藝術 (Art), 手工藝 (Craftsmanship), 製造 (Manufacture): Taichung Taiwan is a Bicycling Manufacturing Mecca

Coming off our Dust-Up article on (Most) All Bikes are Handmade is a deeper dive… It is easy to take for granted how products from around the globe end up in our hands. When it comes to bicycles, many of us have no idea how they are made. Our Instagram feeds are filled with romanticized images of artisans building intricate frames one at a time, but what about the production bicycles that the vast majority ride? Much less information is available, leaving our imaginations to conjure up images of robotic welders and dirty, fast-paced production. This often leads to uninformed debates on where, who, and how products are made.

The authors of this article offer a unique perspective on bicycle manufacturing. Daniel Yang, a talented engineer working with Neuhaus Metalworks and his own brand ARTEFACT, is changing how artisan framebuilders build bikes through 3D printing and 3D modeling innovations. Adam Sklar has over a decade of experience building high-end custom bikes by hand. He recently brought his production to Taiwan, working together with factories to produce his signature designs. The factories and people you see in this article produce Sklar Bikes, which is why we were given the opportunity to share this experience with you all.

Foreword (Adam)

Before our trip to Taiwan, my main impression was that Taiwanese factories achieved better price points because of geographic efficiency. When I make a frame in the United States, I buy tubes from Italy, England, and the US; dropouts from another vendor; and 3D-printed parts from a manufacturer in China. The frame is cut, welded, and finished, before going to paint in Colorado. The final assembly happens at my shop in Montana. As I write this, I wonder if there could be a less efficient way to make a bicycle.

In contrast, Taichung manufacturing is localized and much more efficient: casting, machining, tube manufacturing, framebuilding, paint, and warehousing are all within a one-hour drive. However, there are other reasons why the manufacturing cost is lower. Over the past 50 years, the factories have honed their process, craftsmanship, and art. The combination of efficiency and hard work allows them to produce high quality bikes at lower price points when compared to American artisans. I have visited many American framebuilder shops. The builders I respect the most have minimal workspaces—no wasted space or tooling, just exactly what it takes to build frames. I got the same feeling in the factories in Taichung, just on a much larger scale.

Taichung (Adam and Daniel)

Taichung is the third largest city in Taiwan, home to 2.8 million people, and is the heart of bicycle manufacturing in Taiwan. In the 80’s the BMX boom, mountain bikes, and introduction of TIG welding brought manufacturing from Japan to Taiwan. Factories developed the expertise, infrastructure, and equipment to produce TIG-welded steel frames. Since then, the bicycle industry moved on to aluminum, then carbon fiber, and shifted their production to lower cost labor markets in other countries. However, the craftsmanship, capital equipment, and knowledge to produce steel and titanium frames still remain in Taichung.

In the city center, you will find the offices of bigger bike companies, like Giant, Fox, e*thirteen, SRAM, as well as Taiwan’s biggest exporter, TSMC, the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer. A small area known as Daja, just north of Taichung, houses smaller manufactures of frames, headsets, handlebars, paint, and tires, all within a 10-mile radius. This is where most of our factory visits took place.

To put this article into context, Taiwan produces over two million bikes a year. The factories we visited produce only 60,000 high-end steel and titanium frames each year for companies like Surly, Rivendell, Crust, and Sklar bikes. The scope of this article encompasses a fraction of the bicycle industry in Taiwan and an even smaller fraction of the bike industry at large. Our visit focuses on the factories that manufacture Adam’s frames, the craftsmanship, and the people who make our bikes.

Maxway Cycles

Maxway is a modest-sized factory, surrounded by taro and rice paddies, tucked in an industrial park near several other bike-related manufacturers. The front of the building houses the office space where engineers and staff prepare drawings and meet with clients. The manufacturing bay occupies most of the space and follows a reversed flow: raw materials enter in the back, and frames exit out the front. This humble factory produces 40,000 frames per year.

From Manufacture (製造) to Art (藝術)

The name Maxway has developed a cult following in the alt-bike world. Why? Because they are behind many of the frames we know and love. Maxway was founded in the 1980’s by brother and sister Yiyi and Meg Chiu. The company began as a welding subcontractor cranking out frames for the 80’s bicycle boom. Since then they added more capabilities, knowledge, and equipment in order to produce entire frames. Maxway’s ability to adapt to the changing demands of metal bikes and standards is the key to their 38-year longevity and success:

“Maybe 20 years ago, all of the bicycles are simple and very large quantity. But at that time, people just take the bicycle as transportation. But now, I think people who like the steel frame want something special. Now a bike will have many functions, people have fun riding, and there is a natural connection between people, their bike and their riding group. We are still working hard on these parts. We want to convey it is more than just make-a-bike.” -Yiyi

However, the shift from mass-produced bikes to boutique, high-end steel frames comes with challenges. Modern steel frames are increasingly complex, and boutique brands have higher expectations for design and aesthetics. For this reason, Yiyi views their work as art. These frames take much longer to design and build than the simple rim-brake road bike of the 80’s. To the metal bike fan, the steel bikes produced at Maxway may seem commonplace, but in the context of the millions of uninspired bikes produced in the world each year, these frames are works of art.

One Process, One Machine, One Person

It is not possible to produce this many frames without mastery of the manufacturing process. With 38 years of experience, Maxway has had plenty of time to hone their craft and optimize their workflow. Production is extremely efficient. Every manufacturing process has a dedicated machine and person to produce the component or subassembly.

A view down the shop floor.

Material arrives at the back of the workshop and is inspected before moving on to the next step.

Bosses are drilled, and tubes are shaped using large presses and dies. One operator formed 50 sets of chainstays in just a few minutes!

Each model frame and size has its specific tooling, making these processes accurate and repeatable. At the beginning of each shift, the floor manager carefully calibrates each machine and produces a sample to compare with a 1:1 drawing.

The formed and mitered tubes work their way through the welding process, assembly-line style. Each station is responsible for a specific area of the frame: front triangles, chainstays, seat stays, and bottom brackets. The frame is passed from station to station and emerges as a complete frame.

Braze-ons are added and the frame is faced, chased, and aligned.

Finally, the frames undergo a rigorous quality control check.

Family Business

Maxway is a family-owned and operated business. Founders and siblings Yiyi and Meg and their respective children, Angel and Allen, are involved with the day-to-day activities at Maxway. The hard work of this small company and family is one of the reasons why we have some of our favorite steel bikes.

“We are a manufacturer, we don’t really understand the bike market, but we do what we do: we focus on quality, help our customers with good service. It’s a lot of hard work and good reputation for over 38 years.” -Yiyi

The word ‘factory’ often connotes a soulless entity. Our experience was the exact opposite. We were delighted to get to know the Maxway team’s different characters, share some laughs, and bond over lunch.

ORA Engineering

Since 1996, ORA has been quietly producing some of the best metal bikes in the world. They focus on high-end steel, stainless, and titanium frames for Western brands (business to business). What sets them apart from other manufacturers is their investment in technology. Tube butting, heat treatment, CNC machining, mitering, forming, welding, finishing, and testing are all done in-house.

“When you look at our frames, it is pleasant to see. You see our attention to detail, the shape, the finish. Not all bikes can give you this feeling. […] I think it should be 手工藝 (craftsmanship) and 製造 (manufacture), to create the art.” – Emily Yu, Head of Marketing

ORA occupies a two-story building surrounded by taro paddies and cattle.

Raw materials are stored at the entrance. The length and thickness of the tubes indicate they have yet to be formed into butted bicycle tubes (more on that later).

A small fleet of CNC machines cut plate yokes and dropouts. ORA will even post-machine cast dropouts to improve the tolerances and surface finish.

Tubes are digitally mitered with wire EDM (Electrical Discharge Machining) to produce some seriously water-tight miters.

Like Maxway, welding is done at stations. One welder is responsible for a specific sequence of joints.

Forming mold for Adam’s signature ovalized and curved toptube (above)

A complete library of chainstay, toptube, and downtube forms.

Frames are loaded into a CNC machine to have their bottom brackets threads and faces machined as a final step. This process mitigates the distortion of the BB shell from welding.

Alignment and QC are done in separate steps.

Complete Control: As framebuilders, the in-house tube butting was the most exciting to witness. The heart of the bicycle is its material, and having complete control over your butting profiles opens up new opportunities for design. Tube butting refers to a change in wall thickness, typically on the inside of the tubes. The thicker sections at the end of the tube make for a stronger, more durable joint while the thinner sections reduce weight and improve ride quality The Sklar Tall Tale is made at ORA because they can butt a custom 1.4-.7-1.0 down tube with ovalized butting to meet the demands of modern mountain bikes.

“Twenty years ago, we butted outside with other vendors. We cannot make sure they follow our requirement. Maybe one tube, it needs three times butted, but they skip one step. So, finally we think we are framemaker, we need to have our own butting, we need to have this skill, and because we have this machine we can improve, test, and develop different thickness. I think for butted tubes is ORA more important skill.” – Emily

This is the first time we have seen a butting machine at work. Turns out it is a very quiet and simple operation. Tube blanks are loaded into the hydraulic rams and forced through a die to draw the tube thinner.

The butting process is repeated up to six times to form the thin sections of the tubes. Every diameter and wall thickness requires a specialized mandrel.

Lessons from ORA

Our big takeaway from our to ORA is their commitment to improving their process. Every year ORA deliberately invests in a new machine or technology, which is clearly paying off.

Left to right: Poppy, Jim, and Agnes

Jim Hsu, the founder, is in the process of passing the torch to his two daughters, Agnes and Poppy. Framebuilding and the bicycle industry can often feel traditional in techniques and worldviews. It was great to see women at the helm with more progressive views and open-mindedness. No doubt this open-mindedness leads to advancements in technology and new ideas:

“Some other vender only offers their open mold. For us, we understand both sides. We listen to customer and understand their requirements and take our customer’s design to become a real product. Some other companies will advise customers to change their designs to become easier to manufacture. We combine our experience and the customer’s design to make their bike.”

Innovation in framebuilding is often viewed as a European or American specialty. However, this Taiwanese company is truly pushing the state of the art of metal bike manufacturing. We left feeling inspired by ORA’s facility and people.

Metal Manufacturing Mecca

In addition to the frame factories, we visited several other manufacturers of bicycle components. Another testament to Taichung’s efficiency, most of our factory visits were a short 15-minute car ride.

Casting: Although 3D printing is the hottest trend in titanium and steel framebuilding, “lost wax” (or investment casting) has been around for 6,500 years. Casting can produce stronger and more consistent parts than 3D printing at a much lower cost. The process requires an upfront investment in tooling in order to produce a mold. Once the mold for the wax replicas are made, high-precision metal parts can be made at very low cost. The Sklar Tall Tale features an investment-cast chainstay yoke made in this factory.

An aluminum mold is injected with wax to cast the wax replica of this single speed dropout

The wax replicas are attached to a special “tree” to ensure metal will flow into the array of parts. This also allows many parts to be cast in one pour.

The wax trees are dipped into several layers of ceramic slurry and sand to build a robust mold. The wax is melted out leaving an empty cavity and a negative mold of the parts.

Molten metal is poured into the ceramic molds and carefully cooled.

The ceramic mold is broken apart, revealing the array of parts. Parts are manually removed from the tree, finished, and checked.

The casting process was the most fun to witness. Seeing the many steps required to produce a single part gave us a greater appreciation for the components we use on our bike frames.

Handlebars: We stopped by a handlebar factory that is manufacturing a new bar for Sklar. This factory specializes in high-end aluminum drop and riser bars.

Tubes start off as raw aluminum tubes and are swaged and butted to form handlebar blanks.

The blanks are bent or pressed into road, gravel, or mountain bike handlebars

New handlebar, 1000 mm wide, zero sweep, coming to a fixie near you.

This handlebar shop was just one of several highly specialized factories we visited. Bikes are built with so many individual components, each requiring specialized machinery and labor. Taichung is home to numerous specialized factories, making it a unique and important hub for the bike industry.

Paint: Paint is one of the biggest challenges of building frames in the United States. Bike frames are difficult to paint, and few shops are not able or willing to do so, forcing us to ship our frames back and forth to a specialized painter. This is both expensive and environmentally irresponsible. It is not uncommon for a paint job in the US to cost more than the frame’s materials.

In contrast, a production paint shop was mind blowing to see—an entire building dedicated to painting frames.

Frames hang on a giant conveyor belt system and are fed from initial inspection to sanding, painting, clear coat, and drying (they were working on some cargo bike beds when we visited).

The conveyor belt system is designed to paint entire batches of frames at once. While some automated spraying (the clear coat) was used, most of the painting and decal placement was done by skilled eye and hand. Painting frames in batches like this reduces solvent and chemical waste. The factory also had an impressive air filtration system for worker safety and to adhere to European regulations.

Paint samples are kept on-hand to ensure different batches of frames are consistent.

Our favorite quote of the trip comes from Mr. Wong, the owner of the paint factory. When asked what his favorite paint scheme is:

“People ask me to paint the bikes so I have to paint them” – Mr. Wong

Tires: The big innovations in cycling have been wheel and tire size: tubeless, 29-inch wheels, wide tires, and gravel bikes. Small brands have always led the industry by taking risks to develop these new products. A key player in this innovation is Innova, the tire company responsible for producing many of the tires that have influenced the direction of modern off-road bikes.

Blank tires are made with precisely calculated rubber tread material. These blanks are placed into a mold, pressurized, and heated (vulcanized) to crosslink the polymer chains, producing a finished tire.

An intricate tire mold machined with an EDM (Electrical Discharge Machining) process

Prior to the molding step, there was an entire floor full of specialized tire “looms” that we are unable to show photos of. Although the tire loom automates much of the tire layup, several important steps are still done by hand. New wheel sizes not only require a new mold, but also a new loom, which can cost more than a $100,000. That gave us a greater appreciation for the smaller brands and factories who took on great risk to develop 29″ and 650b tires, which are now ubiquitous.

People: Ask any artisan framebuilder and they will tell you building frames is a small fraction of the work. Sourcing materials, coordinating paint, assembly, boxing, and shipping, consume most of the time. Behind every boutique metal bike that leaves Taiwan, there is an entire team of people working behind the scenes to deliver the best products possible. Our guides to Taichung, Joe and Leeche Yang (no relation to Daniel) of Leeche International, have over 30 years of experience bringing hundreds of products we love to market. And true to Asian culture, everyone will humbly downplay their role in the industry.

Joe and Leeche Yang, our tour guides for Taichung (left). And Lorenzo and Xiaofan, owners of a small lugged and fillet brazed factory (right).

The sport of cycling is still very much a Western concept. However, community exercise is a big part of Asian culture, so it will be interesting to see how cycling evolves in Asia over the next decade. We got a small taste of the mountain biking scene on our trip thanks to the Dadu Trail House team. Road biking events are popping up as well, with many groups attempting to ride around the Taiwan island each spring (A 500+ mile tour).

A quick mountain biking adventure through the DADU trail network (left) and Taichung locals enjoying a relaxing cruise on the bike path (right).

The entire family works the line at SJS Paint.

Even though the factories are technically competitors, they are all friends, working together to produce the best products for Western brands. It was heartwarming to see many businesses are not only small but also family run and operated. Although we were outsiders, we felt welcomed into the Taichung bike family.

Parting Thoughts

Daniel: People often criticize Asian manufacturing for being low quality, environmentally unfriendly, and exploitative. As an Asian-American framebuilder, the bias is disappointing to see. I feel this is an outdated view based on politics, assumptions, and cultural differences. The reality is there are no dirty secrets to bicycle manufacturing. Is the pay lower? Yes, but so is the cost of living. In Taiwan, health insurance is provided by the government and public transportation actually works. Are the environmental regulations more relaxed? Sure, but aside from paint and shipping, metal bikes are not corrosive to the environment. Would I want to work on the factory floors? No. As much as I enjoy working with my hands, manufacturing is very hard work. This is just the reality of global capitalism and manufacturing: it can be dirty, dangerous, and menial. The only secret is that hard work is hard, independent of where in the world bikes are made.

Adam: I came back from Taiwan feeling inspired. These factories and the people behind them put the same care into manufacturing that I do into the design and development of each product we make. Together I really do feel like we are making the best bikes in the world and that feels nice. With big bike companies moving further and further away from practical bikes for regular people it feels like an exciting time in the steel bike world. Together we will keep building nice things that are thoughtfully made and will last a nice long time.