Why not "Made in U.S.A."?

Why not "Made in U.S.A."?

At Compass Bicycles, we think a lot about manufacturing. We know what we want to make, but how should we make it, and where? We are not looking for the lowest cost, but for the highest quality. The conditions under which our products are made are an important consideration as well.
There are a number of small companies who make bicycle components in the U.S., but they are often limited by the technology that is available to them. For example, CNC machines are relatively affordable and small. That is the reason why you see so many CNC-machined cranks and brakes, even though forging would make them lighter and stronger. (CNC machining is a good way to make other parts, like hubs and headsets.) CNC machining also is quite wasteful, as a lot of aluminum is turned into shavings.
In contrast, a forging hammer (photo above) is an investment that only one bicycle company has amortized on their own: Shimano is said to forge their own components. All others, including industry leaders like Campagnolo and SRAM, do not run their own forge.
The U.S. bicycle industry never specialized in making high-end components. Schwinn’s famous operation in Chicago was a self-contained factory. Rolls and bars of steel went in on one side, complete bicycles came out on the other side. Yet when Schwinn needed derailleurs or other high-end parts, they imported them from Europe. There simply were no makers of derailleurs and aluminum cranks in the U.S., and even mighty Schwinn wasn’t big enough to make their own. Very few, if any, square-taper crank have ever been forged in the U.S.A. Basically, the technology does not exist here.
Where does the technology exist? Today, the answer usually is Taiwan, which has developed a diverse bicycle industry capable of high quality, along with acceptable work and environmental conditions. Our engineer in Taiwan lives within easy motorcycling distance of the companies involved in our crank project:

  • Forge: They forge the crank blanks.
  • Machine Shop 1: They machine the chainrings tabs, square tapers and pedal threads of the cranks.
  • Machine Shop 2: They make the chainrings.
  • Screw Maker: They make our custom crank and chainring bolts.
  • Laser Cutting Specialist: They make the pedal washers.

All these companies have experience with bicycle components. Supply paths are short, and oversight is easy. Our engineer can visit the factories while production is under way, which makes it easy to solve small problems that inevitably occur when things are being made. If we made one part in Chicago, another in Texas and a third in Connecticut, this would be very difficult. (The last part of our cranks, the custom boxes, are made in the U.S.)
The Taiwanese are also willing to work with small production runs. When we asked a German screw maker about crank bolts, they told us that the minimum order was 50,000. We would have a lifetime supply of crank bolts!
The photo shows a freshly forged René Herse crank. Taiwanese workers earn good wages and work under decent conditions, comparable to North American workers. Taiwan’s environmental regulations are not as good as they could be, but they appear to be better than most countries outside Europe, Japan, and the U.S.
Many of us would like to see products made closer to home. We would like to support the economies of the places where we live. However, you need an infrastructure to make things.
Paul Krugman explained this in the New York Times: “You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That’s the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. This is familiar territory to students of economic geography: the advantages of industrial clusters — in which producers, specialized suppliers, and workers huddle together to their mutual benefit — have been a running theme since the 19th century.”
Unfortunately, we have been allowing these clusters to disappear all over the U.S. and Europe. In France, there was the cluster of bicycle component makers in Saint-Etienne: Manufrance, Automoto, Stronglight, Maxi-Car and dozens of other companies. Not a single one of them exists any longer!
Another cluster was Levallois-Perret in Paris with its hundreds of machine shops, chrome-platers, casters and other shops. They mostly served the automobile industry (Citroën, Delage, Hispano-Suiza, etc.), but also enabled the small constructeurs of bicycles (and the component maker TA) to do things that would have been difficult elsewhere.
These clusters no longer exist. Ernest Cuska of Cycles Alex Singer once told me how they used to have two chrome-platers within a block of the shop. Now they take their frames, racks and stems to a plater who is almost 100 miles away. TA obtains its forgings from Taiwan. So does Campagnolo. And so do we at Compass.
When you consider that our cranks and brakes are assembled right here in Seattle, perhaps we should label them “Made in the U.S.” (Legally, they are made here from imported parts.) But we aren’t trying to obfuscate, so we say that they are made in Taiwan, since most of the essential parts come from there.
And where possible, we do make products in the U.S. Our taillights, our rack tabs, the leather washers for fender mounting, our alignment tools, and our tire wipers are made by local companies and craftspeople in the U.S. And of course, Bicycle Quarterly is printed right here in Seattle.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that to the best of our knowledge, no square taper crank had ever been forged in the U.S. There may have been some cranks made from U.S. forgings in the 1990s (see comments).

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Comments (85)

  • Dave P.

    You could label them “Designed by Compass Bicycles in Seattle”.

    March 4, 2015 at 5:17 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Ah yes, another deceptive practice common in the bike industry!

      March 4, 2015 at 5:32 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        At least they specify where it’s made. My father-in-law was disappointed when his new “Made in Texas” truck had most subassemblies stamped “Made in Mexico”. Only the final assembly appears to happen in the U.S.

        March 4, 2015 at 7:35 am
  • kurtsperry

    My question is, who made the drop forge in the first photo and where?

    March 4, 2015 at 6:17 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Good question! I’ll ask our engineer to find out the next time he visits the forging company.

      March 4, 2015 at 6:22 am
      • Tom Durkin

        The cluster of heavy industry forging, stamping, machining and plating companies producing high volumes of parts for the US auto/truck industry that existed in Milwaukee Wi. was similar to that in Levallois-Perret. That cluster was dismantled and dissipated into the world. Many of the forges were sold to overseas bidders. Perhaps your supplier is a beneficiary of that process? I always wondered why the only US forged cranks were the Ashtabula one-piece steel product of the company of that name in Ohio. Schwinn in Chicago was only 90 miles from Milwaukee. Perhaps the minimum volumes were too great even for Schwinn

        March 5, 2015 at 9:28 am
  • Michael

    I don’t know much about manufacturing so you’ll have to bear with me.
    Since it is difficult for some to find nearby chroming facilities, why not just have polished parts? Nitto makes beautifully polished aluminum parts. Some prefer that look over chrome. Perhaps polishing is just as expensive? Beyond aesthetics, why is chrome needed? I am guessing just for protecting steel parts?

    March 4, 2015 at 6:47 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Steel rusts, so you need to protect it. For bolts, the hardest, most durable coating is chrome-plating. The nice appearance is a bonus, but not the main reason to chrome-plate bolts.
      Aluminum doesn’t usually get chrome-plated. Different grades of aluminum offer different corrosion resistance, so some are fine just polished, while others need to be anodized or painted.

      March 4, 2015 at 7:38 am
  • Unfiltered Dregs

    Praxis Works forges their cranks, chainrings, etc.. here in the USA. They are now a supplier for Specialized. fyi.

    March 4, 2015 at 7:39 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I doubt they have a forge. Just like TA and Campagnolo, they probably get their forgings from elsewhere (most likely China, if they have to meet price points).

      March 4, 2015 at 8:03 am
      • neil

        They do have many forges. My understanding is they have more forges than any other single company but it is not Praxis Works in the USA. Instead it is the parent company of Praxis Works, Dragontech. Dragontech is in Taiwan making more than bike parts. Automotive parts and laptop computer cases are among the many products they forge.

        March 4, 2015 at 8:33 am
    • Unfiltered Dregs

      Wow, I did not know this…What does “Made in The USA” mean anymore?

      March 4, 2015 at 1:14 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        It all depends on where you start the process. Is the aluminum from U.S.-sourced bauxite? Is it smeltered in the U.S.? Are the raw forgings done in the U.S.? What about the machining? Assembly?
        I feel that wherever the most value is added is where it’s made. So a classic René Herse frame, made from British Reynolds tubing, still is “Made in France”. And a modern TA crank, machined and assembled in France from a Taiwanese forging, also is “Made in France”.

        March 4, 2015 at 4:14 pm
  • ben

    White Industries claimed one version of their 90’s cranksets was cold forged in the usa (there was another version made by sugino in japan). No idea how true this is, however.

    March 4, 2015 at 7:53 am
  • BH

    I hope you use discretion in what you quote from Krugman.
    Also, “… Unfortunately, we have been allowing…”. The consumer has made her choice. It is very fortunate we can still do that.

    March 4, 2015 at 8:25 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      If the consumer made a choice to eliminate most manufacturing in the U.S., it happened decades ago. Today’s consumers no longer have the choice to buy many locally-made products…

      March 4, 2015 at 8:45 am
  • Luis Bernhardt

    One of the things they teach you in MBA school is that there are only three value propositions: 1) Superior product; 2) Great customer service; 3) Lowest cost. You can do any two, but not all three because one of them is mutually exclusive with the other two. So Apple or Mercedes-Benz can do product, Nordstroms does customer service, and Walmart does low cost. With your business, I wouldn’t worry about low cost.
    Like most discerning North American cyclists, I also try to source products made in the US or in Europe, and I am willing to pay the premium for it. It’s sad that most corporations have offshored the North American economy to Asia to satisfy investors and to make CEO’s extremely wealthy. But wherever possible, I have tried to go North American. My frame is constructed by R+E in Seattle, the headset (Cane Creek 110) is made in North Carolina (I think), the summer fork (ENVE) and winter disc fork (Wound Up) are made in Utah (as far as I know), the power meter cranks (power2max and Rotor) are made in Germany and Spain. The rest of the components are Shimano or Campagnolo, and who knows where they’re made! And now I’m sure people will tell me that most of the above was actually forged (aluminum) or manufactured (carbon fiber) in Taiwan!

    March 4, 2015 at 8:49 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I don’t know about the other products you list, but your Rotor cranks are made in Taiwan. Our engineer has visited the factory that makes them. They do very good work. I also don’t think Cane Creek ever had much manufacturing capability in the U.S. After all, they started out as Dia-Compe’s U.S. sales office.

      March 4, 2015 at 9:24 am
      • Michael Schiller

        Cane Creeks high end headsets are cut in Cane Creek’s Fletcher, NC, machining facility from U.S.- made aluminum.

        March 5, 2015 at 3:23 pm
    • Paul Knopp

      I had an economics professor stress to us that the only lasting value of any given product is the amount of skilled human labor involved in its creation.
      For example:
      Nikon F2 35mm camera vs. Nikon plastic digital camera
      1965 Bally Pinball Machine vs. 1979 Pac-Man
      1994 Mondonico EL-OS vs. 1994 Trek OCLV
      Mass-produced items tied to technology may help you book that appointment or find that restaurant or shave 600 grams off your bike’s weight, but please don’t consider them investments. They are toys.

      March 4, 2015 at 9:33 am
  • Matt Sallman

    The photo of the forge reminds me of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry frescoes that are one of the greatest art works ever to be created here in the Motor City. Together they show the changes that have happened to our industrial capacity in the US.

    March 4, 2015 at 9:04 am
  • Paul Knopp

    Just returned from Germany and their department stores are stuffed full of quality merchandise made in Germany. From high-end furniture to knives to stainless steel high-end cookware, shirts, bikes, writing instruments, architecture supplies, glassware…almost all of it domestic.
    Sure, it costs more, but not that much more. I think 59 Euros for a German knife that will last you 300 years isn’t out of bounds.
    They have preserved their industrial capacity, we didn’t bother.

    March 4, 2015 at 9:24 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Sure, it costs more, but not that much more.

      I remember reading that when Levi Strauss went from making their blue jeans domestically to Central America, their cost went down, but their prices stayed the same…

      March 4, 2015 at 9:25 am
      • Paul Knopp

        Ironically, Levi’s bought high-end thread from a reputable producer for over 100 years and then someone realized they could save six-figures by going to another supplier. It takes about an hour to re-thread an industrial sewing machine and while the quality thread almost never broke, the new thread would break two or three times a day costing millions in lost time. I love that story.

        March 4, 2015 at 9:36 am
      • Conrad

        Right. When K2 started manufacturing their skis in China instead of Vashon Island, I don’t recall their prices going down at all. I have not bought their skis since they made that move.

        March 4, 2015 at 3:11 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          That happened not too long ago. I used to translate K2’s bike catalogues for the German-speaking markets. Started when it was Girvin, then K2 bought Girvin. I visited the works when they were humming with ski and carbon bike production. Then, for years, it was an empty set of buildings… It made me sad every time I rode by.

          March 4, 2015 at 4:16 pm
    • David Feldman

      Yeah, but do German universities have as many MBA or marketing programs?

      March 4, 2015 at 9:53 am
    • marmotte27

      But Germany is almost unique in that respect, and God were they criticized for it in the nineties and noughties. French, British, American manufacturing all went out of the window, and that’s still going on today.

      March 4, 2015 at 11:28 am
  • Jon

    Jan, I really appreciate the transparency you provide about how your products are made and the decisions you and your designers and engineers make. I also love reading about the history of objects and the “whys” of design and changes. As a (fake) example, historians or collectors will say, “In 1955 Zeiss changed the formulation of their Tessar lens and it is regarded as a better lens than earlier Tessars.” I always want to know why Zeiss made the change and what glass types they used and changed. I seem to be in the minority with that interest as most literature you find has to do with collecting and brand cache without the authors providing technical substance to back it up. So for me, reading about your design and manufacturing decisions is very interesting. And as if you cannot tell already, I used to be an engineer and even though I found the work dull I clearly still have a strong interest in technical things! Thank you.

    March 4, 2015 at 9:56 am
  • PedroMJ

    Nowadays, the place (country) a product has been manufactured is not relevant at all. The most relevant aspect is the quality of the product, assessing both its function and form (aesthetics). A product can be sourced from China, which apparently has lower quality, but if you apply it a strict QA protocol to be sure that it is compliant with the design and expected function/form, the product is totally valid and will have the quality desired by the designer.
    For example, in the electronics market it is typical for a vendor to request thousands of products from China and then classify them according to its quality. Then you have high, medium, and low quality. Some vendors apply different price tags to those classes but others just discard the products that do not meet their quality standards.
    That said, in this globalized world, I think that it is better to establish quality standards and enforce manufacturers to apply for them. For example, using again the electronics market as reference, the hard drives are tested thoroughly and the results are applied in their quality card. Then, when you go to buy a hard drive you can check that card and choose the one that fits better for you. I hope the same to be done in the bicycle industry so you can know the quality of the product you are purchasing, independently of where it has been manufactured.

    March 4, 2015 at 11:21 am
    • marmotte27

      That’s a valid point only if you completely leave out any environmental and social aspects. Discarding defective or sub-standard products, just becauuse it would be too expensive to ship them back to China, what an enormous waste. And with production relocated, i.e. sold off to China, we’ve not only lost an enormous amount of jobs, we also lost an enormous amount of know how. That could and certainly will be detrimental to us in the future.

      March 4, 2015 at 11:51 pm
      • PedroMJ

        I totally agree with you in the implications to the environment and society. However, that is a reality today, not the future. Several jobs have already disappeared due to outsourcing and the environmental problems are not addressed at all. It is really our responsibility as consumers to defend local industry in our respective countries. But it is difficult to do so because, as it is widely known, many vendors use the “Made in XX” label in a product while it has been mostly manufactured in other country (mainly China) and just the design or the final touch of the product has been performed in “XX”.
        The only response we have is to support trusted vendors we totally know that enhance local industry or make them all to enforce high quality that can be verifiable (the cards I mention) so they figure out by themselves that their benefit is not so high when they have to discard so many products. Also, we need to trust in the products we buy. For example, nobody wants to ride a frame that can break at any moment (imagine it breaking during a fast descent) but we do not usually get any scientific/technical evidence about the quality of our frames, just the reputation of their vendors.
        In some industries the quality requirement of their products have made some German factories to return from China to Germany. It has been surprising but it is a reality: if customers require high quality products, they are no longer cheap to manufacture and can be done in more expensive countries (Germany, France, US, etc.).
        About the discarding of products, it is usually done in their origin (e.g. China) and yes, it is a waste, but it determines the efficiency or effectiveness of a company. For instance, industry standards in Germany usually stress efficiency, so they do not tolerate higher degree of discarding than maybe 1-3%. That is the effect of requiring quality and that is more expensive, so sometimes outsourcing becomes less profitable and finally local economy is enhanced.
        In summary, requesting demonstrable high quality products will make the products better and their production will be less cheap, so their manufacture process has more chances to return “home” and boost local industry.

        March 5, 2015 at 7:47 am
      • kurtsperry

        This indeed strikes me as an astonishingly narrow and blinkered perspective. From this viewpoint a product made by workers with labor, safety and collective bargaining rights, fair wages and environmental protections in place would be considered exactly equivalent to a product produced by a sweatshop using prison labor or teenage girls forced into servitude at starvation wages and locked inside a “suicide netted” sweatshop production facility with no safety, environmental or labor protections. Such a false equivalency is to me shockingly amoral, and represents a callous viewpoint that inevitably and unnecessarily leads to race to the bottom with real abuse and misery of human beings.

        March 5, 2015 at 8:46 am
  • David Voeller

    Since you’re based in Seattle, presumably you’ve already looked at small aerospace manufacturers? There are quite a few forging shops in the US making aircraft (and engine) parts in similar shapes and alloys to your crank arms, at relatively low volumes. Are they not interested in the bicycle part business perhaps because dollar volumes are low, or their aerospace infrastructure makes them just too expensive?

    March 4, 2015 at 11:59 am
  • Jim

    You make a very good point about capability clusters. I grew up in a city of 40,000 in southern Ontario in the 50s and 60s. There was a brass/bronze/iron foundry, 2 large forge plants, 2 pipe mills, a refractory maker of crucibles, a textile plant, an industrial fabric and rope company, several plating shops, multiple machine shops, a UCAR abrasives plant, a pipeline tube maker and a specialized steel/titanium mill. All gone except for one forge plant and an ailing pipe mill. These clusters grow organically over decades and disappear as quickly as frost in the morning.

    March 4, 2015 at 12:08 pm
  • Charles Coffey

    Back in the 1960’s, when Schwinn’s were still made in Chicago, there was an American derailleur manufacturer and it was less than 100 miles away from Chicago – in Elgin, Illinois – the Elgin Company. But their dérailleurs were department store quality, not “Schwinn quality”. The Elgin derailleurs could be found on Montgomery Ward type bikes, maybe Sears.

    March 4, 2015 at 12:55 pm
  • Olivier V

    Hi Jan, do you know the ref of the AS plater/chromeur ?

    March 4, 2015 at 1:22 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You’ll have to ask Cycles Alex Singer.

      March 4, 2015 at 4:14 pm
      • Olivier

        If artisans don’t get free publicity, I wonder how they will survive nowadays. This seems to be also the sense of your article.

        March 5, 2015 at 12:41 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          The simple answer is that I don’t know who Alex Singer’s chrome plater is. Beyond that, a company’s suppliers are part of their trade secrets. As a journalist, I have established a relationship with many people and companies, and I have been lucky that they have trusted me with much proprietary information, which helps me gain a better understanding of the bicycle world past and present. It is important for me to maintain these relationships, so I always check before I publish anything that could be considered proprietary.

          March 5, 2015 at 7:24 am
  • Peter

    Great discussion. Businesses move as a matter of course. Velocity moved from Australia to the United States in recent years. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from German Mittelstadt manufacturing culture – to be the best at what you do globally, aligned with prudent management. The belief is that growth comes from these elements, rather as an end in itself. Germany has 300+ years of embedded engineering culture so to replicate this in other countries would be challenging.

    March 4, 2015 at 3:45 pm
    • ORiordan

      A lot of German Mittelstand companies are family-run, and while family-run businesses aren’t immune from an idiot son ruining things, they tend to take a much longer perspective than the stock market.
      I find the clustering of businesses in Germany is amazing as well, as you find medium sized towns dominated by, say, medical instrument manufacturers, or some other niche.

      March 4, 2015 at 9:49 pm
  • Spiny Norman (@threadtangler)

    Interesting. Both Grivel and DMM, manufacturers of climbing equipment, run their own forges. (Grivel runs theirs with solar power!).
    It’s hugely surprising that if two relatively small manufacturers of climbing gear can do it, more bike companies can’t.

    March 4, 2015 at 4:07 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I am surprised that any small company can (or would want to) run a forge. To amortize that type of equipment, you need to run it all the time. And even forging 10,000 bicycle cranksets takes only a day or two. What do you with the forging hammer the rest of the time?
      In the end, it’s often best to farm out specialized tasks to specialist companies. A company that does nothing but forging is going to be very good at it.

      March 4, 2015 at 4:17 pm
      • jimmythefly

        Completely agree. I work for a company that sources our manufacturing in the USA. It makes no sense for us to own the laser cutters, CNC tubing benders, etc. To own that equipment you’ve gotta run it constantly, if it’s not making you money it’s costing you just having it sit there. It makes way more sense for us to partner with, say, a tubing specialist. They know their machines of course, but are also great at helping us tweak our designs. And they also employ very skilled welders who do the work day-in and day-out. For our runs of only several hundred parts at a time this is the way to go.
        it’s also great to just pick up the phone (same timezone and language) or drive over and see the process in person if any issues come up.

        March 5, 2015 at 12:13 pm
  • BH

    “… to satisfy investors and to make CEO’s extremely wealthy.” And other comments about reducing costs and not reducing prices.
    Everyone who has a pension, 401(k), or IRA benefited from this behavior. That includes a LOT of people. Probably most of the readers here!

    March 5, 2015 at 6:46 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We are getting a bit off-topic, but it is a sad fact that pension funds are among the most ardent drivers of cost-cutting, since they need to maximize returns for their investors.

      March 5, 2015 at 7:25 am
      • BH

        ‘Their investors’ are you and me! And millions of retirees. And more and more each day. A nice retirement plan is a wonderful, glorious fact, not ‘sad’.

        March 6, 2015 at 4:04 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I agree that nobody should have to worry about their retirement. Those who have a retirement plan are lucky, and yet – I would be nice to have a system where the interests of California schoolteachers weren’t pitted against those of Ohio steelworkers – see this article in the NY Times how an investment firm that manages $ 6 billion on behalf of retirement funds split the venerable Timken steel and bearing company in two. (Timken was one of the pioneers of tapered roller bearings, which were used in the bottom brackets of early René Herse tandems.) The result: cost cutting and layoffs. It’s another version of the “Race to the Bottom”, or perhaps better “Divide and Conquer”. The steelworkers may have voted for lower taxes, which hurt the schoolteachers…
          I don’t know what the solution is, but the current system seems to have some problems.

          March 6, 2015 at 5:22 am
    • Stillman

      When I sold boat supplies that’s the answer I would give when someone asked me why “everything” was made in China. (Except the french-made rigging hardwear, which cost 4x the Chinese.)

      March 7, 2015 at 4:33 pm
  • Matthew Prana

    Many companies forge here. To say we don’t have the technology or infrastructure to forge crank sets is asinine. This country can make aircraft parts, I know we can make low tech cranks. Plenty of shops will do short runs. Very easy with cnc screw machines. With the magic of “interchangeable parts” (perfected in the 1800s) all the component factories don’t need to be next each other to do quality control. You didn’t find out because you didn’t look, made assumptions, listened to the rest of the sheep rationalizing destroying this country, yes, for more profit. The way this rationalization is written you clearly think your customers are sheep too. I guess they must be to pay 500 bucks for mediocre cranks and not call you on your bullshit.

    March 5, 2015 at 6:49 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      To say we don’t have the technology or infrastructure to forge crank sets is asinine.

      We all share your ideal of making things locallly, but in practice, it’s not that simple. Aircraft companies are good at making aircraft parts. When we ask them about bicycle parts, it becomes apparent that it would be a big learning process for both sides. If you’ve never made a square taper before… When they hear the numbers we need, they usually tell us to go elsewhere, since it’s not worth it for them to learn how to make bike components. There simply isn’t a cluster of bike component manufacturers in the U.S., and we are too small to create one. The reality is that we are so small that companies work with us mostly because they like what we do, not because we are a big revenue generator.
      As far as cost cutting, if we were after the lowest price, we would use an agent in Taiwan who represents many clients. Most companies do that. The agent passes on the production to the lowest bidder – usually a shop in China with a front office in Taiwan, so it doesn’t say “Made in China”. Instead, we hired our own engineer, who works full-time for us. As a result, I am confident to say that our cranks match or exceed the quality of any bicycle crank out there, bar none.
      The way we do it, I don’t think manufacturing in Taiwan is any cheaper than manufacturing in the U.S. would be. And many products we sell are made in Europe, where workers earn more and have better benefits than Americans. If we were after cost-cutting, we’d sell cheap-labor knock-offs instead of Berthoud bags, for example.

      March 5, 2015 at 7:36 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Instead of tilting at windmills and trying to forge uneconomically small production runs of cranks in the U.S., we focus on making here what still can be made here. For example, Bicycle Quarterly is printed right here in Seattle. We get solicitations from print agents all the time, who promise to cut our costs by farming out printing to Malaysia or China. We decline, since printing is one thing that still is happening in the U.S., and we want to support our local economy.

      March 5, 2015 at 7:58 am
    • Matthew J

      Modern aviation manufacturers filling bicycle parts orders seems a red herring.
      Commercial airplanes cost tens of millions of dollars. Military planes far more. U.S. airplane manufacturers are very busy. Boeing back orders extend well into the next decade. Again, Military orders are even further in arrears.
      Seems quite a reach to assume a company making its bread and butter with aviation would be willing to make time to produce a few bicycle parts. if you disagree, perhaps you can provide examples of such companies.
      While you are at it, I would also be interested in seeing support Compass cranks are mediocre. All reviews I’ve seen are highly positive.

      March 5, 2015 at 9:31 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        I don’t like to disallow or edit comments, but please let’s keep it civil. I am glad different opinions are aired here, and I don’t want to discourage those expressing dissent.

        March 5, 2015 at 10:00 am
      • Michael Schiller

        I spent 30 years working with foundry’s and machine shops getting parts made in the US for rocket engines. There are some companies who will do short runs ( we commonly had runs of less than 25) but often we had to plead with them to take our business. We had the advantage of using our product ( Space Shuttle Engines) as a factor to convince them it was good product placement for their business. So, I know it can be done and which companies who can do that kind of work, but it would definitely require much more process development time and specialized tooling and ultimately a higher price tag.
        So if I found the right process expertise and equipment with companies in Taiwan I would, begrudgingly, choose that path for bicycle components as well.

        March 5, 2015 at 3:51 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          It also doesn’t make sense to plead with companies to make our parts if they cannot make money on it. It would only hasten the decline of U.S. manufacturing if we ask them to take us on as a charity case. For a company that already makes bicycle parts, a small production run is profitable, but for one that has never done it before, the first few jobs they’ll lose money as they figure out what matters in bicycle parts…

          March 5, 2015 at 4:12 pm
  • DDpassionvelo

    I would suggest that a majority of your readers does not have an industrial or engineeering background . What probably matters to most is the performance/ value equation of what goes on their bikes . I would suggest running stories in BQ or in your blog about the various production processes of components , discussing metallurgy , processes , pros and cons of chosen technologies would result in more knowledgable readers/ cyclists , thus better equipped to evaluate and decide on purchases as well as on reading all the impassionated comments your blog seems to provoke ….

    March 5, 2015 at 3:31 pm
  • Michael

    Speaking of non-USA manufacturing and cycling goods… Will Compass products’ availability and pricing be affected by the recent west coast’s 29-port strife backlog and the resulting months long shipping delays that are predicted to happen possibly soon? I am refining my upcoming purchase list and want to make sure I get in under the wire. Any assurances/warning would be helpful and most appreciated.

    March 5, 2015 at 9:35 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We always try to keep all our products in stock. So far, we haven’t been affected by the shipping delays, and it appears that the contract between the port workers and the ports has been resolved, so things should return to normal.

      March 6, 2015 at 5:13 am
  • Tom Howard

    I really enjoyed Jan’s recent article profiling the local fellow who polishes the Herse cranks. It’s a good example of value being added in the U.S. as part of the manufacturing process, although a label proclaiming “Polished in the USA” might not resonate with buyers. I’m not sure how widespread the trend is, but many companies have opted to “onshore” manufacturing back to the U.S. because of low quality, poor service, etc. Years ago, while shopping for a new bike, I opted for the Trek over the Specialized mainly because of that “Made in USA” sticker on the frame, although the two models were quite comparable. It’s encouraging to see so many US-based frame builders that have sprung up in recent years. I hope the trend continues.

    March 6, 2015 at 6:03 am
  • GuitarSlinger

    An excellent article that goes a long way towards explaining why genuine ‘ Made in America ‘ is becoming so difficult , verging on the impossible to find *
    Also … a HUGE two thumbs up for not labeling ‘ assembled ‘ in the US products as ‘ Made in America ‘ like a certain Detroit bicycle/watch ‘ assembler ‘ as well as the overwhelming majority [ all in fact ] of US M/C and automotive manufactures have been doing for years
    You’re chosen path of full discloser honesty versus the obscurity the law allows on the products under your company’s logo is to say the least .. damn refreshing
    Thank you ! For at least partially restoring a little bit of my faith in mankind !
    * Here’s a challenge for your readers to show how difficult finding 100% ‘ Made in America ‘ is . Try to create one complete [ casual mind you ] outfit of clothing to include ; pants [ jeans are fine ] – shirt – undergarments – socks and shoes … all genuinely 100% [ including zippers – buttons – shoelaces etc ] MADE ….. e.g. manufactured [ not assembled ] in the US . Calling this a challenge is in fact an understatement . More like the quest for the Holy Grail .. because .. it cannot be done

    March 6, 2015 at 11:26 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Manufacturing has been global for centuries. Cotton used to come from India. French bikes were made with British Reynolds tubes. So were Schwinn Paramounts. René Herse bikes used U.S.-made Timken and Swedish-made SKF bearings in their bottom brackets. Most French riders used Brooks saddles, even though French Idéales were available. The rubber for tires came from Africa or India…
      I feel that rather than try to be parochial, we should strive to improve working and environmental conditions for everybody on the planet. Then countries compete on expertise, not on price. Every country makes what they are best at making. And for things that are heavy and require many resources for shipping, locally-made will be most appropriate and least expensive. For things that are either light or rarely used, shipping around the world isn’t that big a deal.

      March 6, 2015 at 12:01 pm
      • Jon


        March 6, 2015 at 1:07 pm
    • Jason Marshall (@jmarshall312)

      Interesting you mention Shinola. The Chicago Tribune just ran an article on this matter today:
      ‘The details of its story have caused some backlash — namely, that most of its products are not actually made in Detroit but assembled there using parts mostly made in America and some from Asia. And that the idea for the luxury brand, out of reach for many in the poverty-stricken city, was the brainchild of a Texas entrepreneur who partnered with a Swiss provider of watch parts for the quartz movements.’

      March 7, 2015 at 9:21 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        I’d cut Shinola some slack. They are trying to make things in the U.S., savvy marketing or not. For example, the frames for some of their bikes are made by Waterford. Of course, that puts them in a higher price bracket. The reality is that the U.S. no longer is a place to make bread-and-butter stuff that is sold at Walmart.
        My concern with Shinola is a little different: Shinola is based on the idea of where to make things, not how to make them well. So they offer watches, bikes, notebooks and many other products, without being experts at any of them. I’d rather buy my watch from a watch company, my bike from a bike maker, and so on.

        March 7, 2015 at 9:34 am
      • Jason Marshall (@jmarshall312)

        If they were to offer a mechanical MUSA watch – that might pique my interest.

        March 7, 2015 at 12:10 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          They could send a few dozen unemployed auto workers to Switzerland as apprentices, where they could learn how to make watches. That could be a fun project. First the apprentices would need to learn German, of course…

          March 7, 2015 at 12:45 pm
  • Eddie B

    My crankset was made in California last September…..by Lightning. Alas, the Chinese will eventually take that technology, too. Capital follows cheap labor.

    March 6, 2015 at 7:47 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Carbon fiber is a technology that can be done locally on a small scale. In Seattle, the Mad Fiber wheels were made in an old bakery. The ovens were perfect for curing the carbon. The molds for the wheels were custom-made in Taiwan, though.

      March 7, 2015 at 6:31 am
  • wheels+me

    I have found this conversation very interesting. I have often wondered about the lack of cold-forged U.S. bike parts. As you discussed elsewhere regarding the new Compass brakes, without cold-forging, milled aluminum parts require more mass to retain strength, resulting in “chunkier” designs. Of course it would likely be impossible to replicate the aesthetics of the Herse cranks without forging (you are, after all, imitating a forged crank). Do you know if Sugino does there own in-house forging?
    There is one bicycle component that the U.S. seems to do very well: the hub. I was sort of disappointed to see that the Grand Bois hubs seem to use a ubiquitous and average Taiwanese design (with a few aesthetic tweaks) rather than a true Maxi-Car worthy design. You have described the process of creating the Herse crank as being quite thoughtful and rigorous. I would like to see this process applied consistently to all of the Compass products. Have you considered approaching one of the U.S. hub companies for your hubs?

    March 7, 2015 at 12:49 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We’d love to make a Compass hub some day. For the fronts, most of us use generator hubs, and the SON models really are great. Rear hubs are an interesting conundrum, because you try to fit large bearings underneath small cassette cogs. There are a number of designs that work well, but none quite have the elegance that would have me say: “That one is the perfect solution.” So we are toying with various ideas…
      Most of all, we are focusing our efforts on products that offer both superior function and superior aesthetics, not just one or the other. That means that hubs are not very high on our list of priorities, unless we do something that is radically different.

      March 7, 2015 at 12:59 pm
    • Conrad

      I’m curious what your benchmark is for a made-in-the- USA hub. A Chris King is pretty darn good. I think that the machining has to be done to amazingly tight tolerances to make things with cartridge bearings function at the highest level. A Chris King delivers in that respect. I have never liked cheap hubs or headsets that use cartridge bearings because they are either too loose or too sticky. I haven’t used the Compass hubs, or a Maxi Car for that matter. Shimano dura ace hubs are about as good as it gets for me- properly adjusted, they remain perfectly smooth after 10+ years of hard use. I guess my point is that maybe the US doesnt have anything on Japan or Taiwan for hubs…

      March 8, 2015 at 9:43 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        I agree that Chris King or high-end Shimano hubs perform fine. However, they all have the issue – perhaps more theoretical than practical – that the highest loads are fed into the middle of the axle, where it is furthest from its support at the dropouts. This puts bending loads on the axle, which isn’t very elegant from an engineering point of view.

        March 9, 2015 at 5:34 am
      • wheels+me

        Yep, Shimano (a Japanese company that currently has much of their production facilities in Malaysia) make some great hubs. So do the U.S. companies Phil Wood, White Industries, and Chris King. For the sake of this discussion, it’s probably best to ignore the various debates about cartridge vs. cup-and-cone bearings. I think it’s fair to say the above mentioned companies all make high-quality hubs. But, that is getting off topic.
        Turning away from domestic production because there is a lack of available expertise/technology/machinery may be relevant for the forging of square-tapered cranks (I defer to Jan’s experience.) But, this justification doesn’t hold up when it comes to hubs: cold forging isn’t necessary to make an attractive, high performance, and durable hub. As you mentioned, precise machining is required, and the above mentioned companies all have the ability to do it. Respectfully, the Grand Bois hubs seem like an afterthought, and sort of cheapen the brand. I am sure that Taiwan could make a super high quality hub if called upon, but if quality were your main requirement, then there would be no reason to look overseas.
        I think the modern cassette hub functions pretty well. But, I understand that marketing yet another variation would be redundant. I encourage rethinking/ improving the design!

        March 9, 2015 at 10:06 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          We were not involved in the design of the original Grand Bois hubs, which were in effect just standard Taiwanese cassette hubs with different aesthetics. Since then, we have suggested some improvement that have been incorporated into the design to increase the bearing life substantially.
          I agree that White Industries and Chris King make great hubs. I wouldn’t include Phil Wood on that list, though. While their finish is nice, the design lacks any real moisture protection for the bearings, so Phil Wood hubs don’t last long if you ride in the rain at all. The ability to replace them in the field at least has eliminated the need to send the hubs back to the factory every few years, but it’s still a sub-optimal solution.

          March 10, 2015 at 6:56 am
          • wheels+me

            As a mechanic, I haven’t observed any unique failure rates for Phil Wood hub bearings (small sample size, i admit.) The aesthetic of Phil hubs, with their visible, exposed seals, is part of brand’s heritage/ image. Perhaps it is to their detriment?
            I am not convinced that the added metal shields that are a part of other cartridge bearing hub designs are effective at water exclusion.They add another “shield” (at least visually) but it may also be a damn for water to sit and further contaminate the bearing.
            My understanding is that real hub sealing (contact/labyrinth) was developed or became common-place on bike hubs during the early years of mountain biking, when riding through streams etc. was imagined. But, how often is that relevant for most cyclists? How much water is a hub really exposed to in heavy rain? Is a Phil Wood hub more prone to water-inclusion failure than, say a Nuovo Record hub? Why? Neither is especially equipped for water. A possible future Bike Quarterly test?
            I am only aware of real labyrinth sealing on the better Shimano cup-n-cone MTB hubs. Has anyone included similar sealing on a cartridge bearing hub?
            The WTB Grease-Guard system is worth checking out.
            Your original posting was about regional manufacturing capabilities, not design. You stated that your decision to manufacture cranks in Taiwan was based on the lack of local resources for cold forging and machining the square taper. For the sake of conversation, would you then consider having hubs machined in the U.S.?

            March 10, 2015 at 11:15 pm
          • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

            Hubs are exposed to water in rain. I know people who have pushed on the seals of the Phil Wood hubs and seen drops of water come out. I don’t know of any early mountain bike hubs that had labyrinth seals, but the CAR (later Maxi-Car) hubs from the early 1930s had full labyrinth seals. As a result, they often roll smoothly for 50 years without overhaul.
            Regarding manufacturing, if we make hubs, we’d prefer to manufacture them in the U.S., if we can find a supplier nearby so that oversight does not require long-distance travel.

            March 11, 2015 at 5:46 am
  • Norris Lockley

    In the body of your article when referring to the clustering of cycle companies in certain locations such as St Etienne, in France, you put forward the names of several companies such as Automoto, Manufrance etc..and Stronglight.
    I wasn’t aware that this 100 year old company had bitten the dust, although I knew that it had faced financial problems over the decades.
    When did the company close?
    Norris Lockley UK

    March 11, 2015 at 3:31 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The name Stronglight still exists, but to my knowledge, they don’t have any manufacturing capabilities any longer. The last Stronglight cranks I saw were re-badged Suginos… I don’t know exactly when they ceased to manufacture their own products, but I recall it was in the 1990s.

      March 11, 2015 at 5:47 am

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