cameras are built from start to finish within each cell.


Assembling a DSLR in clean room conditions. (Source: Canon.)

Each cell typically consists of between 12 and 16 workers plus some automated machinery that handles jobs requiring no human input. Workers operate in eight-hour shifts, rotating from one task to another after a month so they become skilled in all aspects of the assembly process. Cells – and the individual workers in them – also compete to meet production targets and LEDs above each cell indicate the number of units assembled, the target and the degree to which the cell is above or below the target for the day.


Inspecting an EOS camera part way through the assembly process. (Source: Canon.)

Cells can be configured quickly for a specific camera model when it’s in demand and then changed just as quickly when a different model is required. This system uses the best combination of automation and manual assembly and provides greater job satisfaction for the employees working at the factory. It also enables Canon to meet the needs of overseas sales operations very flexibly and efficiently.


This diagram shows the stages in the production process.

Most of the automated machines used in the factory have been developed and produced in-house to meet specific manufacturing requirements. The objective has been to use automated facilities for tasks that can be done without human input, reserving the staff for jobs where human expertise, vision and evaluation skills are optimised, such as product evaluation.


Testing a digital camcorder on the assembly line. (Source: Canon.)

At critical stages in the assembly process, each device is tested to ensure it meets specified quality standards. As well as evaluating physical soundness and measuring the alignment of components, cameras are tested for resistance to high and low temperatures and humidity plus their ability to withstand vibration and impact shock. Approval stamps are attached and the camera’s warranty is only certified when all tests have been completed successfully.

Once the completed body has passed this step, it can be packaged with components like lenses, cables, battery and charger, software disks and user manuals and put into the box in which it will be sold. Cameras are shipped directly from the production cells in boxes containing 30 completed cameras.

The Oita Canon factory has been built to be environmentally benign. Use of toxic substances in manufacturing has been minimised and approximately 410 kilolitres of water is recycled each day. More than 90% of discharged HFE chemicals are also recycled. In addition, roughly 30% of the land on which the factory is built remains covered by forest and the factory has a commitment to preserve endangered fish and amphibian species native to the area.

Oita Canon was the first corporation in Kyushu to quality for ISO 144001 Certification, an international quality standard for environmental protection that requires organisations to demonstrate commitment to rigorous standards. The plant was awarded certification in 1995 and in 2005 this certification was extended to cover the entire Canon Group.

Because of commercial sensitivities, we were unable to take photographs of production facilities within the factory complex. Consequently, the illustrations in this report that show aspects of the camera assembly process have been provided by Canon.