Where the Sausage Is Made

Where the Sausage Is Made

I’ve led a very middle-class existence. Since graduating from college (and graduate school), the closest I’ve come to working in a factory has been building and repairing bicycles in a bike shop. And yet, a big part of my career has been concerned with things produced in factories in Southeast Asia. My recent trip to Taiwan was a chance to finally see how some of this stuff is produced and the work that goes into it.

Ideally, I’d have created a list of factories that I wanted to see, which parts of production I wanted to tour, and would have exactly the education I sought. Reality is never ideal, is it? For the trip, I was reporting on behalf of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, and the fact I was there at all was due to the Taiwanese trade organization TAITRA; without them, we wouldn’t have gained admittance to a host of these places.

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Our first visit was to Giant’s headquarters outside Taichung. We got a warm greeting followed by a Powerpoint presentation about the company. Our tour didn’t go anywhere near the portion of the factory where they produce carbon fiber anything. What we did see is the bicycle assembly area. In addition to bikes from Giant, we saw bikes from Scott and Colnago being assembled, on a moving assembly line. As someone who always needed bikes to be in a stand, right-side up and facing me in order to assemble them, I couldn’t help but note that frequently the assemblers were reaching around the back of a bike that was upside down on a moving carousel to secure a cable. You can get used to anything, but I did marvel at their efficiency. That we are allowed to talk about what we saw but weren’t allowed to photograph most of what we saw is confusing. We didn’t see anything truly proprietary, and by virtue of the fact that I can say I saw Colnagos there releases the feline from the sack, so why no photos?

The photo issue continued to be a touchy point as we visited other factories. We were always told that they didn’t want any proprietary processes revealed to competitors via detailed photos. So we were usually told we could take shots of anything except details of actual production. For all we were monitored, I can say that some of the photographers present played fast and loose with that request.

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Our next visit was to Kenda Rubber. Before arriving, what I knew of Kenda you could fit in a hat box. I knew that they made a number of good training tires and basic replacement tires. I also knew that they had the ability to do high-quality clinchers, but their marketing hadn’t done a good job of conveying that. The one set I’d ridden were perfectly nice. Thanks to the Nevegal, they have a more impressive reputation on the mountain bike side of the world. I also knew they did OEM work for other manufacturers, but not who.

What we learned was that while we were visiting the headquarters for Kenda, that was but one of six factories they have—two on Taiwan, three in China and another in Viet Nam. As we toured the facility, I saw tires being made for Specialized, Giant, Merida and more. Mostly we saw individual tires from the various brands being produced, due to the nature of the production lines, so it’s impossible to say just how much of Specialized’s business Kenda has. What I do know is that everyone sources from multiple suppliers so that they can move production for a product if the need arises. Also, not every factory can do high-end or low-end products.

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As we pulled up to King Roof Industrial, I had no idea what to expect. Turns out, they are better known as BnB Rack, a maker of roof, trunk and hitch racks. You don’t know the name BnB Rack because of their OEM accounts: Thule, Yakima and Hollywood. Their agreement with Thule and Yakima doesn’t permit them to sell under the BnB Rack name in North America. Never got an answer to why they are incorporated as King Roof Industrial. Did they make roofing materials is it a reference to making roof racks?

The PowerPoint presentations at each company were of a piece. They told us when the company was founded, by whom and how many employees the company had then, as well as charted their growth in people, facilities and dollars over the intervening years. If they held patents, they’d mention those, as well as their support for the Tour of Taiwan or other Taiwanese cycling event. As I’m not a straight business reporter, the presentations simultaneously told me everything and nothing, but it was uniformly what each of these companies believed we needed to know about them. Almost without fail, we wanted to know more about the nature of the products they made, and for whom, which was the last thing they wanted to discuss.

We scratched our heads lots.

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19 comments

  1. Pat O'Brien

    Well, with most grocery store sausage you know what kind of meat went in, but not in specific percentages. But you don’t know where the meat came from, what cuts were involved, or what form it was in when it came into the sausage plant. Kinda like a bike from a big company.

    1. Scott G.

      Colnago is mid size industrial town on the west coast of Taiwan,
      about 80k south of the most famous factory town Usa.
      Everyone has heard of made in Usa products.
      Old jokes are the best.

  2. Rick Vosper

    Great article, Padraig. Specific to Giant, the company is well-regarded within the industry for the quality of its carbon frames (Giant also makes frames for Colnago, among others).

    You can see most of the process in a pretty-good video Giant has made, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSUKM3bvcyk

    The observant viewer will note some critical parts of the process are omitted from the video. Why such things might be left out of an otherwise thorough treatment is left as an exercise for the reader. But they might also be the reasons you were not invited to tour the carbon area.

  3. Rod

    Robert – don’t be. A lot of the non-very-high-end Colnagos are made in Asia. If I remember correctly, the CX1 definitely was made there and a few others.

    And seriously, a lot of very high quality carbon fiber is made in Asia. Giant and Merida factories (and Ten Tech) make heaps of frames for Ridley, Pinarello, Cervelo, Colnago, etc. The CyclingIQ blog describes the different business models – OBM (Shimano, Giant, they make their own stuff under their own brand), ODM (they design their stuff but someone else makes them, like Cervelo, Scott, and most “name” brands) and OEM (“open mold” or proprietary production owned by a factory, but labelled as something else. A good example is the Tektro brakes labelled as something else when sold with a bike [my Cervelo R3 came with these]).

    1. Pat O'Brien

      Me too Tom. I was home on leave from the service and tagged along with my brother when he went to a big meat company to repair a commercial steam boiler system. They also made hot dogs. Haven’t eaten one since, and that was in the early 70s. Sausage, unless made by a local butcher shop your trust, isn’t much different. Anyone who’s curious can check out the “How It’s Made – Hot Dogs” video on youtube.

  4. Les.B.

    I once knew a fellow once, up in the Bay Area who built his own sausage-stuffer, for making his own sausage. So he DID know what went into his sausage.

    Were he a cyclist, he would no doubt buy a frame+fork and all the components a la carte. That way he would know what was in his bike, but I suppose he would pay more for this than a sausage bike. All depends on what one can stomach.

  5. Jay P.

    Great stuff, always interesting — to me at least — to see how all this comes together.
    Minor copyediting thing — minor, that is, unless you’re Taiwanese — I would strike the “Southeast” in Southeast Asia.

  6. Pat O'Brien

    Robert, I thought Colnagos were made in Italy too. I know other Italian companies produce most of their bikes in Taiwan and China, but I thought all Colnagos were “high end” bikes. Oh well, it doesn’t surprise me too much. That is how international corporations act, chase the lowest price labor and materials. My problem with this behavior, and it might be tied to the restrictions Padraig faced when visiting these factories, was how is the company whose name is on the bike sure about the quality control of the parts? How are they sure the carbon fiber or alloy of metal frames is what they think it is?


  7. Author
    Padraig

    Robert, Pat … everyone:

    As Rod pointed out, there are many relationships between factory and bike company. Colnago has worked very hard to perpetuate the idea that their carbon fiber bikes are made in Italy. A few of them are. Historically, they are the frames that are most prone to defective workmanship/breakage. I had a friend once admit sheepishly that he’d hoped to get an Italian Colnago but found out after the bike arrived that he had an Asian Colnago. He shrugged his shoulder. I congratulated him and he looked at me like I’d lost my mind. Then I added, “Your bike is much less likely to break.”

    No one should feel uninformed for not knowing most Colnagos come from Asia. They do all they can to hide that. It’s a disreputable practice and in some cases, borders on fraud.

    The simple fact is that with the exception of operations like Parlee, Sarto and Alchemy (yes, there are others), all the really quality carbon fiber manufacturing is being done in Asia, and the very best is in Taiwan.

    To Pat’s question regarding quality control, I’ll deal with that in some depth in another post (and an article for BRAIN), but there are a few factors that ensure the bike you purchase is the bike a manufacturer means for you to have. The first is periodic failure testing. They test random samples to breakage to make sure they are as strong as the specs say. The next is that product managers are in Asia checking on production with regularity. The other is that the really reputable factories don’t cut corners because they know it will only hurt their reputation.

  8. Michael Hotten

    Reading this makes me want to ebay my “made in taiwan” bikes and give the money to someone with a torch and a touch and an address I recognize. It’s probably an overreaction but the piece just made me feel uneasy about where some of my bikes were born. Mass produced and masked production, is that a good thing?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I’m surprised and dismayed at your reaction to the post. The mass production is inevitable, unavoidable. But to say the production is masked is inaccurate. I think many Westerners generally have a perception, perhaps largely shaped by the auto makers, that companies who make things own factories that make nothing but their products. For most products in most industries, that’s not the case and hasn’t been so for a long time. Apple doesn’t own its factories and Specialized doesn’t own its factories.

      None of that is to say that giving your money to a frame builder who would make a frame set tailored to you and your needs wouldn’t be a terrific thing.

  9. Adam

    Italy has an interesting rule of commerce that says so long as something is finished (painted) in Italy, it can be labeled as a Made In Italy product. Maybe I’m not surprised because I’ve been involved behind the curtain in this industry for some time but it’s quite the norm. I’m proud to offer products that are made in Taiwan and China and the United States. The level of expertise in composite engineering exists there. In our attempts to produce carbon Stateside, we were woefully let down by the level of quality. That was only exasperated at the cost associated with it.

    That’s not to say there aren’t quality composite engineers and fabricators in the States, there certainly are, but not at a scale and price that is attainable for most companies and riders.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Bingo. You’ve illustrated the reason why I wanted to do this post. There’s such a disconnect in most cyclists’ understanding of how the industry works and where the good work is being done, that I think many have a skewed perception of how good bikes come to be.

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