Taiwan Bike Tour: Giant Bicycles’ Taichung Factory Visit
We were invited to visit Taiwan by the island’s trade organization’s for their first ever “Bike Bloggers Tour”, an outreach program to share both their passion for cycling and their capabilities for world class design, manufacturing and assembly.
The largest company we visited was Giant. Their world headquarters is in Taichung, arguably the bicycle manufacturing capital of the world. Chances are pretty good one or more of the bikes you own is designed, made and/or assembled here.
Our time was a bit limited, which precluded me from seeing very much of the actual manufacturing. I did see some of the alloy bikes being made, along with racks upon racks of frames fresh off the line from major brands other than Giant. As in, some of the top three or four global brands other than Specialized. Much of our tour at the assembly line, where finished frames become complete bikes, along with a healthy overview of Giant’s history and their growing influence in Taiwan’s overall cycling culture…
COMPANY HISTORY & CULTURE
A quick history: Founded in 1972, the Giant brand wasn’t established until 10 years later. They started researching carbon fiber in 1985 and were the first company to mass produce carbon bikes. In 1986, they started setting up subsidiary companies in Europe to expand globally.
In 1992, they established their first Chinese factory, and now produce frames in both Taiwan and mainland China. The gear and components are outsourced. They only make frames, forks and rims, but they design the components and gear in house before being sent out for production.
In 2011, they produced 5.7 million bikes total, including Giant and other brands. They started as an OE-only manufacturer, but as the Giant brand grows, the percentage of OE business versus their own products has shifted dramatically. As of 2011, OE manufacturing contributes 30% of their business, but the rest Giant. Their three biggest markets are China and Europe with 30% each and the US with 20%. They have 11,275 dealers worldwide.
They’re already the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer. The vision now is to expand the cycling culture. They do that through three markets dubbed PSI – Performance, Sport and “Innovative Lifestyle”. That last one is actually exclusive of the growing commuter segment, and they say that’s because they’re not cost competitive in that market. That said, they have a wide range of urban, cruiser and e-bikes that certainly cross over into commuter capabilities…they just look more like “lifestyle” products, and Europe sees a bigger collection of the line than the US. Hopefully it’ll soon include the awesome Anyroad gravel bike!
They also offer the Giant Cycling Tour Service in Taiwan, China and Japan. It’s a fully supported touring set up that they’ll likely expand to Europe and the US in the future.
One thing we don’t see much of yet is the Right Ride fit system. It’s not quite as technical of a system as Retül, Serrota and others aimed at performance riding and custom bike builds. Rather, it’s more about just getting the average cyclist to be comfortable on their bike so they’ll enjoy the sport more and stick with it.
The LIV line is a newer women’s specific grouping, and that’ll likely continue to expand, too.
In Asian markets, they have Giant Stores, which are 100% Giant. At present, there aren’t a whole lot of these in North America or Europe. You’ll have to head to Denver, Montreal or Amsterdam to see one of their concept stores. If we had to guess, you’ll start seeing more of these as they start pushing for a bigger brand presence to compete with Specialized and Trek. Beware the sleeping dragon, me thinks.
So, why and how are they going to create and grow the culture?
Not too long ago, King Liu, Giant’s president, decided to start riding. Yes, it seems obvious that the top brass in any cycling company should be an avid cyclist. But many of the largest companies are simply run as businesses, where the widgets could be interchangeable with any other widget as far as many executives are concerned. That was then. The “now” is that King Liu has made it his mission to change the culture of cycling in Taiwan and China from one of just commuting to one that shows how fun cycling is and how happy and healthy it can make you feel.
To do this, he instituted several major rides, and the company continues to develop rides and events to bring more people into the fold. The largest is the Formosa 900, a 900-mile ride around Taiwan. They brought along most of the executive team and managers from around the globe.
They’re also adding bike rental stations throughout Taiwan and making them free for the first 30 minutes. They’re hoping this encourages more people to get off their scooters and onto bikes. Add to that youth programs, a cycling tour around Taipei, a bike oriented hotel and increased event support and creation targeting different demographic and user (or potential user) groups. Obviously, more people riding more types of bikes is good for business, too.
One of the biggest initiatives is the One Bike One. 72,919 riders were verified to participate in a relay ride around Taiwan, which set a Guiness World Record.
Giant’s Taichung factory produces the high end frames. They segment into frame manufacturing, painting and assembly. Sadly, no photography was allowed in the manufacturing section, so I’ll try to paint pictures with words.
It’s something else to walk past rows of hundreds if not thousands of raw alloy frames for three or four of the world’s largest brands all stacked up side by side. It’s even more astounding when you see that every frame is hand made. All of the small builders we’ve visited and covered? Imagine that times a billion. There are no robotic welders here. Rows of work stations have bins full of hydroformed tubes all being hand finished, drilled, stamped with serial numbers, etc. Watching the cable stops get blasted with fire while a worker hand solders them in place is cool. Seeing an entire row of people doing it in unison is even more cool.
Manufacturing stations are mostly set up in a tri-position format where three people can work from the same parts bins performing the same activity – say, welding headtubes to downtubes. If that station is caught up, they can move to where they’re needed, varying the workday a bit and keeping production running smoothly and evenly.
I was hoping to see the carbon bikes being laid up, but our schedule was a bit too tight.
THE ASSEMBLY LINE
Bikes are assembled on a massive conveyer belt running along the edge of huge room set up just to funnel the right parts into the right place at the right time. A row of about 30 people transform it into a complete bike ready to be boxed in an average of one complete bike every 31.5 seconds. That includes a basic derailleur tune so it’s shifting reasonably well in the stand. The logistics give me nightmares, but it’s fantastic to watch.
Above is the primary assembly line. Here’s how things get to that point:
Ceiling mounted hook conveyers bring painted frames in at one end of the room.
They drop down in one corner where forks and headsets are installed.
This video shows the wheels being tensioned, followed by the fastest handlebar taping I’ve seen. Under two minutes per side…could you do that?
Behind, there’s a whole bank of people and machines that are building wheels in sync with what bike’s being built on the assembly line. Meanwhile, a bank of people are assembling and wrapping handlebars.
Wheels are placed on their own hook conveyer belt (left) and carried overhead to the assembly line. Workers grab them and drop them into the frames. The appropriate wheels are built, trued and wrapped with tires and tubes to coincide with the type of bike that’s being built, reaching the assembly line at just the right time. Same with the handlebars, and component and parts packaged are placed on the carts and trays in the proper order. Imagine scheduling all that!
Each worker only does one or two small steps in the assembly process. Here, the front derailleur is mounted. Another worker ran cable housing for the brakes and slipped the cable through…which means someone was cutting and capping the pieces of cables in predetermined sizes. Sooooo many baby steps.
These fellas were fine tuning the shifting, running up and down the gears and tweaking as necessary. Any good shop is going to give it a once over, but when they pull it out of the box, this gives the shop a good first impression of the brand.
A sign at the end of the line keeps workers apprised of their progress. On the left is the amount of time that line has been stopped during the day (4:03). On the right is the target number of frames for that line that day (620), their estimated actual output (593) based on build times and the percentage of target output. The signs on the bottom show the goals – less than 20 minutes of downtime on the line per day and at least 96% of the desired output.
At the end of the line, bikes are put into boxes, then boxes are loaded into containers. Lots and lots of containers.
Part of TAITRA’s goal with the Bike Bloggers Tour was to showcase the island’s industry and lifestyle in a positive light, perhaps separating them from the “cheap Chinese carbon” and “evil child labor” thoughts that so many people (or at least the most vocal) love to spout anytime an Asian-made product is highlighted. First off, about half of Taiwan’s population is pretty content to call themselves an independent country, only minimally associating themselves with the PRC. So there’s that. There’s also what I saw, which I’ll be sharing in a variety of posts covering small brands and large, from unique components and gear to another of the largest manufacturers in the world.
As for Giant, there’s only one shift, 8:00am to 5:30pm, that can make up to 5,000 bikes per day. There were no child laborers and no insane ’round the clock slave shifts. Oh, and no suicide nets on the windows. Workers can move between stations as needed to alleviate bottlenecks or avoid wasting time if a particular station is slow, so there’s opportunity to move out of a completely monotonous repetition on occasion.
Basically, Giant’s factory looked like any US factory I’ve been to. Lots of people doing rote procedures. Did they look excited to be there? Not particularly, but neither do the sock sewers at DeFeet or tube benders at Thule. It’s a job, and working conditions were clean and orderly and, other than the dudes welding the cable stops on the top tubes, reasonably safe looking. And I suspect the cable stop welders were doing it right, it’s just a process that looked quite foreign to me.