An Inside Look at HJC’s Helmet Facility

Behind The Shell

A few hundred yards from the Nam Dae Mun market—a vast jumble of alleys where hyperactive vendors hawk everything from live squid tentacles to fake Rolexxx watches, we’re playing an insane game of frogger trying to cross the bustling four-lane boulevard. Trucks and buses bear down within inches of our feet, but most of the metal buzzing around is of the two-wheel variety. That figures—there’s no better way to get around the traffic choked madhouse that is Seoul, South Korea.

Making the sidewalk at full gallop, we pick our way through a dense forest of scooters and small displacement motorcycles, all packed onto any available slice of concrete. Attached to the handlebar of most of those rigs is an HJC helmet. Seems this local company not only pretty much owns the Asian market, but it’s No. 1 in the United States too.

Ostensibly, I was here to see how a Korean company got to be the top seller of motorcycle helmets in America, but it also happened to be HJC’s 40th anniversary and the company had graciously offered to show me around its production complex south of Seoul, where, since 1971, it’s made nothing but helmets. HJC became the top-selling helmet manufacturer in America in the 1990s after ramping up its quality control, and it still holds the title. Founder W.K. Hong plowed those profits back into the company—HJC continues to spend about 10 percent of its revenue on R&D;—and as a consequence, the firm now sells its lids in over 65 countries, with everything from full-face to half helmets in the mix.

The U.S. is a big part of that success, because our market sells twice as many helmets as the next closest region. With over 20-percent market share (depending on who you ask), HJC has made sure it keeps tabs on U.S. trends. (in the U.S., full-face helmets are the top sellers, followed by off-road lids). A good example is the company’s contract with Harley-Davidson to produce the Motor Company’s branded helmets; it makes everything from the high-zoot FXRG lids to the DOT-only open face helmets found in Harley’s P&A; catalog. And last year, HJC unveiled the RPS-10, a fully-featured lid with an ultra-lightweight shell and advanced aerodynamics. Not only is the RPS-10 one of the lightest Snell helmets on the market, but everyday riders can actually afford it.

Into the Black

That’s the setting and the PR pitch, but I was really here to see how it all came together, and my hosts made sure I’d be hopping for two days: I’d get a full, behind-the-scenes tour of the firm’s HQ, R&D;, Production & Assembly, Testing and Quality Control facilities—all based south of Seoul.

Genesis

The birth of an HJC helmet takes place at the R&D building in Yongin, where the lids are designed, concepted, and mocked-up into physical forms. I watched as a designer noodled with a new model plan using CAD (Computer Aided Design), while all around me, full-scale mockups—the results of rapid prototyping and 3-D modeling—littered the shelves. The back area was jammed with full-size models, ready to be tested in a dynamic environment and fine-tuned. The onsite staff—consisting of over 40 engineers—was eager to explain every process and detail involved in building a single helmet design.

The Air Over There

The extensive prototype testing regimen involves HJC’s relatively new Wind Tunnel Lab. A state-of-the-art facility like this is found at only a handful of helmet companies, and it allows for each lid to be examined for aerodynamics, ventilation and noise level. The 130-mph wind machine provides engineers with a means to measure high-speed performance and interior noise levels at varying angles and riding postures to fine-tune the helmet for reduced drag, maximum stability, minimum vibration, and more.

HJC also took me through their Standards and Testing lab, where all helmets are tested to worldwide safety standards applicable in the more than 60 different countries where HJC helmets are sold. HJC has its own rigorous set of internal quality, durability and safety tests each lid must pass, and additionally, the destination country standard. Because each country has its own homologation standard, HJC’s in-house testing machinery is equipped to test for numerous standards, including DOT, Snell, ECE, KC (Korea) and others.

On the Line

The big highlight however, is the factory production line. Modern helmets are constructed from plastics, and premium lids get shells made of fiberglass reinforced with some proprietary combination of fibers (in the case of the RPS-10, it’s carbon fiber and aramid fiber—called PIM).

Different composition and ‘glass layers are rolled out in sheets, then cut out and placed over the helmet in strips to be molded in the shape of a shell. But because of style differentiations, shell construction has to be adaptable, so the RPS-10 has precisely sized segments of the PIM material carefully laid into a special pre-mold for shaping by hand to eliminate fiber overlap in the forming process, thereby reducing shell weight. The shell is then formed by alternating between heating and freezing cycles, and then drying. The resulting mold is trimmed and cut precisely. As finished shells get inspected, new molds are being made in one room, EPS liners in yet another. I’m told the Korea plant can make both polycarbonate and fiberglass shells, but focuses on fiberglass.

The next building over contains the painting area, where the raw shells are being primed and prepped for paint. Here, deformities are identified and corrected, and each primed helmet is then sanded individually to ensure proper adhesion of the paint. Several coats of high quality paint are then applied by machine to ensure a smooth, even layer. Constant testing on the assembly lines subject the shells, liners and helmets to inspections of shell weight, uniformity and rigidity. After the paint has dried, graphics—perhaps the most demanding aspect of the whole process—are then applied. Every individual decal must be perfectly lined up to the correct detent, and what’s even more amazing is that this painstaking process is all done by hand. It’s fascinating to watch each helmet go through the line and realize that even with conveyor belts, each helmet is essentially handmade.

With several clear coats applied to the finish, the lids are then pushed to final assembly.

And They’re Off

Once the helmets are painted and cleared, the “blown” EPS liner comes from a climate-controlled storage area where it’s been molded into the correct shape to be installed. Then the helmets pass through various stations to have the window beadings and gaskets, face shields, comfort interiors, internal visors and other parts installed. During this stage of the process, final inspection is especially rigorous, with every helmet is inspected by operators multiple times for defects. Approved helmets are at last placed on the final conveyor belt to be boxed and shipped.

What’s Next?

Even with a worldwide reach and millions of products sold every year, HJC has somehow managed to keep the business in the family. CEO Scott Hong has been running the company his older brother started for the last decade, directing it to its current level of success. Next in line to helm the company is nephew Shawn—a 30-something entrepreneur who recognizes the need to stay fresh: “We want to try to be cutting edge and as innovative as possible. Further, we try to design our helmets to be as stylish as possible without compromising any performance essential to the rider.”

Hong is also making plans to expand the HJC brand and diversify. Although the Number 1 helmet company in the world has always taken things slowly and steadily, that will soon change. By the time you read this, HJC will have three distinct brands.

The higher-end, premium sub-brand will be known as RPHA, and will be built on offering the latest technologies and best material construction. The RPS-10 is the precursor to this lineup. The existing HJC label will remain as the mid-level helmet. Another new sub-brand, called Box, will represent the entry-level, value products.

Total world domination? Maybe; with 3 factories in strategic locations like Korea, Vietnam and China, the small company founded four decades ago sure has come a long way.