Giant have allowed visitors to tour their main factory for many years, but until recently, their C-Tech carbon fibre factory has been off limits. During my recent visit to Taiwan, I was given the opportunity to tour both the carbon and aluminium frame factories.
Giant’s factory is about two hours’ drive south of central Taipei and about 50 kilometres from Taiwan’s second city of Taichung, which is at the geographic heart of the bicycle industry.
In the foyer of Giant’s six storey headquarters, I was met by my host, Zack Cheng, a young, smart, head office employee with an MBA and a title of ‘Business Management Specialist’.
Before our factory tour he gave me detailed background information about Giant.
The site I was visiting employs over 2,000 factory workers, plus 150 staff in the global head office.
1,000,000 bikes per year are made in this factory. That’s about 500 bikes per worker per year. Their average ‘FOB’ value is $570 so that makes approximately $285,000 in annual bicycle production value per worker. A base factory worker earns about $1,000 per month in Taiwan, which increases as they gain experience.
Assuming $15,000 average annual salary, the labour component per bike is only $30 or about 4 hours. Clearly this is a very efficient factory.
96% of the bikes from this factory are for export. There is a constant line up of 40 foot shipping containers being filled. Each container holds 250 to 300 bikes and up to 20 containers per day are shipped on peak days.
As is typical in Taiwanese factories, Giant employs guest workers from Thailand. About 300 to 400 of the total 2,000 workforce come from Thailand. They live in dormitories, were they can stay for three years. Then must go back home. Then they can come back one more time only for three more years. Most come alone, without family. Throughout the factory, instructions of how to do each step are in Thai language as well as Taiwanese.
The plant’s maximum assembly capacity per day is 5,000 bikes. But only 10% of this is carbon as the C-Tech capacity is only 500 frames per day. Apart from a few steel indoor training bikes for the domestic market, all other frames in the factory are made from aluminium alloy.
Across the whole group (all factories) 70% of production is for Giant and 30% is for customer brands. These are famous, global brands. Even though their identity is widely known throughout the industry, they prefer not to be named or have their bikes photographed in production.
Giant globally has nine factories. The site I was visiting counts as two of these, as the carbon factory is treated as a completely separate entity.
In China there are six factories. Four are grouped in Kunshan, near Shanghai. Giant China Manufacturing provides for global market. GEV makes Giant Electric Vehicles, mainly for China, Germany and Netherlands, but potentially soon for Australia as well.
GLM, Giant Light Metal, makes rims, and suspension fork tubes for the factories within the group and for other component customers.
GCK, Giant China Kunshan is only two years old but already has a one million bikes per year capacity. That’s expanding to 1.5 million this year and they have enough space to expand to three million. It’s also the second carbon factory in the Giant group, providing the lower end carbon frames.
Giant China Chengdu, manufactures for the domestic market in the east and south of China and Giant China Tienjin, is for domestic bikes in the north of China.
Finally Giant Netherlands assembles 300.000 to 400,000 bikes, painting, decaling and assembing Giant bikes already made in one of the Asian Giant factories.
Across all of these factories, total manufacture in 2012 was 6.3 million bicycles, including electric power assist bikes. This makes Giant the largest bike company in the world in terms of quantity and revenue. Globally Giant has about 12,000 employees.
Giant’s biggest global markets for high end models are the USA, UK and Australia, but its fastest growing market and the biggest by volume is China.
Giant’s global head office will be moving to the centre of Taichung, firstly to give more space to the factory, which is clearly bursting at the seams, and secondly to make it more easy to attract talented staff, compared to the current, relatively remote location. Land has been found and the new headquarters will be completed within three years.
Giant’s factory workers start their day at 8:00 am. Morning tea is from 10:00 to 10:10. Lunch is 12:00 to 1:00. Afternoon tea is 3:00 to 3:10 and they finish their day at 5:30pm.
That makes for a 40 hour 50 minute working week, during the off season, when they work five days per week, and 49 hours during peak season, when they work six days per week. They get two weeks’ annual leave, one week for Chinese New Year, plus one week additional vacation at another time of year. This is more than the legal requirement.
Giant only operates through one day time shift. They have tried multiple shifts, but workers were not happy or healthy working night shift, so this was cancelled, apart from the operation of some critical equipment that would otherwise cause a bottleneck.
Giant use a multi function labour system whereby staff learn multiple tasks, to increase their production flexibility.
Carbon Frame Production, Step By Step
After my background briefing, it was time to head to the C-Tech plant.
The first few sections we visited looked more like an office than a factory. They were clean, climate controlled, quiet spaces. This partly reflects the nature of carbon component manufacture which, at least in its first steps, has more than a passing resemblance to textile and clothing manufacture.
We toured the facility in the same sequence as the manufacturing process. In the first area, there was a large machine that looked like a weaving loom at one end, and a printing press at the other. The weaving loom end started with racks of large ‘cotton reels’ containing carbon fibre strands called ‘silk’.
Giant buys the carbon thread then makes wide carbon sheets themselves using their own resin formula. There were two large interchangeable racks, holding hundreds of carbon silk reels.
Hundreds of strands of silk are simultaneously pulled from the racks of reels, through a comb that keeps them in perfect alignment, and then into the second part of the machine, that looks like a printing press.
The resin is dripped onto the carbon fibre from above as it goes through the press.
Rollers compress the fibre and the resin together. The carbon then rolls through an oven set to 125 degrees Celsius. This makes the resin more ‘runny’ and it spreads evenly throughout the carbon strands, forming a metre wide, single layer roll of carbon material, that is ‘unidirectional’. That is, all the strands are running parallel. Then the carbon goes through a chiller, cooled by water. It felt very cold to touch.
The finished product from this stage of production is a long roll of carbon material, that looks very much like a roll of fabric that you would see at any drapery store. Creating directional weave comes later, in the lamination process. But first waxy paper is placed on either side to protect the carbon. At the end of the production line, the carbon sheet goes on to a reel. Each reel holds a sheet of carbon that is one metre wide and 150 metres long. This machine makes about 35 reels in a typical day, so that’s something over 4 kilometres of carbon in total.
A chart on the side of the fridge door shows what’s in stock, by carbon type and amount.
Giant have another carbon manufacturing plant in China that replicates the process I saw in Taiwan.
The carbon can be stored for as long as required in the freezer room, but has to be taken out eight hours before it’s needed so that it can gradually warm up to room temperature before the next step.
Once out of the fridge, and warmed to room temperature, the next step is to make laminated sheets. This process looks very much like a clothing factory cutting table. The fabric is unrolled onto on a large table. Then a worker hand cuts it to the required angle.
The technical term for this process is transforming the carbon from Anisotropic to Isotropic material. Isotropic means all fibres running in the same direction. Anisotropic means in multiple directions.
Giant makes many different variables of anisotropic laminated carbon material.
Each material has different characteristics, that make it optimal for particular parts of each bicycle frame. For example the characteristics required for fork blades, where flex is required, are different to those required for a bottom bracket, which must be rigid.
The day I was there, they were making 45 / 45 degree laminated material.
An electronic sensor prevents the carbon rolling forward too quickly on the table.
Once the layers are angled correctly, they’re compressed by pair of rollers. The sheets have enough stickiness from the impregnated resin, which is now at room temperature, to stick together once they’re compressed by the rollers.
Next we visited the cutting room. Although this was still a clean, white, cool space, it was quite noisy, thanks to mechanical cutters that were being used.
The sheets are cut into a huge range of pieces some of which have very intricate shapes
Like all sections where the work is fiddly and exacting, this section was entirely staffed by women.
I’m sure someone from the garment industry could step into this room and hardly miss a beat.
Where the material is required to be thicker, they use two pieces and use a domestic clothes iron to heat the resin and stick them together.
A single high end Giant carbon frame will be composed of on average 300 pieces of carbon fibre. Each day they make about 500 carbon frames, so they need to make 150,000 precisely cut and shaped pieces of carbon fibre per day.
Each frame is like a very complex jigsaw puzzle. A key part of the difference between lower and higher level carbon fibre frames is how many pieces of carbon fibre they use. On lower level frames, they’ll use one larger piece. But on higher level frames such as the Advance or Advance SL, they will use a greater number of smaller pieces. In this way, they’ll only have material exactly where it’s needed and no more.
The engineering of higher end frames is more complex and requires more complex design calculations. I saw pieces for an Advance SL frame that are as small as a postage stamp.
On the wall, large charts show the level of skills for each worker. Next to each worker’s name are six sets of four squares, to report on six different work stations within the cutting room, with one, two or three coloured dots placed in up to three of the four squares. 25% means they can work with supervision. 50% means they can work unsupervised, 75% means they can train others. 100% means they are perfect. No one gets 100% because Giant wants them to all continue to improve.
Next we moved to a much quieter room. Here, workers were picking the previously cut carbon pieces from a vast array of pigeon holes and putting them onto the trays. It’s almost like the old letter press printer’s galley or a post office sorting room.
The trays look a bit like a cafeteria tray, but they’re marked with the silhouette of different shapes that have to be put into each space and small cardboard dividers to keep all the different parts neat and separated. Sometimes there is more than one of the same shaped piece within one of the compartments.
Each section of the tray is sorted by number in order denoting which way the pieces are put together.
Groups of trays for each complete frame are bundled together and numbered. Complex frames use 5 – 7 trays full of pieces of every imaginable shape and size. The finished bundles of trays are then loaded onto trolleys, a bit like hospital food delivery trolleys and wheeled out to the next section.
Carbon pieces for Giant branded bikes and customer bikes are all being collated onto specific trays at the same time by the same team of workers. It’s certainly a well oiled system as the error rate throughout the factory is next to nothing.
Next we moved to the layup line. This is the critical process where the myriad of small pieces on each tray are shaped together to form small sections of each frame.
There were about 80 workers in the room, divided into eight different work areas. One area is for head tube construction, one is for seat tube, one is for bottom bracket, one for fork, one for chain stay, one for seat stay and so on.
Each piece is formed over a hard plastic shape called an RP ‘rapid prototype’. First a clear plastic airbag goes over the form, then the carbon fibre, one intricate piece at a time.
The pieces are laid in place one by one and stuck on using hot air blowers that look just like hair dryers, to make the resin sticky and stick the next layer on.
Some parts have up to eight or nine layers, such as around the bottom bracket, where the greatest stress is. Along the top tube, where the stress is minimal, there are only two or three layers. Each layer is a fraction of millimetre thick.
Each person will do the same part for different models. But across the room they were making seven or eight different brands and models simultaneously.
Flexibility is the key. They make them in surprisingly small production batches, as few as a single frame in a batch.
Once the tube or frame part has been shaped, they pull out the RP form that was used to shape the part, leaving only the plastic air bag. One plastic bag is a single long thin sock that goes right through the main tubes in a loop. This bag is a critical part of the moulding process, which comes next.
We came out from the clean, air conditioned office like environment into a noisy factory. This is the moulding section.
We’re back into a world of all male workers and heavy industrial machinery.
A worker uses compressed air to clean the mould, which is a large, heavy, precision CNC (computer numeric controlled) machined slab of metal, in two halves
Then he places the frame into the bottom half of the mould.
Key parts such as the bottom bracket shell and head tube are kept in alignment with smaller CNC machined block moulds which are bolted into place within the main mould using air drills. These moulds, with their various insert blocks are extremely complex pieces of precision engineering. The one I saw being assembled had about ten different small blocks.
There were a lot of pins and bolts that had to be precisely fastened and aligned. It was an involved process and requires one month’s training. Workers start by doing just one model, one size, until they gain more experience.
The laid up frames are full of bumps and dents. They will become smooth after heat and pressure are applied within the mould.
The whole frame is not done in one process. This particular mould was for the main tube and the first five cm or so of the chain stays. They do it this way so they can pull out the plug that is required to form the inside of the bottom bracket shell.
Every mould can only make one size of one model, so Giant needs many different of moulds, which they make in house using CNC milling machines that start with a single slab of material for each side of the frame and finish with a precise, polished shape. It looks like a finished frame has been indented into it.
Once the carbon is all in place in the mould, with the ends of the plastic airbag are run out to the edge via channels in the mould that have been machined for that purpose. The bottom half, containing the carbon frame is kept completely still and the top half is lowered onto it by machine, slowly and precisely.
One worker can lay up 30 to 40 moulds per day. They can do one every 15 minutes.
Then the two halves are closed with 3,000 pounds clamping pressure. Then a robot controlled conveyor picks it up and rolls it onto a trolley that wheels it to an oven. There’s nine ovens working in this line but 28 ovens in total in the factory.
Inside the oven, the mould is heated to 150 degrees for 35 minutes. They’re brought gradually up to temperature over five minutes, so the whole process takes 40 minutes, but Giant are working on changes to the process to reduce this time to 25 minutes.
At the same time, air is blown into the airbag at high pressure of 16 kg per square cm. This squeezes the carbon frame against the mould forcing it to take the precise shape of the precision machined mould. It’s like a blowing up a balloon inside a box. The balloon will squeeze against the inside of the box.
The frame is a dull, even black when it comes out of the mould. There’s no weave pattern, no gloss. It’s quality checked immediately after the mould is opened. Every frame can be traced back to a particular factory worker, so there is accountability for quality.
Meanwhile on a separate line, smaller moulds are used to create seat stays and chain stays.
From this impressive, precision process, the frames move to the most basic, low tech looking step of the entire production process.
The main triangle still has the airbag inside, plus the rubbery plug used to shape the bottom bracket. They pull the airbag out relatively easily. Although it’s awkward, it’s not strong or tight. But the plug is a very tight fit. It requires a lot of forearm strength to wrench out using a selection of tongs, screwdriver and pliers. Giant say they’re looking to find a better way to do this process.
Next holes drilled or reamed out for cable guides, bottle cage mounts etc. Some of this work has recently been automated, using CNC machines.
At last it’s time to assemble the complete frame, gluing the frame components together, that is, the main triangle, chain stays and seat stays. Giant use a thick gunmetal grey glue, which is their own formula.
They put to glue on first. It’s is dobbed on with a stick inside and out the frame tube. They glue the seat stays on first, then the chain stays, then the rear ends, then put a single layer of carbon fibre over all of the joints. Then they stick on a layer of tape to hold the joints into place.
The glue is given at least 10 minutes to dry before the frame goes into the oven.
This is the last chance to give the frame a final alignment. Then the frame goes back into the oven, which will set the top layer of carbon fibre which has been put over the joints.
The second oven process only lasts for one minute. Once this second oven process is complete, the frame alignment is set and cannot be altered.
Next come more quality checks. Every frame is checked using a variety of precision jigs. They take various key frame measurements such as chain stay length, bottom bracket diameter. The results are written down by hand.
There’s a very low rejection rate. The workers in this section said they can go up to a week without finding a faulty frame. But the frames still have small voids, which are holes that require filling and polishing. Each frame is filled and polished and rechecked three times.
It’s quite dusty work. All done by men, wearing masks. There’s a forced air ventilation system with water curtain particle pick up system in this area. That means that the walls are a bit like sheet waterfalls, with a continuous curtain of water falling down. This picks up the dust, which is then filtered out of the water.
From here, the final two stages of painting and assembly are similar to production of frames from any other material.
All frames start with a base coat of either plain black or white, depending upon what the final colour the frame will be. After the base coat has dried, the frame is polished. Then it’s painted again with the final colour.
Next one person applies the decals to an entire frame. They’re all women in this section, which requires steady hands and meticulous attention to detail. The worker looks at a computer screen to see the ‘SOP’ (standard operating process) for each frame. This shows her which decal goes in which place, including small barcodes and standards stickers. They sign their employee number inside the head tube.
After the decals, the frame gets clear coat, then back to the oven. For some complicated models, with complex layers of colours and decals the frame may be returned six to seven times into the oven.
The assembly line runs like a well oiled machine. Unlike a car assembly line, it’s at a more human scale and relatively quiet.
Here’s the process in order:
- Starting with bare frame, first frame holes such as rack mounts have bolts screwed into place. Then a clear plastic sleeve goes on to protect the frame paint.
- The rear brake is fitted.
- Cutting the fork steerer tube to length.
- Fitting the fork and stem.
- Bike is then put upside down onto a post that inserts into the seat tube.
- Fitting bottom bracket and seat post pinch bolt.
- Fitting crank set
- Fitting rear derailleur
- Fitting front brake
- Fitting water bottle cage bolts.
- Meanwhile the handlebars are assembled on another line. Women neatly wind on handlebar tape at just sixty seconds per side.
- Finished handlebar and brake/gears levers with cables are hung from the forks so they can install all the cables and adjust gears and brakes, without ever fitting the bars, which are packed loose in the carton.
- Wheels are built on a separate line right next to the main assembly line. The hubs are hand laced with spokes, then machine tightened and trued. Rim tape, tyres and tubes are fitted by hand.
- Rear cassette goes onto the rear wheel.
- Rear wheel fitted into frame.
- Gear cable installed.
- Rear gears adjusted.
- Foam padding taped onto frame.
- Brakes connected.
- Completed bike slipped into a box. Other parts such as the seat and seat post, owner manuals etc are also inserted and the box is sealed and shipped.
All of the above processes happen simultaneously, so that one completed bike per 30 seconds rolls off the line, into a carton and on its way to countries throughout the world including Australia.
And with that, my tour of Giant’s Taiwan facility was complete. If you ever get the opportunity to visit either Giant or another of the global leading manufacturers, you should take it! It will give you a greater appreciation of the technology, precision and sheer attention to detail that is required to make a modern, state of the art bicycle.