Our History of Casting Vol. 3 - Fostering Personnel Development
The Toyota 7 (578A) racecar that debuted in 1970 was jointly developed by Yamaha Motor and Toyota, and was the first domestically produced car to feature a turbocharged racing engine. The engine had a twin-turbo design using two Garrett AiRsearch turbochargers originally meant for diesel engines. “Those turbos were always failing,” says Hironori Ogura with a wry smile. “Because they were designed for diesels, they couldn't withstand the higher exhaust temperatures of gasoline engines and the turbine blades would warp. So it wasn't long before President Kawakami issued the order: ‘Build a turbine for gas engines that won't break.’ My boss had apparently been told, ‘You've got six months to finish it and I want a progress report after three.’”
“I rushed to get my things together and flew off to America,” says Ogura. In those days there was almost no turbocharger technology in Japan, and Ogura didn't even have any knowledge about what materials were needed to make turbine blades that could withstand exhaust temperatures of 400 to 500 ℃. But while in the U.S., Ogura eventually determined that the Iconel alloy used in the turbofan engines of the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet would be ideal: “When I found out that it could withstand 1,000 ℃ for 100 hours, I knew it was the right material.” At the time, this was the most advanced heat-resistant alloy in existence.
But even with the proper material, things would not be so straightforward. With three months having elapsed since development began, Ogura's boss submitted the project's progress report as per President Kawakami's direct order. However, at the time they still hadn't even gotten the molten metal to flow correctly. “My boss got yelled at when Kawakami-san read the report. ‘What the hell are you doing?!’ Fortunately for me, I was still just a junior employee with no title or anything, so I was spared his wrath,” chuckles Ogura. “I think it was in Kawakami-san's nature to never yell at the employees out on the factory floor.” Beneath the protective umbrella of his boss' position, Ogura diligently kept working on the turbine's development and the project began seeing progress. Eventually, the turbine blades were successfully cast using investment casting (lost-wax casting).
“Kawakami-san complimented us on our work when we finally succeeded. ‘Well done!’ he said. I think we were the first in Japan to produce a turbo for gasoline engines.” The technical know-how gained in these efforts to produce a turbocharger that could withstand the stresses of gas engines is what formed the base for Yamaha eventually going on to produce 10,000 turbos a month.
In 1974, Yamaha started to develop a method for V-process casting (V for vacuum) and used it to make piano frames. With the company's goal of producing 10,000 upright pianos per month, a V-process casting plant was built at a cost of two billion yen (at the time). “The frames manufactured with the V-process were so attractive that they didn't even look like they were cast pieces. I remember the chief editor of an American casting trade magazine writing that he'd ‘seen the casting factory of the future at Yamaha.’”
Similar boundary-breaking pushes to develop new technologies continued unabated at Yamaha, with its casting experts relishing the challenge of solving difficult problems and thereby achieving success. Everyone from Genichi Kawakami to the company's executives and directors—many career engineers themselves—frequently visited and spent considerable time at the casting factories. “Whenever a race day got close, our team would be extremely busy working on the cylinder heads to try and get more performance out of the engine, so although I was just a rank-and-file junior employee at the time, I often had to somehow explain things to the higher-ups,” remembers Ogura with a laugh. “I don't think that sort of thing would likely happen today.”
Ironically, Ogura himself would eventually become one of those higher-ups at Yamaha Motor, but during his younger years as an engineer, he was technically employed at musical instrument company Nippon Gakki (today's Yamaha Corporation). Nippon Gakki's motorcycle divisions were spun off and founded as Yamaha Motor in 1955, but the two companies have maintained a very close working relationship. Like Ogura was, Yamaha Motor's core management then was largely made up of engineers originally from Nippon Gakki, and the casting factory was also used extensively by both companies.
Entering the late 1970s, with the world economy strong and motorcycle sales booming, the scope of Yamaha Motor's business expanded exponentially. “Compared with Nippon Gakki, the level of Yamaha Motor's investments was an order of magnitude greater,” says Ogura. If the company didn't build more dedicated motorcycle factories and train new motorcycle specialists, it would have never been able to keep up.
Nippon Gakki had long been in charge of the casting divisions for Yamaha motorcycles, but in 1980, it was decided to wholly transfer their management to Yamaha Motor. “Do it in half a year,” was the order Ogura received and in 1981, he was temporarily stationed at Yamaha Motor. Since he had always been an employee of Nippon Gakki, he had mixed emotions about the transfer. “But because I'd always been involved in developing their cars or motorcycles, so I guess me being the one put in charge of the move was only natural,” he says.
With a profound sense of responsibility on his shoulders, he set to work. And sure enough, after only six months the motorcycle casting divisions had been transferred in their entirety to Iwata Factory #3. This factory would later become the key to the further development and expansion of Yamaha's casting technology and expertise.
In facilitating this transfer, Ogura devoted much of his time and effort towards securing the services of talented personnel. “I told them to send me as many recent college graduates as possible who know casting,” he says. His superiors would tease him saying, “All you ever ask for is more people,” and the graduates and new hires themselves would often complain about the work being too tough. Still, Ogura was adamant in upping the level of the company's personnel as he understood that casting technology was the foundation of Yamaha Motor, an ideology hammered into him by Genichi Kawakami.