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Put the words “Made in” in front of the word “Taiwan”, and it’s typically off-putting to many people. The perception is that products made in Taiwan, as with those made in China, are cheap and poor-quality. That perception exists across the board – if you’re talking about clothing, electronics or (in our case) cycling gear.
On a recent visit to Taiwan, CyclingTips roving reporter Dave Everett visited the SRAM factory in cycling’s equivalent of Silicon Valley to find out if attitudes toward Taiwanese-made gear are misguided and to learn more about how SRAM equipment is made.
The name may not be as catchy as Silicon Valley but Taichung is a powerhouse when it comes to bike technology and production.
Taichung City is Taiwan’s third largest city. It’s part of Taichung County, and it’s a quick 160km from Taipei if you use the high-speed rail. The city describes itself as an “economic, cultural and international city” which fits perfectly with the cycling industry that is based in the area.
The area features a who’s who of the cycling industry. Scratch the surface and all manner of cycling firms seem to have a presence there.
One of these companies that I had the pleasure to visit while in Taichung was SRAM. Earlier in the year I managed to get a look around the head office of the American component manufacturer in Chicago. There I had been pleasantly surprised at the feel of the place. It wasn’t the behemoth of an international corporation that I was expecting. Instead I was greeted by haphazard offices, crammed with workers and bikes. It seemed like a quaint place to work.
For a company that has been a staple on the cycling scene for more than 25 years and now owns huge brands like RockShox, Quarq, Avid, Zipp and Truvativ, SRAM obviously has many more outposts than what I visited in Chicago. Which brought me to their Taiwan facilities…
In Taiwan, as you might expect, factories don’t usually come small, and SRAM’s doesn’t differ from this. In fact, SRAM operates out of four different factories in and around Taichung.
My guide for what would turn out to be a long yet insightful day was Jacky Lin, vice factory manager. What Jacky couldn’t tell me was either not worth knowing or far too complicated for me to understand.
It’s not the most exciting place to start a tour but the warehousing unit at the RockShox fork assembly factory was where we began. I was expecting wall-to-wall boxes of goodies and a sweet shop of components but at the entrance I was disappointed. The place was pretty much empty. For a company that supplies so many different components, not just to shops but OEM businesses such as Giant and Merida, it looked like they’d been robbed. The place is spare.
But the truth is that they run a tight ship from the supplier through to dispatch. The JIT (“Just In Time”) system they have in operation sees everything from the tiniest screw to the cardboard boxes arriving when and as they are need it. Items don’t linger around collecting dust.
The majority of items stay no longer than five days in the factory. It’s a slick and precise operation which helps them adjust to demands quickly. This also allows designers and engineers to freely change processes if they find an easier or better way of doing things.
Not everything can be nailed down as accurately as they would like but 80-85% of their inventory is covered by the JIT protocol.
Having spent my childhood in the back of my dad’s bike shop, it’s the tooling and machinery that really interests me. Much of the machinery in the SRAM factory is designed and built in-house at the tooling shop, a separate building from the factories.
New industrial machines are built for the latest items that are to be released to the world. The tooling shop also takes care of making new gizmos that staff have dreamt up on the production line to help speed up or simplify manufacturing. These ideas include a multi-point grease gun, allowing eight small drops of grease to be applied to a product at once, as opposed to caking the component in grease with a brush.
Parts of the factory ring out with the sound of smashing metal and pistons firing. It’s not quite ear-splittingly loud, but it’s loud enough to warrant wearing earplugs during a shift. Other areas are far more quiet. Here, workers take care of jobs such as laying up carbon and closely inspecting finished products.
Jacky leads me into a short, white and silver corridor. Doors on either side of us snap shut. I’m told to raise my arms and a wall of nozzles suddenly kick in to gear, blowing air over us. I’m now ready to enter the room in which carbon lay-up is being handled.
I find patient women building shifting levers or rear mech bodies from multiple sheets of carbon. Layer upon layer are placed on top of one another with what looks like an industrial hair dryer being used to smooth out each layer.
The factories house room after room of machines that wouldn’t look out of place in the automotive industry. From the largest robotic arms that swerve and swing in smooth arches to small testing jigs that move in delicate fashion testing product tolerances.
In one room men feed sheets of steel into a press that clunks out chain rings. It’s not particularly precise but these are for the lower end of the market. At the other extreme, cassettes for SRAM’s top-tier Red and XX groupsets are taken care of by row upon row of CNC milling machines.
A total of 55 CNC machines sit here, slowly cutting blocks of steel into a finished product. The heavy, rough billets of steel look nothing like a cassette when they enter the machines, but after 110 minutes of being cut away by carbonate-tipped drills and gallons of water washing over them to keep them cool, out pops a desirable, lightweight cassette.
The drills don’t last long either, being replaced every 10 to 15 cassettes depending on the size of the gear ratio that is being cut. It’s a slow and expensive process but the cassette wouldn’t be out of place in an art gallery at the end of it.
I’m taken into an adjacent room where it seems the whole factory’s laundry is being washed. Foamy waters swills around large barrels. Instead of finding workwear being washed, Jacky pulls out one of the cassettes that has just been produced. The two large barrels are here to clean the cassettes. In the second barrel, small, green ceramic cones slowly smooth the cassette’s surface.
Checking that these high-end components are being produced to the required standard is a job that demands tools more precise than the human eye ever could. A cassette that must have been through the washer already sits in the corner of the room under a machine that slowly moves a needle from tooth to tooth. In total, this particular cassette will be checked 126 times. It’s slow work even for a machine.
The drive from one factory to the next gives me chance to ask Jacky why all the factories aren’t under one roof and in one central location.
“It’s hard to predict growth, plus finding a location let alone a factory that would accommodate everything would be impossible,” Jacky tells me. “Plus we can expand quickly and easily with multiple factories.”
In a company that has its head office in Chicago and production spread across the globe, there must be a certain amount of culture clash in the way the company approaches work. Even from the comparison between the two main offices that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit says a lot about the mindset of these places.
The Chicago office is clearly a place full of passion for everything cycling-related. In Taichung the offices are slick, clean and modern. I ask Jacky about this cultural difference.
“Taiwanese keep quiet and only talk when confident with the development of a product,” Jacky says. “We are quite reserved. The Americans like to talk. They throw ideas about.”
“We have learned from each other,” Jacky continues. “It’s not in the national characteristic to be loud about things. We are a polite nation. But we have learned to be more Western, to speak up if we have a good idea or input. This has helped with development. We are a global team.”
Jacky tells me that the 1,500 staff are also included in daily shift meetings. Here they can voice issues and offer alternative options to help speed up or ease production. This may even include new tooling ideas. If these ideas seem viable SRAM will put them to the test. If a viable option works, the worker will be rewarded.
This global team idea stretches to the factory floor too. The workers filling the factories seem busy yet happy. Things are ordered and structured. The general feeling I had throughout my time at the four factories is one of a relatively easy-going nature. People have their heads down, working hard but it’s by no means a negative “get the job done” environment that you may expect from a huge place like this.
Services and perks are clearly in place to allow people to be proud and happy to work for SRAM. Little things such as modern and clean-looking shower rooms, bike maintenance areas for the people that ride in, twice weekly visits by a doctor for staff and their families and a breastfeeding rooms all contribute to a seemingly positive working environment.
Back on the production line I notice racks of small parts in different coloured plastic packaging. Most of the items are for suspension forks. It’s amazing to see that these items, no matter how small or cheap, are ordered or manufactured in the exact quantities. Bags of small O-Rings and even ball bearings are bagged and numbered in exact quantities.There seems to be no rounding up.
The different coloured packages are all air-tight. Suppliers of certain parts deliver items that are supposed to be dust-free. SRAM don’t take the suppliers’ word though — a clinical-looking room sees parts meticulously cleaned with air hoses before being passed through to yet another room to be assembled.
To gain access to these climate-controlled rooms you need certain clothing and electronic keys. Everyday clothes and shoes are left in lockers in a small changing room that looks just as sterile as the other two rooms.
Being slightly grubby from wandering around the factory floors and sweaty from the Taiwanese sun, we don’t even attempt to enter the room. Instead I watch through the large glass window.
“I think the important thing is the strong supply chain and a very strong fundamental back ground in the bicycle,” Jacky explains. “There are three important key aspects these we call the three S’s. The first is short, and the second is smooth, and the third is Speed. So if we can have as short a production run as possible that is smooth without any bottle necking then we can be speedy. The flow is very important. In Taiwan it is a short distance between the suppliers and the OEM companies like Merida or Giant, so we can all pull together and work out how to shorten the lead times in material and information flow.”
With SRAM creating products across many disciplines and with multiple products in each category the company needs people with the right skills to work out how to bring new ideas from the seven global development centres to market.
This is a job for the Asia Development Centre (ADC). It’s here that raw materials are sourced, tooling is designed, production implemented and even where the logistics of shipping are worked out. In 2013 alone, the ADC had 50 new products to bring to market.
Also in the building is the SRAM Technical University. This is a centre where staff and representatives are taught about new products. It’s the most “American” room that I’ve seen all day, with its large logo above the door and lighting system made of Zipp wheels hanging from the ceiling.
Before I leave I spot a dog wandering around the loading bay of the final factory I visit. Jacky wanders over and gives it a good stroke — it’s looking a little lost. To my surprise it’s not one of the many wild dogs that seem to live on the streets and hillsides of Taiwan. His owner was one of the security guards here at SRAM, who unfortunately passed away of cancer. For the past six months the dog has been waiting for his owner to return to work.
It’s a sad note to leave on, but it’s also one that says something about the staff and mentality of the company. Jacky’s high up the SRAM ladder, yet he knew the security guard and now takes the time to give the dog a little love. Other staff I notice do the same.
There is clearly something at SRAM that brings people together. The factories are spread throughout the Taichung area yet in each of the facilities I visited there seemed to be a positive and proud vibe for what they are making, from the guy pressing out chainrings to the women delicately laying decals on to cranks.
It’s pleasing to see and a far cry from what I had expected.
Disclosure: We would like to thank Echelon Sports for facilitating this tour and SRAM for their hospitality. This article was not paid for by either party.