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Made in Italy: Miche insider

James Spender
18 Jul 2016

In a mega-factory world where contract work is king, few brands can claim to make their own products. But Miche is different.

It’s a little known fact, but according to article 24 of the European Customs Code, ‘goods whose production involved more than one country shall be deemed to originate in the country where they underwent their last substantial, economically justified processing or working’. In other words, labels like ‘Made in Italy’ don’t always mean what you might think.

Take a shoe. The sole could have come from Thailand and the leather upper from Mexico, but if they’ve been stitched together in a workshop in Florence, technically it has been ‘made’ in Italy. Or in the case of a bike, maybe that frame was made in Taiwan and those components came from Japan, but so long as it’s been painted and assembled within the borders of Europe’s most shapely leg, that bicycle can legitimately call itself Italian.

It’s a point not lost on Luigi Michelin, third-generation family heir to the Miche (pronounced mee-kay) throne. ‘Many Italian brands that existed 25 years ago, companies that actually made things here from scratch, are no longer with us or they now do things abroad,’ Michelin says.

‘We have a trade organisation here called CNA – La Confederazione Nazionale dell’Artigianato – which basically translates as “the National Confederation of Craftsmen”. It seeks to promote and protect a network of Italian manufacturers and small businesses. We’re partners in it and so is Campagnolo, and that’s because we make things here in Italy as we’ve always done – my father before me and his father before him. It’s a rare thing these days and we’re very proud of it.’

Judging by the size of the facility we’ve just walked into, Miche is doing rather well and is clearly holding its own against competitors that have looked beyond Europe in search of cheaper labour and lower material costs. The cavernous factory is filled with all manner of machines busily whirring, chonking and tinkling thousands upon thousands of bicycle components into existence, from hubs and brake callipers to chainsets and wheels – and just about everything in between. The automated nature of industrial operations often lends a soulless sobriety to proceedings, but there’s an air of Wonka-ish creativity to Miche’s facility. 

By any other name

‘We make pretty much everything ourselves,’ says Miche’s marketing manager, Manuel Calesso, beaming. ‘Admittedly we get our carbon cranksets made for us by a local business, and we import the carbon rims for our top-end wheels, but even then the cranksets are hand-finished by us, with chainrings we have made, and the rims are drilled and laced by us to our hubs with spokes we’ve customised.’ As if on cue, a giant machine behind Calesso clunks its metal plates together and spits out an aero spoke.

‘We get these spokes from Sapim and customise them to suit our wheels – here we are making them bladed. But even before that we test every batch using machines we have made entirely in-house. Every now and again we get ones that don’t live up our expectations and we reject them. Once we did this and Sapim said, “This can’t be!” and they flew down here to see the batch. We showed them our testing methods and they realised our methods were superior.’

Quality control, it seems, is paramount. Calesso says Miche’s philosophy is, ‘Once we have sold a part we never want to see it again,’ and claims the company gets less than a tenth of a percent of returns under warranty. However, such impressive statistics weren’t achieved overnight. Miche has been honing its craft for nearly a century.

‘My grandfather, Ferdinando Michelin, started the company in 1919, just down the road from where we are now in San Vendemiano,’ says Michelin, speaking of the factory’s location in the heart of the Veneto region. ‘The original business made bicycles and at one time mopeds under the name Ciclopiave – Piave is a famous river near here on whose banks the Italian soldiers repelled the last Austrian attacks in the First World War.

‘We first started making components and accessories in 1935, then in 1963 my grandfather decided to split the business, giving one half to each of his sons. He thought it was only fair that they both had the same opportunity to do well in life. My father, Italo, took the components, and his brother, Tideo, was given the bicycles and made them under the name Stella Veneta.

However the family business was soon to run into a spot of bother. ‘We were known as Fac Michelin, in other words “Factory of Michelin”, but when we started stamping that on our components Michelin in France – the tyre company – got in contact and said they were not so happy about the name. 

‘It’s funny to think about it now, as it would never happen that way today, but instead of involving lawyers we drew up a gentlemen’s agreement with Michelin whereby we could brand our products “Miche” so long as we promised to never make tyres. I still have the letter Michelin sent from France confirming the deal.’

After the death of Tideo Michelin the bicycle arm was sold on and latterly closed, but the component side went from strength to strength. Before long Miche was not only making its own products but was also doing contract work on behalf of Campagnolo, Gipiemme, Pinarello, Peugeot and Raleigh, among others. 

‘There were certain things we had invented that other companies wanted in their ranges,’ Michelin continues. 

‘I won’t say what components they were, as although it was a long time ago we agreed non-disclosure agreements and I want to respect that. I still get together with Valentino Campagnolo to share our problems and offer each other solutions. In fact together we were instrumental in promoting and defining ISO standards [International Organisation for Standardisation] for the industry.’

While that last bit might not sound quite as romantic as the notion of Michelin and Campagnolo discussing bottom brackets over a glass of Chianti, it’s nevertheless thanks in part to Miche that your bearings fit in your hubs and your wheels fit in your frame.

Quality for quantity

While Miche has done its best to keep things Italian, in doing so it has still had to adapt to an Asian-dominated market of mass manufacture, a story played out on its factory floor. 

On one side things are somewhat Heath Robinson. A basement room houses a beguiling array of testing machines, jerry-rigged together like a sixth-former’s science project. In one Perspex box a crank arm is repeatedly loaded with 180kg of force in a way that simulates the stresses of pedalling a bike. Calesso explains it will remain on the rig 24 hours a day, every day, until it eventually fails.

‘It won’t fail for four or five days, by which time it will have completed around 300,000 cycles,’ Michelin says. ‘Plus of course 180kg is much more than a crankset experiences in real life.’

In another box a single spoke is undergoing similar treatment, so too a chain, which is being run under a 700-watt load. ‘Again this is much more force than goes through a chain, but we have to do it this way, otherwise we’d be watching it for six months.’

In the corner is a large mesh cage that looks like it could have come from the set of Aliens, and piled next to it is a broken mess of wheels from a host of other manufacturers. The machine is on wheel strength test duty, where a 100kg load is fired at an unfortunate wheel at 10kmh from point blank range to simulate the impact of a crash.

‘This was built to replicate the UCI’s testing standards,’ says Calesso. ‘We have to submit four wheel samples to the UCI, plus €4,000, for each new product we develop. So if you have 20 wheels in your range it starts to get expensive. Doing the test ourselves first means we can ensure the wheel will pass the UCI’s tests before we have to pay them. The test criteria have changed this year, but we will continue to use the machine as we think it’s a safe standard to reach. As you can see we also use it to check the competition’s wheels. Sometimes we can’t believe what is allowed onto the UCI list!’

While this basement room is clearly where components come to die – ‘We call this part the cemetery,’ Calesso says with a chortle – the factory floor is where components are brought to life. For the most part the machines are set up and left to get on with things, untouched by human hands until it’s time to feed in another roll of steel ‘bar stock’ to be extruded and stamped into sprockets, or load up another four metre tube to be chopped and machined into seat collars.

‘Back in the old days you would have come into the factory and seen lots of people,’ says Michelin somewhat ruefully. ‘But when the first computer-controlled CNC machines arrived on the market 25 years ago we identified them as being crucial to our survival, and of course they take the place of the human-controlled lathes.’ 

Still, the human touch hasn’t completely vanished, and neither has the ingenuity behind Miche’s machines. Almost on a pedestal all of its own is a contraption that wouldn’t look out of place in a cartoon drawing of a factory. Standing in the middle of the machine, like a greasy Jean-Michel Jarre inside his keyboard stacks, a technician is busy topping up half a dozen hoppers full of bearings, axles, cups and cones, which then rumble their way down vibrating tubes into the bowels of the machine, only to pop out seconds later as fully formed hubs. 

The technician whirls around, grabs the hubs and stuffs them into yet another hatch on the machine. This time they roll uniformly down a slide where they’re met by a series of automated spanners and pistons that spin, tighten and rotate the hub cones and locknuts, precisely preloading the bearings ready for packing.

‘Before there would be seven or eight people on a production line making hundreds of thousands of hubs a year,’ says Michelin. ‘Now it takes just one or two people running such a machine to make a million hubs. Maybe those old days were better. The ambience in the factory was different back then – there was a bit less stress. Yet if we hadn’t made the move to become more automated, we wouldn’t be here today. These machines allow us to compete with Asia in volume and quality. But you can’t have a conversation with a machine.’

Robot guards

As we work our way from one production line to the next, from chainrings to wheels to freehubs to cranksets, it becomes increasingly obvious that Miche’s future is in the hands of robots – quite literally. But even then there’s a fondness for the way the work is carried out.

‘Look, this one is great. It’s so funny how it opens the little shelves to get the blanks out to CNC,’ says Calesso, presiding over a robotic arm in a cage like a gleeful punter at the zoo. The ‘blanks’ are pieces of aluminium plate that have been loosely cut into chainring shapes before being loaded by a technician into the robot’s chest of drawers. From there the robot selects the shelf its program dictates, retrieves the blank then sets about machining it into a finished chainring. It’s a truly mesmerising sight, but it’s nothing compared to where we wind up our tour. 

At either end of the factory are what look like towers of enormous white filing cabinets and, in a way, that’s exactly what they are. Only instead of the being full of documents, each drawer is stuffed with row upon row of neatly filed components. 

‘We can’t extend the factory out any more, so instead we have extended up using these automatic stocking machines,’ says Calesso. ‘You can only see the bottom, but the stack goes up 12 metres through the factory roof. When we need something we can dial it up on the computer and the machine selects the drawer and brings it down.’

Spotting the potential for some factory hijinks, Cyclist cheekily asks if the workers ever file away the new guys in the machine for a laugh.

‘No,’ says Calesso, suddenly sounding serious. ‘They would not fit. And that is not the reason we have them. As well as saving space they have also helped prevent further robberies. We have been broken into several times, and the thieves are clever and know exactly what to take. The last time they targeted our very expensive Supertype cranksets and wheels, taking 170 sets of wheels and 30 cranksets.

‘They got in through the roof and by the morning only the empty cardboard boxes were left out in the car park. With this machine, if they break in they can’t steal anything as the machines are turned off at night. And even if they weren’t switched off, the thieves don’t know how to operate them.’

It’s sad to think of Miche being targeted by such ruthless individuals, but Michelin and Celasso certainly aren’t letting it get them down. ‘There will always be problems, but we are increasingly seeing businesses returning to Europe to deal with people like us,’ says Michelin. ‘The cost of labour in China is rising, so too is the cost of the product, and there is still a question over quality. We know how to deal with these problems and to get people what they want, when they want it. The future is looking very good.’ 

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