Leica Three - The Hand-made Lens
Every so often I am amazed at what Europeans do. I used to think back in the last century that you could generally count on them to do something amazing for about four or 5 years at a stretch ( until the turnips and the artillery shells ran out ) and then go quiet again for a while. What I failed to realize was the degree to which they were still being amazing, even in the quiet bits.
Case in point is the video we were shown at the Leica training today. It was a simple thing showing the production of lenses in Solms. There were well-done scenes of lens grinding, lens measuring, lens assembly, and lens finishing - I wondered at the time if they were taken with a Leica lens on the cameras...but to get back to it. The real eye-opener was the degree to which these processes are all still being done with the direct input of the human hand - on a clean table - by a worker in a white coat. And done on a production basis.
The Leica factory would appear not to be a robotic place - unlike so many car and furniture factories that one sees on the television. The lenses are being ground by machines, sure - this is the nature of the process that shapes a blank. But they are being finished - individually - by hand even at the basic grinding stage. And they are being subject to individual inspection and technical measurement piece by piece as they proceed through they manufacturing process. Heck, even the Leica cameras that are sourced out of the Orient are going back to Germany before they are re-shipped out us - they are subjected to additional quality checks that their eastern cousins do not get.
When they assemble the lens elements-the ones that require cement to unite two different sorts of glass - they are put into a jig, a dollop of the cement is put on, and the lens pressed in by hand and then centered. I cannot think that it would be the old canada balsam still, so I imagine that there is a synthetic glue that is being used. I beleive it might be UV cured. But there is a human hand there in the process.
Again, human hands in the form of 4 ladies who are responsible for coating the sides of lens elements with a black paint to prevent light bounce. They tried men, they tried machinery, but it came back to ladies.
Lens engraving? Well that is machine-done - no little gnomes with hammers and chisels - but the sunken letters and panels that are created by the routers is filled by an intense man in a white coat with a paintbrush.
Assembly of some things in the world is automatic - we have all seen pictures of everything from cars to coke cans flashing past with things dropping onto them from hoppers. At Leica there is a dignified gentleman with one lens in front of him on a cradle and a selection of components in an arc on a table. He picks something up - puts it on carefully - makes sure that it is correct - and then goes to the next one. I so envy him his job - I'll bet he does not have a telephone exploding in his ear every 40 seconds and no radio playing Triple J...
Each lens has passed through so many quality controls and technical tests that you are guaranteed to have it work perfectly when it gets to you. And presumably if you keep it clean and don't drop it in the sand or onto the road in Northbridge, it will keep on doing so for decades.
I can hear the hands in the factory at Solms - applauding.