During a recent visit to a number of Taiwan-based cycle manufacturing facilities, journalist and photographer Chris Keller Jacksontook plenty of behind-the-scenes notes on some of the brands idolised on home turf. If only we knew their dirty, or not so dirty little secrets. You decide...

CHAIN REACTION: Taiwan’s gold standard

As a child of the ‘70s, all of the toys of note were made in England. Dinky and Lesney (Matchbox) made the finest die-cast zinc alloys that lasted and lasted, even if the enamel soon got battered off. Those that were of lesser quality had a lozenge shaped gold sticker bearing the hallmark ‘Made in Taiwan’. Now all the big boys toys are made in Taiwan –Merida, Giant, Kinesis – to name just a few brands.

So, is there still a stigma around Taiwan? There is, but I’m not talking about poor quality or inferior products, I’m talking about brand perceptions.

It may not come as a surprise that some factories in Taiwan make items in the same production space for several of the big players in cycling, and I’m not talking high-volume, low-cost widgets. These include boutique brand frames, high value items made to the utmost quality and high technology bonding, fabrication and materials. This is not simply badge engineering, as the components are made to the highest specifications, and to the designs of the commissioning companies. This is not just a different laser etch pattern on a blank component.

Cost has an obvious impact on who makes parts, and Taiwan again has an advantage in low cost production and low labour rates, but that is not the be all and end all. Companies commission from Taiwan because the quality is excellent combined with the cost, and in some instances, Taiwan is the only place to feasibly go for the product they want.

Taiwan has become a ‘centre for excellence’ in technologies, including hydroforming, frame welding, bonding, carbon composite production, concept bikes and ‘design for manufacturing’ (taking a concept to reality). In one seemingly faceless company there were over 30 frames from other companies, both big and small names, all with cutting edge hydroformed tubes or monocoque frames, not all with massive price tags to match. Supermarket brands sat right next to ‘hardcore’ classic brands, the same welders, the same spray booths and the same factory.

I identified a similar pattern with rear shock producers too, one factory making high-end damping units for ‘itself’ and several others. I won’t tell you who, but the same technologies and principles were involved in designing, manufacturing, assembling and testing units. What differentiates these brands is more the sticker on the can, than the quality of manufacture. Some internals are proprietary to a brand. Generally, these are the brand’s USP, but the standards, process and quality are the same, the price is often not.

The stigma, then, is not the ‘Made in Taiwan’ tag, more with brand association. If you are a big name in the industry, and you farm out frame production, stems, handlebars, headsets or other components, do you want everyone to know where? For some manufacturers, that is a stigma that is difficult to manage and is why some ‘Made in XXX’ frame stickers should read ‘Designed and assembled in XXX, Made in Taiwan.’

Some brands are doing a disservice to the manufacturers of their bikes, with cloak and dagger tactics to prevent you from knowing where production physically happens. Some bike producers actively market their ‘exclusivity in design’, and in manufacturing of unique components, to physically hand off the production of these components to a third party. In some of the cases, it is these third parties that are the optimal place to go. You’d want to entrust production to the best place you can in high-end cycle manufacturing (and when a customer is spending in excess of £5K they expect nothing but the best). It just seems odd that Taiwan ends up receiving no positive press out of the deal, having done all the hard work.

Taiwan is no longer the ‘second rate’ option. Those tiny gold stickers of my youth now shine through as the ‘gold standard’ of cycle manufacturing. Taiwan is not suitable for all manufacturing of course, and there are cheaper labour alternatives and other emerging markets that are snapping at its heels.

Any stigma therefore seems to be perpetuated by the brands, not by Taiwanese manufacturers. This helps maintain brand loyalty and the perception of ‘exclusivity’ of product. Not a bad thing for the brands and maybe not a bad thing for consumers. Ultimately, it is the consumer that buys into a brand. Meanwhile, Taiwan cycle manufacturers are running at capacity, and expanding even in these dire global economic conditions. They must be doing something right.

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