Advancing Monodzukuri (manufacturing)
through synergetic innovation
High-quality optical components created through technological integration and horizontal deployment
Optical components are the linchpin of cameras and a wide range of optical products — and their manufacturing is handled by Tochigi Nikon Corporation. Optical component production processes that were once dispersed across multiple locations have been brought together, giving rise to advanced manufacturing that generates new added value.
Tochigi Nikon – responsible for production of optical components
NIKKOR lenses open up a diverse range of imaging possibilities, for everyone from amateurs to professionals. Tochigi Nikon Corporation (hereinafter, Tochigi Nikon) is the integrated base for manufacturing optical components.
The various functions for manufacturing such components (lenses, prisms, mirrors, etc.) had previously evolved independently of each other. But since February 1, 2017, Nikon has gathered all of them together at Tochigi Nikon, in order to strengthen its production technologies.
Tochigi Nikon now handles manufacturing for a wide variety of optical components, including not just cameras but also lithography systems, microscopes, industrial metrology, etc. It is also responsible for developing production technologies such as the commonization and automation of various optical components manufacturing processes. In this way, it plays the roles of both production location and production technology center.
In terms of size alone, the products made at Tochigi Nikon range from microscope objective lenses with a diameter of 2 to 3 mm to special-purpose optical components with a diameter exceeding 300 mm. Moreover, in addition to maintaining flexible production systems and state-of-the-art production processes, Tochigi Nikon is creating synergies through horizontal deployment of production technologies.
Making horizontal connections to deploy production technologies more effectively
There are several examples of horizontal deployment of production technologies at Nikon.
One of these is fluorite processing technology. Fluorite features superior optical characteristics, however, the processing is difficult due to crystalline material characteristics. Nikon handles all operations from manufacturing to processing within the Nikon Group, and has used fluorite in high-accuracy lenses for semiconductor lithography systems. Therefore, when fluorite lenses were due to be introduced for NIKKOR lenses of interchangeable lenses for cameras, the fluorite lens processing technology employed for semiconductor lithography systems was applied. However, the high-accuracy processing methods utilized for semiconductor lithography systems could not meet the cost suitable for NIKKOR lenses. So, based on the lens processing method for semiconductor lithography systems, Nikon started reducing costs to make it accessible for NIKKOR lenses. Now, this same processing technology for NIKKOR lenses has been redirected back for use in the fluorite lens processing for semiconductor lithography systems, to realize lower costs there as well.
In addition to this, the aspherical lens processing technology for semiconductor lithography systems is deployed for NIKKOR aspherical lenses, realizing higher-accuracy products. By also deploying Nikon's industrial technologies including NIKKOR lens manufacturing, processing technology and industrial engineering into objective lens manufacturing for microscopes, productivity has improved.
Tochigi Nikon advances "adopting the points of excellence" and aligning the base of each unique manufacturing process, to improve productivity and accuracy.
Although there had of course been exchanges between engineers before the integration, cooperation has deepened since the optical manufacturing departments became a single company. This has generated synergetic effects and created new added value for Nikon's manufacturing.
The challenge of enhancing skills systematically and automating craftsmanship
Tochigi Nikon is also working towards enhancing craftsmanship skills systematically and automating each production process. For example, all parts of the coating process except pretreatment and the inspection process are now automated. The lens adjustment process is also becoming increasingly automated.
The accuracy of the projection lens surface for a semiconductor lithography system is just 1 nm error. If the diameter of the lens was expanded to the size of the Earth, it would be so smooth that only 1 cm of unevenness would be observed on the ground. Nikon possesses technology that achieves such high accuracy. However, some of the lens manufacturing process still relies on the skills of engineers in such areas as polishing and adjustment.
For example, finish polishing of more than a half hemisphere of an objective lens for microscopes is done by hand polishing. In the future, Nikon will endeavor to enhance skills systematically and automate the processes that still rely on craftsmanship.
Meanwhile, Nikon collects measurement data which is digitalized for each process such as component dimensional errors and surface accuracy for each lens. By promoting digital manufacturing, providing feedback to designers and optimizing production plans, Nikon is strongly reinforcing its manufacturing base.
Supporting consistent product quality worldwide
The Precision Components & Modules Business Unit sells optical modules and components to customers outside Nikon, with manufacturing side support from Tochigi Nikon. It is necessary to combine optimal production technologies in order to meet the high demands of customers. The smooth horizontal deployment of technologies made possible by optical integration is valuable here.
Wherever they are manufactured in the world, Nikon products must always meet the same "Made by Nikon" standard of quality. Tochigi Nikon supports manufacturing locations worldwide as an engineering center of the Nikon Group. This contributes to the globalization of Nikon-style manufacturing and "Nikon quality".
Working towards completely
Tochigi Nikon Corporation
Optical components such as lenses are one of the essences of Nikon. In 2017, the production of such components was integrated at Tochigi Nikon. Until that point, manufacturing had been conducted in a strictly top-down fashion at each unit, and it was initially difficult to communicate horizontally. But now, we are starting to see positive results.
I used to work as a thin film engineer, but I now feel that it's most interesting to create something more tangible. We have only just started to create Nikon-style manufacturing, in order to advance effectively. I am so happy to have been part of the launch of this initiative as the president of Tochigi Nikon, and I would like to see it all the way through to successful completion.
Tochigi Nikon Corporation
Nikon's polishing technology is a core technology with a long history. Many of the special processes involved have been performed through craftsmanship until now, which presents a huge hurdle for us. However, when we surmount this, I think it will bring all of our engineers closer together. It's a rewarding feeling to solve problems by working closely with technicians, and create the future together.
One feature of Nikon's manufacturing system is that the manufacturing team turns its design dreams into reality. Conversely, a single production technology can change the whole direction of the design. From now on, we will demonstrate the full technical capabilities of Tochigi Nikon, take the lead in manufacturing within the Nikon Group, and implement production technologies more widely, including outside Japan.
Tochigi Nikon Corporation
I am in charge of the manufacture of NIKKOR lenses. The Z mount is testament to the fact that NIKKOR lenses are evolving day by day. Since it is necessary to respond to newly developed core technologies such as fluorite and fluorine coat, the management of production technology development is becoming highly advanced. This includes cooperation not only within Tochigi Nikon, but also with related divisions of the Nikon Group including Nikon's Production Technology Division, and it ensures I have an extremely busy schedule.
We have also been acting as an engineering center for the Nikon Imaging Business Unit for a long time, and we will strengthen this capacity from now on. I believe it is necessary for us to become the core for enhancing technical capabilities at all the Nikon Group's manufacturing locations around the world.
Tochigi Nikon Corporation
I am in charge of manufacturing of optical components. This includes extremely high-precision manufacturing to achieve ultra-high resolution. Since all departments are now gathered at one place due to optical integration, the distances within the department have become shorter, including physically. It has also brought positive effects in terms of communication, such as through the sharing of knowledge and technologies.
First of all, we will boost production capacity so that we can meet increased production demand. We will then rapidly establish production capabilities for hard-to-manufacture products. Beyond that, we believe that the future challenge is to respond precisely to the diversifying demands of the external sales business being promoted by the Precision Components & Modules Business Unit.
Tochigi Nikon Corporation
I oversee the manufacturing of microscope objective lenses and optical components for the Healthcare Business Unit and the Industrial Metrology Business Unit. There are numerous kinds of objective lenses used for microscopes, so our team handles the manufacture of many different types in small quantities. Since a variety of distinctive manufacturing processes are conducted at Tochigi Nikon, it is not easy to deploy technologies horizontally. However, I believe that proceeding with this initiative will lead to improvements in QCD (Quality, Cost, Delivery Time).
In addition, we are getting more high-precision demands in external sales. We will improve our capabilities, including our production capacity, in order to meet those demands flexibly and contribute to the growth of new business.
- *Job titles and responsibilities are as of the time of the interviews.
Originally published: October 17, 2019.