FEATURE STORIES

Making plastic fantastic: A tour of Tamiya's Cebu factory

Making plastic fantastic: A tour of Tamiya's Cebu factory image

Aurick Go / Aurick Go | March 21, 2017 17:37

Visiting the Philippine home of build your own

You’ve surely heard rumors some decades ago: All those Tamiya scale models we’ve come to love as gearheads were supposedly built somewhere here in the Philippines.

Perhaps you’d have imagined how much more models were in store in this magical factory as compared to the humble – but jam-packed – Lil’s Hobby Centers around town. Maybe they would have special limited release models available to take home if you somehow found their hideout? If all that somehow crossed your mind you’re not alone; I too grew up wondering if that factory existed. And if it did, just how big of an operation was Tamiya really running here in the country? Funny thing is, the clues to the factory’s existence were right there all along: All their model’s boxes do say they’re “Made in the Philippines” after all.

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

Well, perhaps our queries about the Tamiya Factory in Cebu can be put to rest today. Thanks to an arrangement with Lil’s Hobby Center, Hobbes and Landes, and Blade, Tamiya graciously opened their doors for a day to allow our small group of journalists to have a peek at their plant and their proceedings. Truth be told though, you could have replaced ‘journalists’ with ‘children’ in that last sentence.

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

Apparently Tamiya have established themselves in the country as early as 1994, with their 4-hectare plant in Cebu soon commencing operations a year later. That said Tamiya have been here for over two decades already; Working quietly as they built plenty of wonderful toys for the world to enjoy.

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

For this trip, Senior Vice President Go Tsuboi (rightmost) as well as Assistant General Manager Hironori Hane (2nd from right) were in charge of taking us around the plant. With complete knowledge of each of the factory’s key operations, they were able to give us a good idea of how much preparation goes into making all their model kits.

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

First off we were shown the machines that inject plastic onto molds that eventually turn into the grids that hold all the parts together. With around 51 of these units around the plant, Tamiya is able to produce various pieces and kits at a time. Alongside these devices, staff members are in charge of removing any excess plastic from the newly formed pieces.

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

After walking the long line of machines we were met with the staff and machines responsible for pressing the polycarbonate bodies for Tamiya RC cars as well as some Mini 4WDs. With various scales to work with, the machines had different sizes as well to match the scale of the toys. As you can see here, one staff member was busy pressing several copies of a Ferrari 599.

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

While the polycarbonate bodies can be purchased in clear form, some of these are already grafted onto a complete kit and sold as a whole. That means the shells will have to undergo several more steps in-house. Tamiya has a line of staff dedicated to building the car for you if you do not have the patience to build it yourself. Then again, what’s the fun in that though?

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

After being masked in the right places, the bodies are then sent into a slow conveyor belt with a small cubicle inside. The cubicle is technically a small paint booth where one staff member is in charge of laying a coat of paint on the bottom side of the pre-made body. Can you recognize what they’re painting now?

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

Following paint, the shell gets returned onto the conveyor belt which then takes it through four ovens to thoroughly dry the paint. What comes out is then unmasked and stored to be taken to the next step. All these S15 Nissan Silvias were right up my alley, so you can just imagine how much I wanted to bring one home!

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

Have you ever wondered how Tamiya somehow gets plastic bits to shine like chrome? Tamiya themselves are quite proud of the process they’ve devised to be able to achieve that chrome plated finish. A vacuum expands plastic molecules to allow aluminum evaporated with tungsten wire to seep into them – thereby sticking thorougly onto the plastic instead of falling off. A top coat is then added to alter the color and achieve an anodized paint finish.

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

Several metal molds like the ST195 Toyota Celica and Lancia Delta Integrale were stored throughout the facility as we walked from one part to the next. I couldn’t help but stop and take a peek at some of them since these were some iconic vehicles from the 90’s.

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

We were then led to the area where Tamiya’s Masterwork Collection is made. The Masterwork Collection is pretty much a perfectly built 1:24 scale model; no more cutting, painting, and assembly – for much a steeper price tag. Here several employees with artisan-like crafting skills assemble hundreds of units of one type of model. During our visit the staff had an assembly line for the Masterwork Collection version of the Honda NSX.

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

Quality control is a serious affair for most Japanese companies, and Tamiya is no exception. Every part, nut, and bolt must ensure that the client gets the full experience of enjoying Tamiya’s products. That said, products such as this pre-assembled Expert Built RC chassis are rigorously tested right after assembly.

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

Given the number of toys the production line has to produce, each staff member is assigned a specific step to perform on the build before passing it onto the next person for the next step. They only have roughly 240 seconds to perform their required task, and considering these involve layering stickers, screwing nuts and bolts together, or snapping several plastic parts on, their precision and the consistency of their output is no joke at all!

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

The next part of the tour led us towards the machines that actually make new molds to be used for making new kits. Here we have a machine that appears to have churned out a new fuselage for a Phantom II fighter plane.

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour 

Tamiya performs everything in-house, and that includes the boxes and packaging of their kits. The operation is so huge in fact that Tamiya have established the Tamiya Chuo Company as a subsidiary to take care of their packaging needs.

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

Did you know that all the boxes of Tamiya kits are actually prints of a painting? Tamiya commissions a painting for each and every kit and reprints their selected painting onto the box as its cover. Considering they’ve yet to deviate from this tradition despite readily-available programs on the computer, it further distinguishes their products as an artisanal craft in itself.

Turning plastic into fantastic: The Tamiya factory tour

I believe I don’t speak for myself when I say Tamiya has become part of our lives at one point or another. The entertainment these kits provide not only provides for leisure, but also allow us to explore the boundaries of our imagination. That said, we are ever grateful to the staff at the Tamiya Factory for this golden opportunity to have a closer look at the workings behind their scale model kits.

After all that’s said and done, I’m still here thinking of what I could have brought home from that trip. Looks like a trip to Lil’s Hobby Center is in order.

We would like to extend our thanks to Justin Uy of Hobbes and Landes, Shakespeare Chan of Lil’s Hobby Center, Robert Tan and Albert Go of Blade Auto Center, and Go Tsuboi and Hironori Hane of Tamiya Inc. for inviting and accommodating us during the visit.