A quiet room, full of workers—mostly women—stand at stations on the factory line. Precise motions, quick and skilled, as hands turn and work familiarly over the surface of a new camera. This camera and these lenses we watch them build, the Sony a7R II and E-mount lenses today, are made of a variety of components—some from within Sony’s factory here in Thailand, some from their glass and sensor facilities in Japan, and some from third-party suppliers.
Through a surprisingly complex yet inherently mechanical process, these components are shaped into something that you and I would recognize and would use as part of our own photographic process. A wire connected here, a set of screws installed there, an eyecup placed on a viewfinder and so on until the cameras move to inspection.
Sony brought a select group of journalists to tour this plant in Chonburi, Thailand, to look at the laboring that goes into the photographic products that we use as the fruits of that labor.
This is not what most people think of when they imagine (if they imagine) where their cameras come from. Most people, I suspect, either imagine of vast lines of robots moving silently in sterile rooms, or picture instead something more Dickensian—rows of disgruntled factory workers in squalid conditions.
Asian companies like Sony are intensely proud of their factories, and tours have been a part of the news cycle for companies like Nikon and Canon for years. This, though, is the first time journalists have been able to tour this facility, called Sony Technology Thailand, to see how the alpha cameras and lenses are produced.
The trip comes at a time when Sony is eager to remind people that they’re heavily-invested in the photographic space. The company is also eager to show that the disastrous earthquake last year that pummeled the company’s sensor-fabrication plant in Japan and threw manufacturing into chaos is no longer constraining the company’s inventory. With row after row of Sony a7R II boxes stacked at the end of the factory line, the point that production is doing well, thank you very much, was clear.
Before embarking on a tour of the facility, representatives from Thailand, the United States and Japan spoke about Sony’s market growth—some official numbers will be available in the next few months—and their continued investment in the future. Teasing upcoming products the obligatory PowerPoint demonstration included a list of the timeline of Sony camera introductions, through a mysterious question-mark that hovers over 2017.
So imminent does it feel that a new system will arrive from Sony that the gathered press were pretty sure that this event would see a launch of some kind. Sony has been holding media events in the U.S., each time a new product or new category (like the G-Master) lens is announced, and we’d wondered in the Facebook group we assembled if the company would take the opportunity to show off a new product to a captive audience of journalists.
While we didn’t get an a9—or whatever a new body will be called—there was enough confirmation by the gathered Sony managers and engineers that they’ve been listening to customer feedback. For instance, the company will be aggressively improving their Pro support services (though, truth be told, they can only go up from here), which they acknowledge is a barrier to entry for many professional photographers.
Another barrier for pros, of course, is the need to make a truly professional camera more robust. The Nikon D5 and Canon EOS-1D X Mark II can stand up to abuse, whether that be on the frontlines of a war or sidelines of a sporting event. The Sony a7 series is less able to withstand the onslaught of weather and dust, the menu needs a more logical layout and the battery life issues need be addressed.
Our Video Look Inside The Factory
Inside The Gates
The Sony facility at Chonburi is unassuming, as are many high-tech factories residing in industrial parks, and only a single sign at the entrance lets you know you’ve arrived. Inside the entrance, we were given static-reducing slippers, and then taken into the main meeting room for an overview of the complex and its history.
The site is also home to Sony’s automotive electronics manufacturing, producing things like audio systems and components for dash cams. The lens and the camera body line were added recently and were (obviously) the center of our attention.
While most of the process of assembling the parts is manual, we got a glimpse into the automated nature of electronics componentry with a line of equipment that prints circuit boards and attaches miniscule circuits plucked by robotic arm from spools of these circuits. Under a high power microscope they showed that one such circuit is smaller than the tip of a grain of rice—yet the machines assemble the with such speed and precision that I had flashbacks to the Terminator movies.
The camera assembly room has several stations where the bodies are combined with various components. Workers quickly attach parts and tighten screws at a pace that isn’t quite slow, but is also not frenetic. As I mentioned, the majority of the line is made up of women, which Sony (and other factories I’ve visited) ascribe this largely to their relatively smaller hands, and exceptional dexterity, though obviously there are some cultural factors at play here as well. The men working on the line seemed to be more congregated in the quality assurance and packaging stages.
Separate from the factory floor is a training room where prospective employees learn to use the various tools of the line, and practice soldering. Dozens of employees in uniforms lined rows of tables while managers provided feedback and analyzed performance with stopwatches. Unlike the quietness of the floor, the training room was noisier, with trainees joking with each other and commenting on their progress. We were told that a main station is used for basic training, and that trainees have several attempts to pass the various tests certifying them with various tools, moving from more gross motor tasks up to detailed work such as the electrical soldering. It’s pretty clear that a factory job in a country that is so newly industrialized is highly prized. Employees
We weren’t allowed to enter the clean room facility in which the lenses are made, but we watched it from the viewing area outside. Clean rooms always fascinate me, partially because I live in a Victorian house, where dust is part of my existence. It takes such a Sisyphean effort to try to eliminate dust from a manufacturing line that it seems nearly impossible to fathom.
Inside the clean room were several, well, cleaner rooms, separated from the main space by additional walls and additional ventilation. We were told that the G-Master lenses have a high level of dust quarantine than do the kit lenses, for example.
Along the line, workers visually and audibly test operation of the parts. We watched as workers held 70-200mm lenses up to their ears and slowly rotated the focus dial, listening and feeling for any problems in the operation. A random screening QA program pulls samples off the line and subjects them to a further battery of tests, shutting down a line should a serious defect be found.
Managers for each section of the factory greeted us outside their areas, with enthusiastic smiles and more PowerPoint presentations about their division. The factory at Chonburi normally allows no photography, but we were allowed to take some images and videos in the camera production line, while trying to be as unobtrusive as a dozen people taking pictures of you with the very cameras you’re building could possibly be.
Sony Thailand Factory Tour: In a training area, groups of uniform-clad employees (“all over 18!” they informed us with pride) learn to attach parts and to solder wires while managers with stop watches check their performance. Tests determine where on the factory floor a new worker will land, and what their jobs will be.
In an era where our country is in the middle of a discussion of factory jobs and their place in our economy, it’s interesting to see a country where a steady factory job is a high-prestige position. There is a lot of poverty in Thailand and while unemployment is low, there are a lot of manual-labor jobs, and a lot of those jobs are outside.
It’s also interesting to think that Sony cameras were made in Thailand, shipped to the U.S., flown back to Thailand by hand, and used in the factory where they were built, by the people who built them, to take pictures of those people building them.
At the very least, I have a newly discovered sense of gratitude for the array of goods and services available to me, thanks to people like the employees at Sony’s Chonburi plant. It’s easy to forget that the camera gear that we use creatively is the end-product of a long chain of human interactions.