I had the opportunity to tour the Yamaha factory in Grand Rapids, and was very impressed. Below, my article, which first appeared in Canadian Musician magazine. Check out the paragraph on Tim Smith, the head brass product tester, who has been testing Yamaha trumpets for almost twenty years!
I recently had the opportunity to tour the Yamaha band instrument factory in Grand Rapids, MI. This is an assembly factory; the parts are manufactured in Japan and shipped to Grand Rapids where they are put together. My expert tour guide was customer service manager Bill Matthews.
The first thing I noticed was how clean the shop is. Yamaha prides itself
on the state of the workplace, and strives for the highest standards of
environmental responsibility and worker safety. There are numerous examples:
Every machine is connected to a central air filter system which is incredibly effective. In the room housing the polishing and buffing machines the air pressure is kept to a negative level so that the air collection system works to its optimum and when you open a door to the room the air rushes in, rather than dust rushing out. In the lacquer application area the wall is covered with a waterfall which collects any over-spray and carries it to a water treatment plant. From there it is returned to a cleaner state than when it arrived.
Another thing that struck me was the number of people involved in the construction of each horn. Unlike auto factories with lots of automated and robotic procedures, the majority of the work here is done by real people. From sorting the parts, to assembly, polishing and finishing, these are very much hand made products.
The workers we talked to are dedicated and proud of what they do. Nobody seemed rushed or under the gun to produce. It was explained to me that the workers are assessed not on volume of instruments completed, but on the number of returns. In other words, quality takes precedence over quantity.
This is quite obvious to the casual observer. At numerous places along the assembly line you see people inspecting each horn, looking for any little flaw. Each station is ergonomically designed for the individual worker. It is consideration like this that makes for a happy work environment, and the average length of time on the job for Yamaha factory employees is well over ten years.
The spot at which quality control becomes most obvious is at the end of the line, where every instrument is inspected and play tested. The lead brass tester is Tim Smith, who has been at Yamaha for 18 years. Day in and day out he passes the final judgment on each brass instrument that comes off the line. He looks for leaks or flaws in construction, and then plays the instrument, searching for anything that is not just right. If he finds a problem that he can't correct on the spot, it is notated and then returned to the appropriate station. It is this almost obsessive attention to detail that has earned Yamaha a reputation for incredible consistency. Every horn comes out of the box ready to go; slides and valves work smoothly and the horn blows consistently. You don't have to search to find a good Yamaha, they are all good.
In one wing of the factory is the new Custom Shop where I spent some time with the newest member of the Yamaha team, Bob Malone. Bob is well-known and respected worldwide for his leadpipes and custom modifications to horns. As the Product Development Manager for Brass Instruments, Bob will be developing new instruments as well as engineering modifications to existing models. He works alongside Hiroshi "Tommy" Nakajima (Product Development Manager for Woodwind Instruments ), Bill Mathews (Customer Service Manager), Lyne Selleck (Customer Service Assistant), Mike Lutley (Customer Service Technician), Dan Ensing (Customer Service Technician), and Kurt Witt (Product Manager for Wind Instruments). Bob's knowledge and experience, coupled with his understanding of brass instruments and the players, brings a potent new force to Yamaha. Look for some great things to come out of this partnership!
A trip through the factory makes it obvious why Yamaha is a world-leader
in so many different product areas. They are already making some of the
finest instruments in the world. With the additional resources provided
by Bob Malone and the Custom Shop, the future is looking very bright for
the company and the players!