Text by Dan States for Japan Exposures
After 10 years in the rangefinder business, Cosina, manufacturer of Voigtländer and Zeiss 35mm camera lenses quietly rolled out a factory tour program this March. The tour is open to Japanese speakers who can flex their schedules to match available tour dates. Officially the tour can be in any of their manufacturing facilities, but in the interest of time we limited ours to the Nakano Lens and Camera manufacturing unit. The Nakano unit houses the assembly lines for all lenses and cameras.
I have taken the Leica tour several times over the years and found it very interesting, but pretty limited in what you can actually see happening, primarily because Leica does so much of their manufacturing of bodies and lens mounts in Portugal or through other companies. I frankly expected to see no more at Cosina, but as a sucker for anything free I was willing to make the drive to Nakano.
When we arrived as scheduled at 1pm our guide was in the lobby waiting for us. The first 15 minutes was spent showing us a video about the history of the company, their products and a recorded interview with Mr Kobayashi, the company owner. We were then ushered into the halls of the ground floor where a blind was raised and through a window we saw the final assembly of an OEM lens for a major manufacturer. (Assumptions that Cosina only does low end lenses for others were immediately shot to hell, as this was a well known and respected high speed AF portrait lens!) The blinds were drawn down and we moved on to a very large room where dozens of high precision milling machines were busy cutting and forming the inner lens barrels for what appeared to be the ZF/ZE line.
The Nakano plant creates all the metal parts for CV/Zeiss lenses including anodizing and final assembly and QC. The facility in total is in an older building, but is generally quite clean. There was a strong smell of lubricating oils in the air as computer controlled mills machined precision groves and cams into brass and aluminum mounts.
We passed a computer controlled grinder operated by a technician that was etching the wording into the front lens rings for the new Voigtländer 20mm f3.5. You initially get the impression that there were not that many people to run a lot of equipment, however, as you pass through to the next room you are faced with an amazing collection of drill presses, unused jigs, lathes and 4-5 skilled craftsmen busily working brass blanks and parts runners pulling various machine parts from racks. The atmosphere is one of a very high precision workshop full of people who could create virtually anything out of a blank block of metal.
We were then ushered right past anodizing tanks full of bubbling black liquids that were loaded with inner assemblies that changed from brilliant silver to perfect black. We were so close that if I wanted to anodize any particular body part it would have been quite easy. Workmen shuttled trays of these parts in and out of the plating room constantly as we talked. We then moved to the camera body production area where magnesium inner bodies are precision drilled using a combination of robotic transport and multi tips jigs.
Finally we moved on to the component assembly room where, after donning masks for dust control, we saw Voigtländer and Zeiss lenses being hand assembled and checked for tolerances on test bodies. The new medium format folding camera Fuji GF670 was also being assembled and tested in this room. It was a very quiet atmosphere with about 15-20 technicians in lab coats in deep concentration. The tour concluded with a question and answer session and some parting brochures and information.
To summarize I’ll say that while I have owned quite a few of the products made by Cosina, until now I’ve never really put much thought into to totality of what they are doing. Unlike Leica, they are still truly a soup-to-nuts camera and lens maker. They produce their own glass, mill their own mounts, design and build their own bodies and lenses and do so with great efficiency and enthusiasm. When I asked why they have been so limited in the past regarding factory tours or publicity they said point blank that the owner does not want to threaten their all important OEM business by stirring up too much attention. A far cry from other major brands who brag about their skills yet frankly outsource much of what they are selling.
Unfortunately Dan was not able to provide any images as, ever so ironically, photography was prohibited on the tour of the facilities.