Suzuki Motorcycle Factory Tour

Suzuki Motorcycle Toyokawa Assembly Plant
Some of the quality control is done by hand, some by machine, but all to exacting standards

The British dominated the European–and arguably the global–motorcycle industry all through the 1960s. But by the time the seventies arrived the writing was on the wall, and the first few years of the decade saw the demise of such hallowed brands as BSA, Norton, and Triumph.

Even the Italian brands were struggling by the eighties. Although Triumph eventually saw a welcome resurgence and now put out exceptional motorcycles, and Norton which continues to try to make a comeback, overall there is no doubt that the motorcycle establishment went through a seismic change in that period.

It happened because the Japanese saw an opening in the market, and quickly filled it with an amazing array of brilliantly engineered motorcycles that were of a dramatically higher quality than the existing machines. The Japanese had realized that the level of quality control that is relatively routine in Japan, is exceptional anywhere else. An error rate of over 10% that was acceptable in other developed countries simply wasn’t nearly good enough in Japan. The Japanese simply had much higher standards.

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But there was a little more to it than that. The Brits had relied on antiquated designs and outdated technology for too long, and although there had been a couple of minor exceptions, the industry hadn’t come up with anything beyond a simple four-stroke parallel twin with pushrod-actuated valves, for years. By the time BSA launched the Rocket III, and Triumph the Hurricane, that added a cylinder but not much else, it was too little, too late, to compete.

The Japanese manufacturers on the other hand were incredibly innovative, and those innovations were brought to market with breathtaking speed. When the new generation of Japanese motorcycles went on sale to the consumer, frankly there was no competition.  My best friend owns an impressive collection that includes several Nortons and Triumphs, as well as Honda CB750s, Kawasaki triples, and Suzuki GT750s, all from the same late-sixties/early-seventies era; and we ride them all regularly.

Needless to say it is always fun riding any of these super-charismatic classics, but if you compare them from an emotionally detached perspective, the myriad of differences in technical development, quality, engineering precision, and ultimately, reliability, between any of the British motorcycles and the Japanese, it is beyond striking. When the machines were new it must have been jaw-dropping.

I have been fortunate enough to visit Japan several times, and on each visit I have been incredibly impressed by the Japanese culture and work ethic in general. Not only are the people friendly and welcoming, their level of detail and care in absolutely everything is very noticeable. The Japanese pride themselves on working as one, and being able to focus on the tiniest of details. As one small example, it takes years as an apprentice just to learn how to cook the rice to the standard of each itamae (sushi chef) …and that’s just the rice!

The new 2017 Suzuki GSX-R1000 is a very important motorcycle for the company. It is the latest iteration in the revered GSX-R lineup that so shook the sportbike world when it was first introduced in 1985. It embraces Suzuki’s original design concept of making a motorcycle easy and fun to ride; to be agile and yet stable; and to give the rider complete confidence and control.

Suzuki’s design fundamentals of making a motorcycle run, turn, and stop, are the very essence of performance motorcycling, and the engineers at Suzuki insist that the new Gixxer meets all their goals. So when I was invited to visit their world headquarters and manufacturing plants in Hamamatsu, Japan, prior to riding the new GSX-R1000, I was very intrigued.

Barry Sheene Suzuki RG500
In one corner of the factory were some machines awaiting restoration, including this 1976 ex-Barry Sheene championship-winning RG500

My first stop on the tour was at Suzuki’s Ryuyo Technical Center where the high speed road course test track is located and every model of machine in Suzuki’s line up is put through its paces in test, after test, after test. The facility has multiple road surfaces from smooth to abhorrently bumpy, and there is a whole off-road course for motocross machines as well.

I was then taken to the Takatsuka Engine Manufacturing plant, and finally on to visit the Toyokawa Assembly plant, where among other machines, I was able to watch the first US-spec GSX-R1000R come off the production line.

The Takatsuka Engine Manufacturing plant has 28 production lines in total, 4 of those are dedicated to making crankshafts for different models, with the 7th production line of giant milling and finishing machines dedicated to the GSX-R1000 motor.

The level of quality control at Suzuki is breathtaking. For instance, every single GSX-R crankshaft goes through a process of forging, machining, hardening, and final polishing, and it is then inspected by hand using a small microscopic camera.

Takatsuka Engine Assemby Plant crankshaft 5
The oil pathways and tunnels in each crankshaft are checked by hand using a micro camera

The inspection goes so far as to check the internal oil holes and pathways to make sure everything is perfectly smooth and unobstructed. This level of detail examination was carried through every part of the motorcycle and its assembly.

The Takatsuka plant manufactures the engine crankshafts, cylinders, cylinder heads, and crankcases, and with help from outside vendors for some internal parts, approximately 200 finished GSX-R1000 engines are output every day.

The Toyokawa Assembly plant is approximately a two hour drive from the engine manufacturing plant. It was established in October 1971 for mid- and large-size motorcycles. It has around 630 workers who build 12 models (47 types within those model ranges) over 750cc motorcycles. The plant also assembles many other Suzuki machines including 3 types of ATVs and 19 types of outboard motor.

The workers on the GSX-R1000 line manage to output around 240 completed motorcycles per day using parts supplied from the other Suzuki plants, as well as items from approx 172 outside vendors. There are approximately 51 machines being built on each production line as it slowly makes it way along its nearly 90 meter run.

Apparently it only takes about 5 minutes to switch production from one model to another–it’s just a case of changing the component supplies at each station on the line. Five minutes is actually two blank spaces on the line, that is all. The completed motorcycles then come off the line to waiting testers who put the completed bikes through their paces on two rolling roads with built in brake/ABS, and traction control testing capability.

Suzuki Takatsuka Engine Assemby Plant entrance
The Takatsuka Engine Manufacturing plant entrance

The plant tours were fascinating. They gave me insight into the intelligence and obsessive level of build quality that has allowed the Japanese to dominate motorcycle mass-production so successfully, for so long.

By the end of the day I was left with the overwhelming feeling that the workers at Suzuki have enormous pride in every aspect of what they do. Every single person seems to have enormous passion to produce the absolute best—and the employees clearly have the discipline and corporate culture to succeed.

Suzuki’s Mission Statement is to ‘develop products of superior value by focusing on the customer’ and it seems the employees are keen to fulfill that objective.

Worker after worker was absorbed and intent on the tasks at hand; the pride in each particular task was almost palpable. Each employee is acutely aware that everyone is a small, yet vital, cog in a huge machine. If a worker’s job is not done correctly, then the whole machine stops—so no one gets it wrong. The employees at Suzuki take every aspect of its manufacturing very, very seriously. It is very striking to witness.

The Gallery of pictures shows some of the process that goes into making the new Suzuki GSX-R1000