Long gone are the days when that slightly hidden “Made in Taiwan” tag sent cheap and cheerless shivers down your spine. The tiny Far Eastern island is now at the very pinnacle of bike and tech manufacturing, as Steve Thomas and his Fujis see.
Just a week or so back a friend pulled me over in the street to ask advice about potentially buying a second hand mountain bike. The big draw was the major American brand name, and little else. At the given price point my experience based assessment was that it was most likely manufactured in either China or Vietnam, where many brands chose to produce their lower end bikes, often in the same 3-4 factories as the other global and much lesser know brands.
Needless to say I didn’t want to burst his bubble and tell him this obvious truth of modern day manufacturing and marketing, something called outsourcing or OEM (original equipment manufacturing).
Be it a call centre, a bike, a memory card, your iPhone or Fuji sensor, the chances of them actually being wholly run or produced by the named brand and in a well-developed and expensive western nation is highly unlikely. In this day and age, where we demand ever-lower prices and better value it’s hardly surprising. It simply is not cost effective, even if it is something of a doomed downward spiral in the long term.
When you first walk in through the back doors of a Taiwanese bike or component factory it can be something of an eye opener (even for me). The chances are that you will see everything from those familiar Taiwanese branded bikes and components coming of the exact same production lines as major western brands, often iconic names that carry long established premium status, and which come with the price tags to match.
Be it bikes, saddles, tyres or chains, the same thing runs true throughout the Taiwanese manufacturing industry. There are bike and electronics factories to be found all over the small and mountainous island, with the lion’s share of those producing bikes and their components being found around the western city of Taichung, a place which is very much the global centre for the bike industry.
Most western brands now produce in a number of Taiwanese factories, and usually have their own designated QC and design staff on site or visiting regularly. Although differences in products are plain to see on the shop floor, secrecy and ethics dictate that there is little or no crossover in manufacturing design and techniques.
Way back in those flared trouser and glitter-ball days of the 1970’s, that was around about when the Taiwanese bike industry really begun to take off. Outsourcing was already popular with western countries – in many industries, as labour and manufacturing costs were so much lower than in the flourishing western countries. Japan was the original quality street for OEM bikes, but as the economy out-priced it’s self that slowly moved south to Taiwan.
What goes around comes around, and Taiwan is no longer a budget option for manufacturing, that mantle has moved west to China and to other Asian countries. The Taiwanese have somewhat naturally raised their economic game and standards, and to a large extent priced themselves out of the current market – or at least they no longer compete for the cheap seats.
Quality and experience gained from the past 40+ years of OEM excellence are what many Taiwanese manufacturers are basing their future hopes on – and there is no doubt that when it comes to affordable high-end production they are still hard to beat, and the same goes with tech products.
With the mainland Chinese market opening up in every possible way most Taiwanese based companies have now set up manufacturing facilities there, although most of these do cater for the lower end production, where the expertise and precision is not as critical, or more critically are not available. Needless to say that change with time.
Take a look at the fine print on your own bike or electronic device; the chances are that at least a part of it was precision made in Taiwan, a place where extreme quality control even dictate that every single inner tube is inflated and tested for 24-hours before beings boxed and badged.
Over the past few years I’ve been invited several times on bike trade/industry visits to Taiwan; to see first hand these manufacturing and assembly plants. Many facilities come with cliché names that make you grin, and some do also produce products under their own name – all be it often for agreed domestic Taiwanese and Chinese markets. They’ve historically done well enough from OEM not to risk losing that business by taking on their western clients, who are well ahead on marketing and brand establishment.
These facilities vary in their secrecy levels; some are open to you seeing processes and shooting, but many well not permit any photos. Often this comes down to not wishing to jeopardise relationships with clients, who despite things being common knowledge do not wish to openly state that their products are produced in Taiwan. At other times (such as with chain manufacturing) the secrecy is all about keeping things away from the eyes of the competition.
Shooting in these environments is always a sensitive issue, as you don’t always know what is permitted until you’re on site, and then there’s also often indecision and confusion between staff, which can prove frustrating. Without images there is zero media value, and stock images they wish to provide are, well – just that.
Time is usually very tight on these visits, and there’s usually a media group of between 10-25 being railroaded at fast pace through a factory by a company guide. This means that there is no time to set up shots or to work with anything fancy; you need to be ready for action before you start, have full batteries, clean cards, a very basic lightweight single lens system, a good idea of what you want to get, and a plan B to make it out with something of use if things don’t pan out.
My first visit here was when the X-E1 had just come out, and I shot everything with the 18-55mm kit lens, working around aperture priority (and I rarely use auto ISO). That time around I also had a Canon system along, but the factories were just too humid to be lugging it around, and so I reverted to the Fuji, and have stuck with the evolving Fuji system on all visits since then.
There are always some guys in the group blindly flashing everything out, and I have seen the images they’ve produced – and I will stick to faster apertures and slightly higher ISO’s when needed. At times I’ve had the 18mm prime along, but always revert to the zoom for flexibility. If I know a factory fits the bill (from past experience) I will also take the 10-24mm on my X-T1. Sure, a faster zoom would be nice; but if I was going that far I’d probably just stick with my old Canon, as I do have faster zooms – but they are too heavy to drag around a humid and pungent rubber factory.
With such long travel days on these visits there’s little time for other stuff, although I do usually manage to grab a couple of short evening street sessions, for which Taiwan is amazing for. Much of the time Taichung is our designated base, which is a great city for contrast between old and new. If you take 10-minutes to walk from the CBD you can find great old style hawker food streets and night markets – something which has also been exported around the world, and totally without any need for western re-branding.