Technology Paves the Path

Technology Paves the Path

by Ron Leach

A decade ago pundits were describing the business of photography as a "sunset industry," suggesting that the "smart money" should look elsewhere for innovation and profits. Then came the digital revolution which not only changed the manner in which we capture, share and archive our images, but provided renewed impetus to the growth trajectory of the most forward-thinking imaging companies.

As typically happens with revolutions of this sort, some venerable names unfortunately fell by the wayside as our industry's hierarchy was recalibrated. But today photography is at the forefront of our culture's mindset and both the craft and the business of imaging are in an upswing.

If we needed any evidence to support our optimism, it was provided recently during a weeklong visit to Canon's headquarters in Tokyo. This was an auspicious time to visit Canon in Japan: The company is celebrating it's 70th anniversary this year, which also marks the 30th anniversary of Canon's inkjet technology and the 20th anniversary of their EOS camera system. We visited a modern manufacturing facility in Toride, caught a glimpse of the future of color management systems, and received briefing's at the sparkling Shimomaruko headquarters by Canon's camera and lens groups, the inkjet and large-format printer groups and the product design group.

While we weren't treated to any "secrets" regarding impending camera introductions, a real highlight of the trip was a meeting with Canon's hard-charging Chairman Fujio Mitarai who shared his corporate vision of the imaging industry. Perhaps because he spent 23 years in the U.S. bolstering Canon's presence in North America, Mitarai has a unique management style--an unusual hybrid of traditional Japanese values and a western focus on profits.

When he returned to Japan as President and CEO, Mitarai drastically cut costs by closing unprofitable divisions and changed the company's philosophy. He eliminated Canon's "conveyor belt" style of manufacturing and implemented a "cell production" system with workers in small groups that build products from top to bottom. The result: higher productivity, fewer warehouses, and reduced labor costs and factory floor-space requirements. With an eye toward the future, Canon completed a state-of-the-art R&D facility in 2005, designed to bolster their existing core initiatives as well as explore new business domains.

One interesting moment occurred at the Toride photocopier factory when the plant manager was asked to identify the acceptable defect threshold during the Q&A process. The translator made several attempts to re-state the question to the apparently befuddled plant manager. Ultimately, the answer was a grin and a shrug of the shoulders, because the question simply didn't translate; at Toride there is no such thing as an "acceptable" level of defects, however small.

So what does tomorrow bring for Canon? According to Mitarai, "we're constantly looking to improve ourselves, looking for new businesses and dominating the markets we're in."

In short, the future of the photo industry burns bright in the land of the rising sun.