Made In…

This is a piece I wrote for the blog when it was still… well alive.

Incrementally I don’t know what it would cost you to fab the frames stateside, but I’d be willing to buck up for it. I would no more buy a Browning shotgun made in Japan, a Llama pistol made in Spain, or a high-end bike, like I thought yours were going to be, made in TW…

Fire the damn bean counters and give me an American flag on my frame!

This was an email that landed in the inbox at Mountain Cycle Inc.’s inbox this morning and echoed much sentiment that was expressed at Sea Otter, when the question “where are you making the bikes” was asked.

I will be the first to admit that I am shocked at the sentiment in this day and age, and to some degree speaks volumes about the ‘false’ marketing being undertaken to perpetuate the myth of ‘made in America’. For the past decade, Taiwan has been the driving force in the bicycle industry and simply put without it, you probably would not be riding the bike you have right now.

I know I have mentioned in previous ramblings the realities of manufacturing in this day and age but it seems that there are still those that seem to dwell on the romance of manufacturing in the West. I say the West because this “why is it not made in…” question is one that crops up in pretty much every Western country. Those that know me know I am not American, so I view this as a much broader issue, but also see that in America, the question is fuelled by a level of patriotic feeling missing in other countries; probably because for so long the US led the world in manufacturing and realistically there is no reason it should still not.

But here we are.

How many people out there know that the majority of carbon fibre frames come out of China? I am not seeing many hands go up but that is the truth. Taiwan itself makes carbon but the majority currently comes out of China. How about hard tails? Anyone? Chances are, if you are riding a mid to low end hard tail, it’s come out of a Chinese factory via Taiwan. OK, how about your high end hard tails, road frames and FS bikes? No? Well, most of these frames come out of Taiwan and when I say most, in regards to the US market, we are talking something in the vicinity of 90% or more of the high volume production.

Making in the US, or many/most other Western countries has nothing to do with the cost factor. In fact, cost wise, it would be about the same (in some instances, we can actually get CNC work done cheaper in the US than in TW!). The sad reality is that in the US, to quote David Earle, Sotto Group owner and a 25 year industry veteran who lives half of the year in Taiwan, “America has no place that can make forged parts. No place that can Hydroform tubes. No place that can even do decent monocoque. It is a technology question, not a bean counter question”. This was furthered with “I am American and I love my country, I WANT USA to compete… Please tell him to please make sure his children go to school, so America can catch up to Asia.”.

You see, in the rest of the Western world, the so called developed countries, governments have, and still do, repeatedly tell young people that if they want to get ahead, they need to go and get into white collar ‘service’ industries, technology based if possible; all the while denigrating manual skills, or skills based in, or around, the task of making things. Concurrently, Western consumer based societies consume ever greater amounts of ‘stuff’ that’s manufactured. See the issue? Matthew B. Crawford in his book ‘Shop As Soulcraft’, discuss’ this very issue, going further to say that the so called white collar desk jobs modern society has been sold as the future, is actually no better than the soulless times of the industrial revolution.

As an industrial designer, a profession based on the design and making of products, I have been all too well aware of this issue. In my home country of Australia, one of those that for decades denigrated manual skills, the government term they like to now use is ‘skills shortage’. It’s one of those nice terms that shunts the blame as they strive to import the skilled people from abroad. I’d prefer if they just said, ‘yes, we fucked up and got it wrong and now we are in trouble.’ The damage though is now done and to pull out from it will take decades.

In countries such as Germany, France and Italy, some of the largest economies in the West, that, funnily enough, all have hefty manufacturing bases, they promote the skills other countries such as the US, UK and Australia, put down. Training to be a welder, carpenter, whatever, is a skill and you undergo a true apprenticeship scheme as you work your way to be a ‘master’. These skills are highly regarded and treated with the respect they deserve. As a result, these countries retain solid levels of highly skilled people, which in turn keeps their manufacturing bases solid. It’s a societal mindset, driven by government. After all, a smart government is one that realises that no society can be purely service based.

So back to our email. The sentiment is nice, put an American Flag on my bike. The reality is though, that if that’s your criteria for buying bike, I hate to say your choices are increasingly limited as the last of the 100% US based brands head to TW for at least part of their production. In the next few years, you will not be riding a bike. But rather than penalise us, who have no real choice but to go where what we design can be made, to the level and volumes we need, to the price you, the buyer demands, how about you turn around and rail your government (in your respective country) for letting things get to the point where we in the West have no choice.

We all would love nothing more to keep what we do ‘at home’ and it’s nice to be all idealistic. The reality unfortunately is harder and far more complicated that that.