Since moving here my “job role” has adapted vastly to suit my environment. I did originally move here with the idea of sourcing product for my own business to sell back in the UK. This has since developed somewhat and I have also started to source directly for others thanks to people getting in touch through this blog. One thing I have been doing is helping customers simplify and speed up the order process from China. There are a lot of things that are obviously easier when you’re physically here in China. One of these things is having a good snoop around the factory that you have been talking online with for several months before taking the plunge. This has its obvious benefits from establishing if they are genuinely a factory or not to seeing if there manufacturing process is up to standard.
I will use this example of a visit to a budget bicycle manufacturer to show some of the insight that only a factory tour allows.
Situated about 3 hours from me this manufacturer is perhaps one of the most price competitive bicycle factories in China. Producing a wide variety of models ranging from retail prices of £40 to £250 this low end market supplier relies on low margin high turnover items.
Like a lot of factories here the staff live work and eat on site and this gives a very Utopian feel to some but not all of these places. More often than not they are more of a dystopia and if I am honest some I have visited even have similarities to a prison.
As you pull into the heavily secured gates of this compound you are greeted by the usual wild dogs and kids running around that belong to the factory workers living in the 5 storey housing complexes within the compound. To my left are some tables and a corrugated metal roof structure housing several vats of food ready to be served out – it must almost be lunch time. It’s definitely no secret here that some factory conditions are quite poor indeed, I’m afraid that can be said for quite a lot of these places and I guess you can’t get too PC about it or you would drive yourself insane.
I think you just have to get yourself into the mind-set that this is a different country and the people have different expectations from life, this is what they know and really they do not seem unhappy with it on the whole. Whether that is right or not who I am to judge?
It’s not all like this though and some are very good, like everything that is heavily influenced by price something will always have to give, whether it is the companies end of year profits or the staffs working conditions I guess depends on the man in charge.
My purpose of this visit was to inspect the manufacturing process of 3 particular models and see if anything stood out at me as a cost saving measure too far. As I mentioned earlier, this factory is very competitive on price, for one particular model they look like the cheapest supplier in china.
One thing you will notice on visiting a factory and talking to the owner/manager is that they always have a unique selling point to get across. Something that they feel they offer which puts them ahead of the competition. The USP of this particular factory was there painting process.
They had invested a lot of money in there painting prep and coat line which was pretty much all the sales manager wanted to speak to me about. He was not really interested in showing me the fabrication process, just was very enthusiastic about the automated carousel spanning about 800 metres around the factory. It was pretty impressive and in fact after paint the carousel then continued to move each item to the second floor production area.
Jokes aside though paint is a very important aspect to take into consideration, I have visited a lot of factories where the paint is really terrible and you can pick it off. On a steel frame this is a big no no so I was pleased that they were making this a priority. And as you can see the finish is good quality.
The 3 models of bicycle I was there to look at are all manufactured from steel. With low end steel bike frame fabrication you need to look out for the tube used, any additional material stress in the production line and the heat treating process. Something I did not like the look of was the fact that the actual production frames were stored outside after initial fabrication. This obviously meant that they rusted up pretty bad.
I brought this to the attention of the line manager who informed me not to worry because the shot blasting process in there paint production line removed the surface rust before paint. Yes it perhaps removes it from the external surface but not from the internals. An alarm bell for sure and would have to be changed.
On the assembly line I was able to see the quality of the production staff and monitor the small details that I know make or break this type of bike. The type of grease used in installing bearings for instance. Only a small detail but will make a big difference in the lifetime and performance of the component. The torque rating used to tighten the bolts, again will add up to a successful bike.
Each member of staff on this line has a job, from installing a brake cable to fitting a tyre, everyone has their place. Having built hundreds of bicycles myself it is interesting to see the individual techniques these employees have adapted to after seeing thousands of bicycles pass through their hands, they have mastered their own little process as an art they will probably do their entire lives.
Like a lot of mid sized factories here many components used are bought in from other factories, things like the wheels rims, gears and brakes are not made here but bought in from a third party. This is the case with a lot of factories I use. The larger the factory the more items they produce themselves in house. I have visited some factories that don’t actually manufacture a single component they just assemble those parts made by others. This is not always a bad thing and if run correctly the low overheads of these operations can actually offer a very competitive price.
It is however important to pay great attention to these bought in items as this is usually what causes the greatest fluctuation in price. Typically you are offered 3 price points on the components. These being cheap, mid and high quality. Don’t actually listen to the price but instead use your own judgement to check the quality, sometimes the mid price component can be the same quality if not better than the high. This can be down to a variety of reasons but keep your own market sector in mind when doing this. For example one wheel rim I was offered was labelled as there cheapest quality option but it was not actually the quality that made it cheap just the desirability. This type of rim style in not popular in the export markets this factory works in so they deem it as cheap. It is however popular in the UK and the quality was spot on.
Another area where pricing is toggled around is the packaging. As you can see in this warehouse above the stock here is vacuum packed and stacked in a pretty primitive fashion. This actually has saved this customer around £1.60 per bicycle which on a bicycle with a retail price of about £35 is a lot of money over several thousand units. This also means that a 40ft container can fit about 10-20% more units in which again drives down the individual unit cost. It all adds up in a game where volume is the key.
So, what do I think to the standard of product here?
When I was at University in Leeds I worked as a bicycle mechanic in my local Halfords under the watchful eye of my old friend Woody. This was at a time when they were really pushing the bicycle department and during key retailing periods it was astonishing how many units were sold. I remember one Christmas period we were selling a particular model – a cheap and cheerful full suspension bicycle we were pushing at £99.99. At the time I remember thinking how on earth was this possible. I was racing for a well know bicycle manufacturer on a bike worth around £4.5k so the gap was huge. I would have to build about 40 of these bikes per shift, that’s how many we were selling. The bike was pretty budget to say the least but it did its job and would see the user through a good 12 months of cycling.
This factory produces bicycles to that same standard. Cheap and cheerful, all look pretty smart and will retail successfully for those reasons. There were a few issues in the production I was unhappy with but with some careful quality control these can be ironed out. The important thing here is that they can produce to a competitive price point to a standard that is possible for them to achieve.
I would not use this factory to produce a quality bicycle, there are much better factories for that here, but for this kind of thing its on the money. To be honest I would not be surprised if those bikes I was building 10 years ago came from this very place.