07 April 2016

Planemakers in China

It's a challenge to explain the workings of a foreign country to those who have never visited due to a tendency to extrapolate from one's experiences to fill in the gaps that lack specific details. I think it's common for those in industrialized countries to assume that the developments in manufacturing that have taken place recently in mainland China have been progressing in a similar fashion as they have occurred historically in other countries.
I've touched on this situation in previous postings so I want to go further into details here.

I recently unpacked a bench plane and found this on its sole.

More than defective
I can offer an explanation as to what this says about the many underlying features of Chinese business practices. I've mentioned before that many bench planes and woodworking handtools are being manufactured by this company in Zhejing province. This one manufacturer produces under contract Wood River for the US market, Luban for Australia, Quansheng for the UK, Juuma in Germany. Other national markets might also have their own brands associated with woodworking tools made by this same company. Occasionally these brands do appear on the Chinese market. Sometimes in noteworthy permutations.
a German-American alliance #4 1/2
Yet more often the planes that are available are sold without any brand association, neither on the plane itself nor on the packaging. They arrive in a hermetically sealed bag with packing grease, laid into a pasteboard box. They look like this.
Generic Jack plane
The only identifying mark is the lonely No 5 in the casting. There are a few possible ways that these bench planes enter the Chinese market. The first one that comes to mind is that these are overruns. At the beginning of every production run, a manufacturing must predetermine a defect rate and then add that to the number of the order. For example, a buyer contracts for 5,000 No5 bench planes fabricated with his exclusive brand. The manufacturer, in turn, determines a predictable number of mishaps and so begins the production process with 5,200. Along the production process, castings are found with pitting, machine tool operators introduce wrong finished dimensions, blemishes arise due to mishandling, etc. This initial overproduction insures that at the end of the run, a buyer will receive the 5,000 that are acceptable to his quality standards.
If the manufacturer is lucky, out of the extra 200 a fair number might also meet the buyer's quality standards, but he is under no obligation to purchase any more than the contract stipulates. A manufacturer then must decide what to do with these 200. Some might not be salvageable and are melted down as scrap. A few might be as pristine as those exported, which might be set aside in anticipation of subsequent orders.  Others might be marginally defective, merely suffering cosmetic flaws. In some industries, these are openly sold as seconds and are openly labelled as such. (It was once my dream to obtain a complete set of my own Bridge City blem layout tools.) Manufacturers have to balance the benefits of the additional sales (in the short term) with the downside of any potential brand devaluation (over the long term).
Another possibility is that these cast iron planes start at foundries to fill the time between more profitable exportable goods.  Sandcasting patterns can be readily modified to block out the identifying marks that are created in the cast items. As long as machineshops are willing to buy the rough castings, the foundries have every incentive to keep production from dropping below a base level.
They also might be assembled from stolen parts. Leslie Chang in her book, Factory Girls, writes about gangs working in shoe factories who pilfer shoe parts that are then sold to sweatshops where there are assembled into completed shoes that for all intents and purposes are identical to those made under contract inside a factory. Which is to say that not all the goods on the Chinese market leave the factories by passing through the front doors.
No woodworker wants to open the box of a new bench plane and discover pitting on the sole from a defective casting. This is not a cosmetic flaw on a minor part but on a machine finished surface, which will adversely affect its usability and add to the maintenance challenges for this tool.  The decision to sell this tool was based on the short term benefits of easy money. There is no brand at all to protect in this situation. And given the immaturity of the domestic Chinese market, it's doubtful whether many end users might even recognize the flaw as a problem. The price is low so why would a novice woodworker complain?
Building a brand is a long term venture. It's undeniable that Qiansheng Tools Co., Ltd. understands the inherent value in branding. They have been entrusted with documentation of the quality standards that international brands want for their own product lines. They fully understand that branded goods can command higher prices and that there is a growing domestic demand for these tools. What then becomes so baffling is why such a manufacturer with all the information necessary to move in this direction doesn't bother to develop its own brand targeted specifically to the mainland Chinese consumer. The impulse for fast money even in capital and technology intensive industries like steel and machine tools trumps the long term advantages. Even I, born into the lower class, aspire to create a product that can be identified with me and yet this is not at all common in China. I cannot readily explain this gap but it is pervasive here in China.
There is another aspect of this marketplace dynamic that is of more relevance to those corporations with established brands that relocate their manufacturing to China. They have made their own short term / long term cost benefit analysis yet I wonder whether they fully understand the Faustian bargain that they have entered into. There is a growing middle class in China that is eager to engage in woodworking as a hobby. In most instances, this is their first hobby and they are struggling to learn about all aspects of the craft and the tools associated with it. First impressions, therefore, can have a long lasting effect. This is an example of a Stanley brand bench plane that a woodworking hobbyist purchased online.
That cannot be ground out

More than cracked

I read that she was told by the sender that this was damaged in shipping. Anybody familiar with iron bench planes knows that this is BS. This plane was clearly a defective overrun that was rejected for export but the Chinese manufacturer wanted to make some quick money by pawning it off onto an unwitting Chinese consumer. On a cynical level, I can hardly blame any Chinese company for doing so. If a sale goes through, it's a sweet bonus on top of the expected profits from the base production run. If the sale goes sour, it only damages the Stanley brand reputation in the domestic Chinese market.  Somewhere there is an executive in New Britain, CT who is patting himself on the back for his selfdescribed brilliant idea to get quickly back into the woodworking handtool business now that it has been undergoing a renaissance. After having abandoned it piecemeal after WWII,  IMO, Stanley Toolworks completely gave up on designing and producing high quality handtools when the company chose to introduce the Surform with its disposable blades and marketed it as an improvement to modern benchplanes.  I recall watching a promotional video at a hardware store / lumber yard, which played on a loop and starring Don Knotts that extolled the superiority of Surform and devalued their own benchplanes as too difficult to adjust and to use competently.

I don't know whether Qiansheng also manufactures the new Stanley bench planes nor even how many manufacturers are involved. It's quite possible that there are a number foundries at any time using Stanley patterns and supplying Qiansheng and other companies contracted by Stanley, which also sell unfinished castings to any number of untraceable machineshops that then produce finished semblances of benchplanes.  Without any markings and certainly no apparent interest in associating these products with a traceable brand name, speculation is as good as any facts.

I started thinking about this type of economic disconnect while listening to a Looking Sideways podcast.  A British entrepreneur, Chris Thorpe, involved in creating steam locomotive models offers a compelling critique of offshoring manufacturing. Comparing early industrialization to present day software designing, he relates that Victorian manufacturers were easily able to continuously update and modify their locomotives based on feedback from customers.
“If you look at lots of these steam engines, you can see almost the evidence of physical pull requests. They’d make a change in the field, and then they’d go back to the factory and the people who were doing the large overhauls would look at them and go, ‘ah, that’s really clever, we should do that’, and then they’d incorporate that in the design going forward. (citation)
It's a very densely packed discussion with many points to inspire further discussion. The most relevant comment though is how the separation of manufacturing from consumers hinders development as feedback never reaches the manufacturers who can only thrive in the long term by keeping ahead of their competition. This succinctly describes the situation in China. Manufacturers separated by layers of contracts and supply chains which also have no motivation to relate to the local market, who due to historical circumstances, are unable to offer any feedback to Chinese industry.
We see co-creation and open innovation as being enabled by the digital world, but actually I think it’s more enabled by having a connection between consumers and manufacturers — the actual people who make the things.
Stanley Toolworks forsook its core business long ago and then outsourced large elements of its domestic manufacturing. New Britain, Connecticut is synonymous in infamy with Sheffield, England. The appearance of the Stanley name on bench planes is an illusion that they are back in the business of manufacturing handtools. It's yet another example of squeezing the last pennies out of a well known brand name while diminishing its value. They are not back in the business of manufacturing woodworking tools; they are simply pimping out their devalued brand name.
There are many new manufacturers in North America that are satisfying the new market demand for high quality handtools. They are able to do this, as Thorpe rightly explains, by being close to the end users. They are, additionally and without exception, woodworking enthusiasts themselves and thus, fully cognizant of the needs of end users. There is a very stark contrast with this revitalized marketplace dynamic and the situation in China with manufacturers unwilling to interact purposefully with Chinese consumers and often ignorant of what their products are for or how to use them.


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