Inside Arai Helmets

Behind the scenes at Japan's first motorcycle helmet maker.

Arai Helmet Factory Tour
Michio Arai, son of company founder Hirotake, and Michio’s son Akihito (on bike), two of the three generations of Arais that have been making premium motorcycle and auto-racing helmets for nearly 70 years.

After spending a few years behind bars and a desk at Rider magazine, I like to think I have some important things figured out. “Nonplussed” doesn’t mean unimpressed. Lean and believe. Bread plate on the left, drink on the right. And wear ATGATT (All of The Gear All of The Time), especially an approved helmet, preferably full-face. What about Snell vs. DOT vs. ECE 22.05 helmet certification standards? Yes, there are significant differences among them, but those differences really only come into play if you can predict what type of accident you’re going to have. The important thing is to find an approved lid that is comfortable and fits well, has good optics and doesn’t contribute to fatigue with excess noise or weight. A helmet that you like. A helmet that you want to wear, and always do.

Arai Helmet Factory Tour
Arai Americas Managing Director Brian Weston holds a “preforma,” or bird’s nest layer of chopped Super Fiber ready for the mold.

Arai has been making helmets motorcycle riders and countless successful racers want to wear for a very long time, since its first fiberglass-shelled model sold in Japan in 1952. Company founder Hirotake Arai, the son of a hat maker, was an enthusiastic motorcycle rider who established a headgear and textile factory in Saitama, Japan, near Tokyo, in the late 1930s, and after World War II made helmets for construction workers. When his buddies at the local racetrack asked him to make helmets for them, Arai created the first Japanese motorcycle helmets from fiberglass, resin and expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), effectively launching the Japanese motorcycle helmet industry. Despite focusing on head protection for fellow riders first and business concerns a distant second, the company flourished producing “HA” (Hirotake Arai) branded helmets, especially after establishing the “bag molding” technique with 2-piece metal molds that is still in use for most composite helmets today.

Arai Helmet Factory Tour
After the preforma or “bird’s nest” is inserted into the mold, one of Arai’s shell experts carefully places the reinforcing layers inside it, then a second preforma is put in to hold everything together, creating in effect a bird’s nest sandwich.

Soon after Hirotake’s son Michio (a rider since age 7) returned to Japan from college in the U.S. to help with the family business, Arai produced its first Snell-certified HA helmet in 1963. Exports began and the U.S. distributor who would eventually start and become President of Arai Helmet USA in 1977, Roger Weston, helped convince Hirotake to change the brand name from HA to simply “Arai” for obvious reasons.

Arai Helmet Factory Tour
An amazing number of preforma and reinforcing layers of fiberglass are used in each lid, some Super Fiber, some AR Mat and others Zylon or even carbon fiber.

Today Arai Helmet Ltd. has factories in Saitama and Shinto, Japan, and is still a privately owned family business, now in the capable hands of Michio “Mitch” Arai, 81, and his son Akihito. Production has ranged from a pre-recessionary high of more than 450,000 helmets annually to about 280,000 today, all by hand with the exception of six robotic lasers used to cut and trim the shells. Mitch and “Aki” Arai, along with Roger Weston’s son Brian — now Managing Director of Arai Americas — recently decided it was high time to pull back the veil on Arai’s skunk works in Japan with a press tour and ride that would showcase its new Regent-X full-face helmet (read the review here) and two overriding aspects of Arai helmets: an unfailing attention to tradition, details and quality from its factory workers and helmet experts, many of whom have been with the company for decades; and Arai’s strong belief that in addition to absorbing impacts, a helmet’s shape must allow it to slide smoothly and deflect, or “glance off” impacts in order to prevent rotational energy from entering and affecting the wearer, hence the use of roughly the same smooth, egg-like shell shape since the 1970s.

Arai Helmet Factory Tour
EPS pellets of four or more different densities are used to create the EPS liner that crushes to absorb impacts.

So far no one has found a better material for a motorcycle helmet’s protective liner than EPS, and like most premium helmet companies, Arai forms its liners from EPS pellets of different densities — lighter for the thicker areas like the crown and forehead, heavier for thinner spots. Where technology and cost collide with tradition and safety is in the helmet shell, the designs for which vary greatly among manufacturers. Although the days of polycarbonate, injection-molded shells not holding up to more rigorous standards are long past, Arai believes that composite shells made of laminated fiberglass layers and resin can be stronger, lighter and safer, since the shell absorbs some of the impact by crushing or delaminating and better resists penetration (both a polycarbonate and composite helmet must be replaced after a serious impact, since the EPS liner will have been compressed).

Arai Helmet Factory Tour
The only robots in Arai’s four factories are the laser cutters used to trim the newly formed shells, one at its R&D center in Saitama and five more at the molding facility in Shinto.

Rather than throwing out a shell design and starting over each time, Arai’s current Peripheral Belt-Structural Net Composite 2, or PB-SNC2 (used in high-end models) and PB-Complex Laminate Construction, or PBcLc, shell designs have evolved from numerous CLC designs since the first in 1977. Both start with Super Fiber, fine strands that have 30-percent more tensile strength than ordinary fiberglass. These are chopped, sprayed with resin and blown onto a perforated, rotating vacuum dome, creating a strong “bird’s nest” of sorts that is heated to retain its shape. This bird’s nest is placed into a two-piece mold, and then up to 18 reinforcing pieces such as Arai’s peripheral belt of Zylon (also used in bulletproof vests) around the top of the eyeport and the Structural Net Composite, or SNC, that helps hold the layers together, are carefully placed inside the bird’s nest. Another bird’s nest is placed on top, sandwiching the whole thing together before the resin is poured in and the hot mold is closed up with a thick airbag inside to squeeze the layers together. After 13 minutes what began as a complicated sandwich of Super Fiber, fiberglass mat and Zylon layers that can take years to learn how to assemble has formed into a light, thin but ultra-strong integral shell.

Arai Helmet Factory Tour
Each and every shell produced 200 kilometers away in Shinto or nearby in Saitama must pass final inspection at this facility in Amanuma, where shells are checked for thickness, weight and visible irregularities.

After the virgin shells are trimmed around the bottom and their vents and eye ports cut by the laser, what follows is a flurry of handwork and quality control by dozens of skilled workers, and with the exception of some paintwork and plastic part production it’s all done in-house. From sanding, priming, painting, water-decal application, strap riveting, and inserting the EPS liner to gluing in the eyebrow vents and comfort liners and numerous QC inspections, each worker doesn’t just do his or her job — each inspects and insures the quality level of each lid and genuinely cares about the result. What struck me most about Arai was not the modernity of the factories or quantity of helmets being produced, but rather that it doesn’t modify the design or what it feels is the safety level of its helmets in order to lower cost or make production more efficient or more automated. Just as it did in the 1950s, Arai genuinely cares about protecting fellow riders first and business concerns second. As Michio Arai said before we left, “Doing what we believe in gives us pride. We are not good businessmen, but we are determined to provide protection for the heads of fellow riders.”

Keep scrolling for more photos….

Arai Helmet Factory Tour
Michio Arai, 81, talks about Arai Helmet’s history in Saitama. The iconic photo in the background is of his father and company founder Hirotake standing on the saddle of his Harley in the late 1930s.
Arai Helmet Factory Tour
Punching out reinforcing layers en masse at the Shinto factory.
Arai Helmet Factory Tour
A machine weaves strands of Super Fiber for reinforcing layers like the peripheral belt that goes around the eyeport.
Arai Helmet Factory Tour
After the resin is poured in, a thick rubber bag a little like a water bottle (hence the term “bag molding”) is placed inside the mold. The mold top goes on and the bag is inflated to squeeze the resin and fiberglass into a thin integral shell.
Arai Helmet Factory Tour
This is how a shell looks right after it’s removed from the mold. Now it’s off to the laser cutter. Note the staples used to hold some of the fiberglass layers together are all located in the eyeport, which gets cut out.
Arai Helmet Factory Tour
Since resin is relatively heavy, as little as possible is used to form a shell, leaving a rough finish that requires an incredible amount of handwork to get it ready for primer and paint.
Arai Helmet Factory Tour
Graphics that aren’t painted are typically water decals painstakingly applied before the helmet is clear coated. Interestingly decal application is all done by women, who Arai has found have much more patience than men for the intricate work.
Arai Helmet Factory Tour
Once the shell is completely finished, the EPS liner is pressed in by hand (more like brute force).
Arai Helmet Factory Tour
We were treated to an exceptional preview of the new Arai Regent-X Helmet’s performance with a lengthy ride from Saitama to the famously twisty roads of Gunma Prefecture near the Shinto factory. Many thanks to Honda Motorcycle Japan for providing the bikes.

2 COMMENTS

Leave a Reply to Richard Cancel reply

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here