All Bikes are Handmade and Most in Asia

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by Byron on Jan 17, 2012 at 12:19 PM

Update: On March 16th, 2012, Daisey’s story got retracted by This American Life and the fallout from the lies Daisy told about Apple continue in the press and on stage at the theater where he performs. The story Daisey told led this this post about “hand made” bikes and the bike industry’s Asian factories. While the content in the post is entirley editorial and opinion, I thought it important to update it with the news about Daisey. I’m as dismayed by it as anyone in tech and where tech intersects with the bike.

– DL Byron

While Ira Glass insists you listen to his program for the best experience, reading the transcripts can strike you with words like this, on a web page.

I expect a factory making complex electronics will have the sound of machinery, but in a place where the cost of labor is effectively zero, anything that can be made by hand is made by hand. No matter how complex your electronics are, they are assembled by thousands and thousands of tiny little fingers working in concert. And in those vast spaces, the only sound is the sound of bodies in constant, unending motion.

I read Daisey’s emotional story about the people that make the crap we buy with those words stuck in my head. Like the photos of the factories he saw, I kept coming back to “anything that can be made by hand is made by hand.” Because all bikes are handmade and most of the parts on them are handmade too in Asia. There isn’t a factory with sophisticated robots stamping them out all day. Women layup carbon because their tiny hands are more dexterous.

foxconn

A Foxconn’s workers hands. Hands like hers also layup carbon frames

I remembered a few years ago touring Trek during a media event and walking the floor of the North American Handbuilt Bike Show.

TrekWorld: Factory Tour

Handmade in Wisconsin

NAHBS is about the craft, builder’s ego, and not the worker’s hands. If so, they’d have a Chinese supplier pavilion in the middle of it with show deals.

While I’ve traveled in Asia, haven’t been to an Asian bike factory, but Mark has. He was fascinated by how Willy Wonka’esque it was with all the flavors, colors, and style. No Veruca Salt or Oompah Loompahs though. Just a line flowing by him with brands you’d recognize and rooms staged for the media.

So I’m not indicting the industry, on a vision quest with its leaders, or planning a one-man show about it. I am offering a perspective about handmade and thinking about where bikes are made by hand. While Apple has margins that Sinyard, Burke, Hon et al. can only dream about, I do think bike companies should publicly address supplier relations. They should tell us what they do to ensure their standards are met, whatever those are.

Mike Daisey’s heroic, cult of Mac journey is amazing. Mostly because his on-the-fly investigative skills didn’t get him arrested or beat up and he tells a memorable story. I’ve talked to executives about the Chinese people and they all say similar things. There’s a tension just under the surface and if asked they’ll talk to you, like this crew who were really happy to see me just before the Beijing Olympics.

Beijing Peasant Workers

Rode by peasant workers in Beijing, thousands of them, everywhere

If Daisey’s story stuck with you like it did me and you want to meet the person who makes the bike you buy, look up a custom builder near you. Attend a NAHBS or a similar show.

I’ve got Parlees and Davidsons at Hugga HQ now. Next to them are high-and low-end frames that were handbuilt in Asia. Back to the iPhone, when asked, Siri says

Byron Siri, how are bikes made?

Siri Software I found a number of bicycle shops….13 of them are fairly close to you.

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Comments: 5

Almost all aluminium frames have their tubes automatically mitered and hydroformed at specialized machines, with the welding done by industrial robots—but it’s still human hands putting all the pieces through the system, loading and unloading all the jigs. But that’s just because you have to be a ridiculously good welder to do thinwall aluminum like that, and even the grandmasters like FTW and Pegoretti and Cunningham aren’t that much faster than their lessers.

Some other special-case stuff is automated too, like all Tange forks are brazed on a conveyor through a hearth. There’s also weird shit like Schwinn’s old electroforging process.

But yes, every steel, titanium, or carbon frame made today will be hand built, which counts even if the workers building them aren’t NPR listeners.

@blasdelf

Yep and thanks for the comment. Mentioning aluminum reminds me of the Beryllium frames that came through a shop I saw once, never to be seen again—too hard to weld. Stainless hard to weld too.

Also another reader on G+, asked what the point of this post is and I said, “Daisey raises the question of where things are made and by whom. My reaction to his questions was to think about bikes and how factories make them. I also question the marketing of ‘hand built,’ as a differentiator that’s not really valid.”

I’m not implying any sweatshop conditions, but just wondering and thinking out loud. I am saying that I’d expect larger companies to issues statements regarding their social responsibilities in factories. Mark and I talked about this post before I ran it. At the high end, the factories are likely pretty good, but when you’re buying cheap, knock-off shit on Ebay, expect that amazing price you’re getting is costing someone somewhere.

I’ve always been under the impression that the handbuilt differentiator was less about the actual use of the hands and more about the decision-making process, about basing design decisions on personal rather than market or corporate considerations, on what is the best thing to use for a given type of riding rather than what will sell or provide a given margin. So it’s a metaphor for individual control. This is not to say the term isn’t grossly misused at times. Ironically, the metaphor holds up when a manufacturer downplays the hand-building of its products because the value of workers as stakeholders is discounted. Their hands are still building, but the company is trying to compete on price, not on the cache of craft, so the craft is minimized and nameless, but it is still pretty impressive even if the materials provided are subpar.

@donin

Thanks for the thoughtful comments and you’re right. As I said above, Daisey’s show got me thinking about what and how bikes are made. I own custom (I think that’s a more appropriate term) bikes and have mass manufactured in too, on test. What I’ll say too is bikes and gear are so much better now than when I first got into the sport. When I get asked, which bike, I say, “the one you like with the best spec for the money.” Cause at the various price points, they’re all about the same. At the high end, they’re ALL good—just differences in style.

My first visit to bike hugger; great site.  I really appreciate the perspective on labor conditions in distant factories, for two reasons: one is that as you suggest, we are buying product assembled under conditions that would not survive scrutiny in a more open society, and which over time damages workers’ bodies and minds without offering meaningful development opportunities; two is that we are buying product that represents US jobs lost.  I love sales as much as the next consumer, but the price we pay is that our neighbors and friends are out of work, or out of meaningful work.  As I used to tell my kids, check the label on that shirt, and then ask yourself whether the person who sewed it went to bed hungry that night.  I’ve been involved in labor law/worker rights for over 30 years (all in federal govt jobs) and I wish I had some answers but I don’t.  We have to find a balance between affordability, and decent work for our countrymen, without becoming so xenophobic that we only Buy American. But thanks for raising our awareness.  -Nick
My rides—2005 Schwinn Voyageur with Shimano Nexus 7sp (yay!); 1985 Bridgestone 200 recently rattle canned sparkly blue (sigh).  Wish I could find:  a decent Shimano 105 road bike in the $750 range.

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