Thursday, December 9, 2010

Taichung Taiwan - Bicycle Factories

Miss Megi rerouted our group to the middle of the island.
Throughout our travel, I had been pursuing cycling industry connections for help to extend the trip, to visit bicycle frame and accessory factories after our set itinerary. Unfortunately we could not find any seats on China Airlines for us to return any other day than originally planned. Just when a few of us were giving up hope to see where our lovely bikes are built, the "mandatory Typhoon Megi reroute" brought us to the west side of the island, very near the factory laden, industrial city of Taichung! Heading out of Taipei our guide wanted our wish of factory visits to come true, so of course, started making phone calls. Quickly he set up visits via Giant, and then SASO contacts, (thanks to my friend and colleague Kevin Wren of The Bicycle Cooperative).  Since we had only a couple hours, we were very lucky to walk through two very different factories. Nothing like instant wish granting! Again, John our guide and the Tourism Bureau, continued to feed our growing VIP persona's. 

Shortly after the phone calls, and barely off  the direct route to Sun Moon Lake, we were at the Giant factory. Giant is the world's largest bicycle manufacturer, making the majority of  their bikes on mainland China. However, they produce high-end bikes in their headquarters of Taiwan. Further, multiple brands that many of us own and ride, use Giant for their manufacturing as well. There is nothing like seeing an operation of assembly lines!  It's an infrastructure made up of a labyrinth of conveyor belts, grey-green colors mixed with steel and cement, with sky lights providing natural lighting to balance the fluorescents. The monochrome and dated feel were accented by bright splashes of yellow painted directions for compartmentalizing, and for safety, on the floors. Having grown up with a family business of a machine shop and manufacturing, it smelled and looked familiar, despite it being an exponentially larger scale of building, and automated machines. I could have spent all day there! 

Employees were in comfortable uniforms; pink for women, blue for men. The showroom and design office headquarters was staged like a typical business: products showcased, pro-team PR back drops for photo-ops, and even a small store (that didn't seem open while we were there). We were assigned a PR tour guide, Zack.  He had a headset so we could hear him in the louder areas, and a well-practiced tour ready for us. Only certain locations were acceptable for us to photograph, understandable in the competitive world of products. 

Areas where we couldn't snap some shots were near the painting and decal area.  There we saw a dry-cleaning style track with every bike frame and brand you can imagine slowly sliding by like your favorite vice - say candy - for us bicycle geeks and gadget collectors. I saw Scott, Trek, and Giant next to each other on the meat hook-style rack sliding by. How sweet I thought, look how they come from the same building, and get along so well before they end up in the marketing dog-eat-dog world or, better yet, side-by-side in a race.

We were taken to a wheel building and frame finishing area. Here ladies and gentlemen quickly drilled water bottle cage fasteners on, or zip-tied wheels onto the frames for packing. We watched employees snap spokes into place and tires and tubes on wheels in a zippy,  enthusiastic - and clearly timed and quota'd - speed. Impressive is just a word, but seeing this, efficiency made you gasp. If you could safely steal their attention you'd get a beautiful smile like most, if not all, Taiwanese we encountered. My mind wandered; "were these folks worked to the bone, unhappy in a sweat shop"?  It didn't appear so. Then again, they were showing us their high-end factory, via a tour guide. 

As we exited, a bell rang. Slowly and methodically, each and every employee put away their tools and migrated outside for break time. Similar to industrial areas here in Silicon Valley, some went to "roach coaches", while brown-baggers gathered their lunch break food items in the picnic areas. Others left on scooters. Seemed fairly normal but hard work, blue collar, but hey, they were building bikes... so we thought it was beyond cool!

SASO Factory - Taichung
Pressing carbon into die for bicycle bottle cages
Our gracious host Tony Wang, explaining details of carbon fibers
The next factory we visited was SASO (of Mekkem Industrial) - who build carbon accessories. Expensive bottle cages, carbon forks, mini-tools, to other products like bags and purses. Here they produce beautiful high-end products. It was a much smaller operation, more like what I was used to as a kid in local industrial parks. SASO operated in two different warehouse / factory buildings, as they had outgrown the single original building. Small groups of women sat at tables carefully stuffing carbon fiber straw-looking pieces into dies shaped for water bottle ribs. Hubs, forks, all being molded to fit in their metal counterparts. Tony Wang and David Chang gave us an intimate tour of their facilities. They were so hospitable; I thought we'd end up at their homes for dinner!

Actual carbon fibers before becoming sheets, then as building material.
Thought I'd model a stunning feather light silver number. I didn't ask how much it sells for.
After touring the newer facility, we were offered espresso in their conference room that seconded as a show room. Enamored with the shiny objects of carbon forks, cages and bike frames lent to a giddy group of cycling geeks and tourism media. Snapping pictures right and left, posing with carbon purses, we could only imagine if this were a store in the U.S., the value of the merchandise we were surrounded by, would be quite high. After some charades and laughs with our language barriers, we were invited to see the old facility. It was much more dark and stereotypical factory building, yet clean like the previous building.  Again, small groups of assemblers mixed with large areas of ovens for the carbon, and huge pieces of equipment we knew next to nothing about.

We all have a new appreciation for what goes into, and who is assembling our  toys. 
Like all our experiences in Taiwan, we wanted more. We wanted to meet more manufacturers, see more cities, and see what the west side of Taiwan had to offer. However our bus was ready to take us to our next hotel, our next adventure, and soon we'd see something we'd seen nowhere else in Taiwan.
Next entry; our road trip from Taipei to Sun-Moon, including lunch between factory visits near a temple, and the bustle of a busy working town.  (I want to thank X-Fusion Shox for making the effort to try and line up a day tour, if I had stayed, but we couldn't get scheduled. I promise to be back and spend some time there!)

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