Kawasaki: More than Motorcycles

Of all the Japanese makes on the market, Kawasaki was, and still is for the most part, the odd man out. Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki are primarily consumer-focused companies, producing motorcycles, cars, outboards, recreational power products, musical instruments and electronic equipment. Kawasaki, on the other hand, is focused on industrial goods such as aircraft, ships, rolling stock, gas turbines and robots. Motorcycles, Jet Skis and ATVs are the only consumer-oriented products produced by this $11.3 billion dollar conglomerate.

Kawasaki Heavy Industry's (KHI) consumer division generates 30 percent of the company's revenue, about twice as much as the next largest contributor — aerospace at 18.3 percent. This makes Kawasaki's powersports lineup a very important player in the parent company's product mix.

To most dealers and consumers in the United States however, the name Kawasaki is associated primarily with the toys the company produces. Few know the breadth and depth of Kawasaki's manufacturing involvement. Kawasaki Motors Corp. USA sponsored a trip to Japan to give the American motor press some insight into the other businesses parent company KHI is involved in and how the technology from one division flows into another.

Kawasaki Heavy Industries is based in the port city of Kobe, Japan. Our tour of Kawasaki facilities began there with a stop the company's Good Times World museum, which opened in 2006. The museum presents an overview and history of many, but not all, of Kawasaki's industrial enterprises. Featured are shipbuilding, aircraft, rolling stock and, of course, motorcycles. It was a good place to get a basic understanding of the scope of Kawasaki's activities.

Founded in 1878 by Shozo Kawasaki, Kawasaki's initial business was shipbuilding. The founder opened his first shipyard in Tsukiji, near Tokyo. As business picked up he opened another shipyard near Kobe. At about the same time, a government-owned shipyard near Kobe was up for sale. Kawasaki submitted a bid and closed the sale in 1886. He then combined his Tsukiji and Hyogo Works and relocated them to the Hyogo Shipyard site near Kobe and renamed them the Kawasaki Dockyard, now known as the Kobe Works. Initially production was limited to the construction and maintenance of ships. Today the business has grown to include the construction of bulk carriers, submarines, marine machinery and equipment such as steam turbines, two-stroke marine diesels, controls, variable pitch propellers, thrusters, electro hydraulic steering systems, and windlasses. The business accounts for about 8 percent of Kawasaki's total revenue.

Bikes on the Line
After touring the museum, we boarded a bus and headed off to the Akashi Works, where motorcycles are built. Our trip took as across the Kawasaki-built Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, the world's longest suspension bridge, with a center span of 6,532 ft, and a total length of 12, 831 ft. that bridges the Akashi strait and connects Honshu with Awaji Island.

I'd been to the Akashi Works many times during my tenure as a Kawasaki employee and was pleased so see that not too many things have changed. The front gate was remodeled, but most of the buildings looked the same. The infamous Kawasaki test track, a two-lane, fenced-in, drag-strip affair with catch nets on both ends, looked pretty much as I remembered it — scary.

Inside the total assembly process has been updated. I've had an opportunity to spend time in two of the newest motorcycle assembly facilities in the world, Triumph and KTM, and the only substantial difference between these facilities and Kawasaki's is in the size of their respective operations. Kawasaki runs eight production lines, and is capable, like KTM and Triumph, of running multiple models on any of the lines.

As with every factory I've been to, human beings play the most significant role in putting bikes together. Torque values and so on may be delegated to robots, but putting the right part on the right bike is still in the hands of about 1,000 assembly line workers. On Kawasaki's assembly line, though the possibility of errors is reduced through a system of parts bins that are locked and unlocked electronically as specific bikes move down the production line.

The Akashi factory, like most modern assembly plants works is supplied by a just-in-time parts system with only a single day's parts inventory. The 269,000 sq. ft. facility produces about 1,000 motorcycles a day, 30,000 units per month and contains both a painting and plating facility onsite. According to our guides, it takes 1.5 hours to assemble a motorcycle. While we were there, the factory was running five lines, eight hours a day, in two shifts with one line running the Concours 14.

Shaping a Ship
The next morning we were given the opportunity to tour the Kobe Works ship yard and board an almost completed ship in dry dock. What strikes you first is the huge scale. We traversed a series of temporary staircases and an escalator to get to the main deck, and then another three or four companionways to access the bridge. To build a ship, large sections are constructed off-site then brought to dry-dock, where they're welded into the main superstructure.

Following the tour of the ship, we were taken to the part of the shipyard that builds the massive power plants that drive the ships. While we were forbidden to take pictures in the factory, Kawasaki provided photos of a similar, though somewhat bigger engine than the one we saw being built.

Pictured is a 12-cylinder, two-stroke diesel producing 101,640 bhp at 97 rpm. The engine is 40-feet, 8-inches high, and slightly over 80 feet long with a bore of 3-feet, 2.5-inches, and a stroke of 8-feet, 8-inches. This is one massive engine. The engine we saw being built was somewhat smaller, a five-cylinder that produces 24,700 bhp at 93 rpm. What's amazing is that once the engines are built, they're taken apart, transported to the ship and reassembled in the engine room.

Next stop was the Hyogo Works, where Kawasaki builds a variety of rolling-stock, from the high-speed bullet trains to more mundane transportation pods such as the subway cars used in New York City, the towing locomotives used to assist ships transiting the Panama Canal, monorail cars and tanker cars.

The high-speed locomotives that pull the trains that run on the Shinkansen and Hikari line and other high-speed rail lines are constantly evolving, and increasingly becoming more aerodynamic and streamlined as speeds increase. They are as streamlined and futuristic as any jet plane and is constructed in much the same way The next generation of high-speed locomotives, bound for France, will be capable of 187 mph, and will be designed to lean into the curves. In addition, the next generation will be lighter, less expensive and have less vibration. We were told that the only limiting factor concerning speed, was the rail bed and operating system.

As we made our way down the production line there was passenger car after passenger car in various stages of completion, some being wired, and others being fitted with interior panels. The wiring job in itself looked extremely complex and I was thankful that I was only an observer.

Faster Than a Speeding Train
The following day we had an opportunity to ride in one of Japan's famed bullet trains. While train trips in the U.S. are pretty rare these days, trains are used widely in Japan, as they are in Europe. Riding a bullet train is more akin to traveling in a modern passenger plane than the noisy, clack-a-clack train most people are used to. The seating is comfortable, although with only minimal baggage space. The ride is superb, smooth, comfortable and fast — in excess of 150 mph as measured by one of my fellow journalists and his GPS.

Our journey ended in the castle town of Kumamoto on the southern-most island of Japan. We were there to attend the All Japan Road Race Championship on Sunday and a riding session on Monday. The race was held at Autopolis International. A facility built in the early '90s that's home to a superb racing facility, grandstands, garages and hospitality suites housed a four-star hotel. Apparently the original investors were never able to open the facility and it sat unused for years until Kawasaki purchased it for pennies on the dollar. It's a 2.9-mile course with a significant elevation change, an excellent venue for racing and evaluating motorcycles. Talk about a huge step up from the two-lane drag strip at Akashi.

So what's the bottom line? Kawasaki generates vast amounts of technology daily from its activities in many different industries. How does this technology transfer from one division to another? How does it impact the products that we're most familiar with? Joel Ishikawa, our Japanese tour guide and former employee at Kawasaki Motors Corp., USA provided the answer. According to Joel, there are several methods: regular meetings between divisional presidents, the circulation of white papers, engineer exchange and through the Kawasaki Tech Center located in Akashi.

When asked about specifics with regard to motorcycles Joel was a bit vague, but mentioned aerodynamics and the aerospace division with regard to fairing design and the adoption of unique materials — such as carbon — in the construction of motorcycles.