Over the last months we have visited a number of factories and production facilities around the world all involved in bike production. From wheels to seats, gears and frames we have seen all of the different ways of producing bikes.
The one question or controversial subject that often appears when looking at factory production is the resistance to bikes and their parts being made in the far east in places like Taiwan. The rule of the market though has been and always will be for the majority of producers and consumers that price wins over all factors. Essentially that means consumers will always try to buy things as cheaply as possible and producers will always try and find a location that will produce as cheaply as possible.
The problem with bike components is they are not small plastic toys, many of the parts require precision production engineering and precise design, all combined with extensive quality control checks. That means production in general will not be cheap. The reason that the precision is needed is that riders stress the components, push them to the limit and at the same time expect exceptional performance. Originally to meet these demands production for the majority of manufacturers was based in Europe or the USA or Japan. Countries which were adapted to precision engineering.
About 25-30 years ago though Taiwan started to emerge as a location where precision engineering could be done. Taiwan developed quickly up until the present day where nearly all production within the bike industry is concentrated there. The reason? Well we decided to talk to someone who might have a clue and be able to tell us why. When we were in Taiwan we met up with and spoke to Specialized’s Production Manager Mark Marusarz. We put forward a few questions that might help answer the critics.
When wanting to make things in the bike industry where does one start?
With an innovative idea. Then get it protected and head to Taiwan.
Lots of production is in Taiwan, why Taiwan?
It’s a location with a super developed infrastructure. It’s easy to do. There is a friendly and open business climate. Its a cheaper place yes, but you risk delays and frequent Intellectual property issues.
When trying to put together orders in Taiwan, how do you know how much to order, it’s a long way away?
Ha! Some black magic. Skilled demand planners who work closely with their markets and a sales team to put together a plan. I then take it and work out capacity needs at suppliers.
How long is it in general in the bike industry from design concept to a customer having it in their hands?
6 months at best for easy concepts, carbon takes 12-18 months.
How do companies follow production and ensure things are made to their requirements when factories are on the other side of the world?
We are there always and sample / test extensively.
Are a lot of the special skills in production only found in Taiwan now?
Hmm… Stability is their number one asset to me. Engineering is still based there. Now we are unlikely to find the calibre and amount of great design and manufacturing engineers as you can in Taiwan.
You mentioned intellectual property issues and fake products, how is that a problem in the bike world?
The number one issue is safety. These fakes are not structurally sound. Nothing worse for any of us in the industry hearing something we created hurt someone. We do everything within our powers to insure integrity of design and manufacture. We DO NOT want anyone injured. If a copy gets out there that someone thinks we tested / made, puts it to extensive use and gets injured due to failure, we go to court. While that is also a cost issue to us, the main issue is the injured party. Nothing worse.
What can you do about fakes, how do customers spot them?
We are constantly looking for methods of calling out the fakes. My number one piece of advice is, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. Do not buy from unauthorized distribution channels.
Where is the industry going with regard to production, will bikes eventually be made or printed in 3d? How far off is this concept?
Hah, not sure on this. I will ask about for you!
Finally we have a clear idea, it seems that production values and engineering have been lost in the developed nations as companies have looked for cheaper production elsewhere. However like all things it is not as black and white as it seems, there are problems. Hope told us that when they produce they can have a lead time of one month from design to production as it is locally based. Taiwan has longer lead times, but all the engineers are there, so it makes sense to produce there.