Gerard Vroomen - 22-May-2011
Let’s start with an observation. In the bike industry, there is not much variation in where carbon frames are made. Virtually all of them, including for example many of the iconic “Italian” frames, are made in China. The big difference is not in the origin of the frames, but rather in the labeling. You see, there are countries that allow you to put a “made in …” sticker on your frame even if you only paint it there, even if the entire production of the frame was in China.
For this reason, the discussion among consumers about where frames are made always struck me as odd. In the end, it usually isn't a discussion on the frame, but on the label. Of course, the consumer is not to blame for this, he or she has no way of knowing what's behind the label, but it's ironic that brands who are actually honest with their customers are ad a disadvantage compared to those who go the "trick-label" route.
Anyway, I’ve booked my flight; I am leaving for China in two days. I have thought a lot about manufacturing over the past few year, as I feel torn about China. On the one hand, I love the excitement and energy of the country and the people, the attitude of really wanting to make something happen. I also like working with some of the people I have known for many years and whom I consider my friends, so I would like to build some really nice mountain bike frames with them. Furthermore, I see no philosophical reason why people in country A have more right to make a living than people in country B.
On the other hand, I would love to produce in Europe. I know it can be done from a costing perspective; I have no doubt about that. There are obviously labor costs differences, but if you manufacture in a smart way, those can be overcome. In fact, labor costs force you to be smart, which is a good thing. For me the biggest issue is not labor costs, but infrastructure. Where do you go for all the little things you need? In China, everything is “next door”. Where do you assemble, when most of the drivetrain parts you need are in Asia? For a country, that’s the advantage once you’ve reached economies of scale.
Labor costs provide an interesting conundrum. Of course, salaries in China are lower, but for the Chinese, salaries in carbon manufacturing sites are considered relatively high. So, is that good or bad, or both? Other people have written about this a lot more eloquently, I have always made a simple rule for myself – people should be paid a fair wage which gives them the buying power to get ahead in life in their country, while working & living under safe conditions.
The interesting part is that in most studies, the Chinese workers see these issues very differently than many in the West. The West frowns upon too much overtime. Myself included, I rate work/life balance pretty high, although those around me might say I don't apply it to myself. Yet most Chinese workers welcome overtime as a way to earn more and thus save more for the future. Their top wishes are more pay (not so different from elsewhere in the world) and better food in the cafeteria (interesting to see there is a universal law of mediocre cafeteria food).
For this new project, my goal is to produce both in China and Europe. Starting off in China, simply because that’s where the infrastructure is and where I have the contacts to make the best frames, and then work for the mid-term on also producing something in Europe.
And no, our frames will not have a "made in Italy" sticker and we won't be vague about the country of origin. I believe we'll produce the best frame in the world, so why hide it? It will be designed in Switzerland and the Netherlands, and manufactured in China.
P.S. I know that this blog will open up a debate including politics, and that it will likely go into a direction of "China is bad", "the US isn't really a democracy either", "watch your mouth, Frenchie", etc. So it would have been easier not to write this blog and just go ahead and do what the rest of the industry does without comment. But how open would that be?
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