“Making things”, the Canon way

7 min
A Japanese man in a striped blue shirt holding a metal tool leans over a large metal disc. He appears to be in a factory.

For the western world, Japan holds a kind of magnetism. It lies in the awe that can be found in a country of such profound beauty and deep cultural tradition, but also through a fascination with how both manifest in the quotidian. In the corporate world in particular, the Japanese emphasis on harmony, respect and the celebration of skilled work and dedication are held with high regard. And so, from the latter part of the 20th century, Japanese business practices blossomed globally.

Industries especially were keen to embrace Japanese principles, and so one such concept that took the manufacturing world by storm in the 1990s is the practice of ‘Monozukuri’. Its adoption by the western world was symbolic of its aspiration to a model of excellence that encompassed both product quality and productivity.

The word itself, however, is far far older, with its roots found in the centuries of work made by individual artisans and craftspeople. It can be literally translated as ‘making things’ or ‘crafting things’ ('mono' meaning thing, and 'zukuri' meaning the act of making) but it is so much more than that. Conceptually and culturally, it reflects – and respects – the soul and art of the maker. It acknowledges an individual’s pursuit of perfection and their lifelong commitment to learning. It honours the desire to improve and refine, to create something that brings joy.

Some call it a philosophy, others refer to it as a mindset. For us, it is both, and much more, forming the foundation of the quality and performance standards of our products. Today, however, we have made Monozukuri our own, fusing human experience, skill and ingenuity into our world of advanced technologies. The beauty of Monozukuri for us is that it is completely compatible with our own corporate philosophy of Kyosei – living and working together for the common good.

A factory worker in a blue overall, hat and gloves, holds and inspects a lens-shaped object.

Canon colleagues in our many factories across the world bring fresh ideas which improve our products and the processes used to manufacture them.

It stands to reason that Monozukuri would resonate with Canon. After all, we produce a huge portfolio of products (and their component parts) to the highest possible standards. We are at the forefront of the evolution of a wealth of technologies and new ways to bring them to life, such as automation and Artificial Intelligence. When an organisation operates at our kind of scale, you might feel this to be incongruous with such a gentle philosophy. Yet, when we examine the ways in which we manifest Monozukuri across Canon, it all becomes clear.

We take the long view

Everything we undertake is done with deep consideration and never for short-term gain. This equally applies to the way we approach our research and development or the strategic vision for the company overall. Innovation is the lifeblood of Canon, and the pursuit of excellence through continuous improvement – in both our existing and new technologies – is the beating heart of Monozukuri.

But what does continual innovation look like, really? In a word: investment. Each year around 8% of our worldwide sales are funnelled back into in R&D activities. To gain a sense of the scale at which our R&D operates, we have ten locations within Japan and a further nine sites in Europe, the United States and the Middle East that focus on the future of Canon technologies. Those for which we are best known – photography and print – and many further areas of innovation, such as semiconductor lithography, OLED displays, medical imaging, video analytics and Artificial Intelligence.

Of course, a significant goal for the teams designing new products at Canon is to ensure that each element is straightforward to manufacture – and within this scope, we also develop our own material processing methodologies and production equipment. Monozukuri helps us to streamline our operations and strive for maximum effectiveness and efficiency in all we do. But we also consider every lifecycle. Part of the Monozukuri mindset means that the environmental impact of our products and manufacturing processes are taken into account.

Every person who works for Canon contributes to the evolution of our products and nowhere is this more pronounced than on the factory floor.

We always have the customer in our sight

In traditional Monozukuri, the customer is rarely mentioned directly. Instead, the philosophy emphasises the artisan’s contribution to society. However, we take the approach that continuous improvement cannot be achieved without a deep understanding of our customer’s needs and desires. And we always aim to bring customer feedback into our product iterations, ensuring that any refinements exceed their expectations. From a broader perspective, this also means we fulfil requirements in usability and functionality, as well as meeting market-specific demands.

We begin the process of development and design by talking to our customers and observing how they actually interact with and use our products. It’s perfectly simple, but absolutely foundational to the Monozukuri of continuous learning and improvement, as we see first-hand what works and what doesn’t. From here we can identify potential enhancements to the user experience.

Ours is the keenest eye for detail

The resulting ideas and concepts can then be tested extensively and further refined to produce the ideal design. Here, our technologies, combined with expertise across the organisation, creates a kind of ‘Monozukuri plus’ effect. We waste no opportunity to examine and improve our products and capabilities and use every means available to us to do so. A great example of this lies in our Virtual Prototyping Technology. We have developed proprietary Computer Aided Engineering (CAE) and Computer Aided Design (CAD) tools that help us to simulate the performance of products in development before they enter into physical prototyping.

This type of virtual impact testing can help to evaluate a product's robustness, durability, and ability to endure accidental drops or impacts that might occur during handling, shipping, or everyday use. In this way we can test and improve certain aspects, determining potential outcomes that can make a huge difference to the length and cost of the development stage.

However, for us, innovation does not end when the product reaches the manufacturing stage. In fact, this is where much of it takes place. We have a network of facilities all over the world that manufacture everything from the tiniest lenses to industrial scale production equipment – and every single item we produce requires highly skilled, precision work and excellence in every aspect. It is this expertise, right at the point of manufacture, that is critical to our style of Monozukuri. Every person who works for Canon contributes to the evolution of our products and nowhere is this more pronounced than on the factory floor. Our people prioritise quality and bring fresh ideas which not only improve our products, but the processes by which we manufacture them.

A person in white coveralls, a mask and blue latex gloves kneels in front of a Canon micro satellite. They have one arm raised and hold a pencil torch as they inspect the chassis of the structure.

Canon’s monozukuri philosophy applies to everything we manufacture – including our microsatellites.

We understand potential and seek to develop skills

We honour our manufacturing leaders in Monozukuri with the titles ‘Takumi’ and ‘Meister’. A ‘Takumi’ (which roughly translates to ‘Artisan’ or ‘Master Craftsperson’) has particular skills and experience and performs certain tasks at an exceptionally high level. Indeed, many of our Takumi will be certified as distinguished in their fields at the national level for their technical skills and diligence. This means that they are held in extremely high regard by all at Canon and set an example to their colleagues through their commitment to learning and advancing their skills throughout their career. Additionally, they pass their outstanding skills in fields such as lens polishing, precision component processing and metal mould production.

Where Takumi are specialists in one area, our ‘Meisters’ are multi-skilled with a broad range of knowledge across multiple processes. This means that they are the experts in designing new and optimised processes, identifying faults, devising preventative solutions, and suggesting innovative ways to simplify tasks and procedures. They are the respected and essential figures who bring continual feedback and improvement to the way we manufacture.

The status of Meister is prestigious, and all aspire to achieve the coveted ‘Class S Group Meister’ award, which is given to only one or two people a year. To give you an idea of what this means, there is one such Meister in product assembly who knows every one of the 3,000 + parts that go into an office printer and can assemble the finished product without any assistance.

We consider these individuals to be the equivalent of artisans in their own field within manufacturing. Therefore, we invest heavily in their development and skills training, and then our Takumi and Meisters pass on their skills and knowledge to others through our dedicated mentoring programmes. Together, they and their outstanding craftsmanship and technical skills are guiding the future direction of Monozukuri at Canon.

A forward-thinking, responsible way of doing business

If Monozukuri was a person, they would have the heart of an artist, the hands of a craftsperson and the mind of a scientist. Put this way, it is clear that, for us, this is not just the business-focused embodiment of our cultural heritage, but part of the soul of Canon. It is a deeply felt and respected means of operating responsibly, efficiently and with true awareness of our impact, while at the same time sustaining the manufacturing excellence with which we are synonymous.