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Spin City: Inside carbon wheel maker Gigantex

In-depth
3 Jan 2019
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This article first appeared in Issue 80 of Cyclist Magazine

Words James Spender Photography Mike Massaro

The factory looks like a cross between an Ibizan DJ’s villa and a 1950s Hollywood film lot, all stuccoed terraces and scaffold-lettered signage.

Even the name feels like a DJ moniker or that of some sinister corporation: Gigantex.

But there’s nothing musical or underhand going on here, just the healthy hiss and thump of a factory that’s been busily creating carbon fibre products for two decades on behalf of a company whose president is only too keen to talk about it.

Supply chain

You may or may not have noticed that just because a company is based in country X, it doesn’t mean its products are actually made in country X. It doesn’t even mean it makes its own products at all.

Today, most branded cycling equipment is produced by a subcontractor, and where hardware is concerned, that subcontractor more than likely resides in the Far East.

Gigantex, which specialises in carbon wheel rims, is one such subcontractor, positioned in Changhua County on Taiwan’s west coast, just south of the industrial juggernaut Taichung City.

Name a manufacturer and chances are you’ll find some trace of them in this part of Taiwan, be that a sales office, a testing facility or a pallet of blank stems bound for the US, whereupon they’ll be logoed up and fitted to popular road bikes.

It might seem a bit cloak and dagger – many brands will not divulge such details readily – but the truth of the matter is that any bike brand worth its salt will look to sell the best-quality products at the most viable prices, which more often than not means asking a large-scale, third-party manufacturer to make them for you.

‘Over the years we’ve made components for FSA, Truvativ, Sram, Mavic, Fast Forward and many more, and we also make equipment for the ambulance service in New South Wales, Australia, for the medical sector and the Taiwanese Army,’ says Gigantex president Steven Lee. ‘What’s common in all of these is that the products are carbon fibre.’

Looking around Gigantex’s showroom, the company’s commitment to carbon fibre is impossible to miss.

There are racks of wheels, rims and handlebars, a few scattered seatposts and cranksets, and beyond that some tertiary products, notably a lightweight ladder for the Taiwanese infantry, a stretcher for paramedics and a serious-looking carbon fibre wheelchair.

‘This weighs 6kg – less than your UCI bikes,’ Lee says matter-of-factly. ‘We’re beginning to sell them this year after six years of development.

‘We’re not the first, but we have managed to get the price down from the £6,000 of our competitors to £1,700. But for the medical sector we know we are still very new, so our main business remains bicycle components.’

No shame, no gain

Gigantex officially started trading in 1998, something Lee cites as the key to its success, because back in the late 1990s carbon fibre had only just entered the cycling fray, and everybody wanted it, but few had the expertise to make it.

Gigantex had the advantage that it was initially part of a larger manufacturing corporation and so already had the personnel, plant machinery and expertise in its grasp.

‘The company was founded by a group of managers. Before that we were a division of a bigger corporation and we had already done some work in carbon fibre,’ says Lee.

‘The corporation decided to go public, which for their own reasons meant they wanted to dismiss my division. We were to be laid off.

‘At that time in Taiwan it was a source of shame to be made redundant, so I talked to the corporation president and together with some of my managers we raised enough money to buy the division.

‘The initial capital was very small, around NT$8 million [approximately £200,000], but it was good for the president because he didn’t have to deal with raw materials and equipment, and he could simply hand them over to us.

‘I think we were very naive – we thought maybe we could break even in six months – yet it turns out we were very lucky.’

Lee and his partners saw a gap in the market. Mountain biking was at its popular peak, but with only 18 employees Lee chose to steer Gigantex towards the more niche road cycling category.

And even more niche for the time, it would be carbon fibre road cycling components only.

‘Our initial product was a crankset. In that time there were only a few companies making carbon cranksets. Zipp was one. Theirs cost about $799, very expensive, and I think maybe they sold around 300 units per year. 

‘We invented a process and got patents so we could do it just as well, but cheaper.’

Beyond the complexities of manufacturing with carbon fibre, the business plan appears simple. Work out a way to undercut the competition, protect it through a patent, then watch the orders fly in. Not so fast. 

‘We were really too poor to put our name to the crankset. No one knew who we were, we had no marketing budget, so we got someone to do it for us: FSA.’

As time progressed Gigantex began making carbon cranksets for Truvativ, then Sram after it acquired the Truvativ company, and output went from 2,000 sets per month to 30,000. Gigantex looked to be sitting pretty, but times would change. 

Do it yourself

If there’s an engine room at Gigantex it’s in what Lee endearingly calls the ‘Greek’ factory, a white-walled, blue-trimmed building that could be dropped onto an island like Santorini without anyone raising an eyebrow.

It sits over the road from the original ‘Spanish’ factory, all imposing pillars and terracotta tiles, and houses Gigantex’s masterstroke: a raw carbon fibre processing line.

‘In 2007 there was a big shortage of carbon fibre, and the price of the stuff we were buying in was going up every day,’ says Lee. ‘So in 2008 we decided to work out a way to incorporate making the pre-preg ourselves.’

‘Pre-preg’ is an abbreviation of ‘pre-impregnated’, and refers to the resin-soaked carbon fibre sheets that are used in the majority of cycling’s carbon products.

‘Each sheet starts life as individual fibres, or filaments, each of them up to 20 times thinner than a human hair. These are then bundled together into flat ribbons, or tows.

‘These tows are laid out next to each other and covered in resin to create large, cloth-like sheets from which shapes can be cut and laid into moulds.

‘At capacity we can produce 35,000 square metres of pre-preg per month, but on average we make 15,000, dependent on demand. Other manufacturers have to buy in their pre-preg from outside.

‘This has two problems: cost – for us this machine cuts our costs by 30% – and quality. For example, we could buy in pre-preg with an areal weight of 150g per square metre, but we can make pre-preg with the same carbon fibres at 75g per square metre, because we can control the whole process more effectively, in particular how much resin is used [since resin can comprise nearly half a carbon component’s weight].’

The processing line has been running since 8am, and it’s now 11am. A computer display reads it has produced 951m of pre-preg sheet so far. It’s little wonder that in a full-capacity month it produces enough to cover 178 tennis courts.

‘Before, if there was pre-preg at a good price we just had to buy it, but the problem is the resin degrades over time.

This way we can change our output based on our need, so the resin in the pre-preg is always at optimum and there is no waste. We make the resin formulation ourselves, here.

‘Before, we sent out our resin formulation to the pre-preg maker, and very soon our competitors were using it too. When we complained, the pre-preg maker just said, “No, no, it’s similar to yours, but this is version two.” We could do nothing legally.

But still, with this machine, press the button and easy money! Much easier than the rest of the process.’

Life’s unfair

Today, although Gigantex counts itself as a carbon fibre specialist it’s most widely known for its wheels, which it still makes under contract for a variety of brands, from start-ups (which can pick from a catalogue) to big brands (which send over designs to have fabricated).

‘In this sense, as with frames, it produces both ‘open mould’ rims – in other words, anyone can buy them – and ‘closed mould’ – exclusive to the client.

Currently the inventory numbers 36 different open mould rims and 35 complete wheelsets, as well as three carbon cranksets, four types of fork, seven handlebars and a smorgasbord of other products, from the aforementioned wheelchairs to moped mudguards.

‘In 2000 we thought we could never rely on one type of product to make a living, so we moved into wheels,’ Lee explains.

‘People laughed at us and said we were like a prostitute, we would do anything for money, but at that time nobody in Asia could make carbon fibre rims. We ended up being pioneers. But Taiwan is very small, so everyone can easily take technology from each other.

‘FSA tried to find another supplier using our crankset patents. We tried to sue them but failed, because suing big companies in Taiwan… forget it.

‘So in 2007 we terminated the contract and made cranksets only for Sram. In 2012 the patent expired, so Sram took over its own production.’

It must be stressed this is only one side of the story, but the point Lee raises is one you’ll hear manufacturers citing time and again: patent infringement, aka, getting ripped off.

Gigantex holds more than 70 patents worldwide, but Lee says after the crankset it gave up trying to enforce any of them. Yet he’s pragmatic about it: ‘It’s business. If you think you can make a profit from something, someone else is going to think that too.’

It just meant Gigantex needed to readjust its sights.

One such readjustment was to launch its own brand in 2009, Equinox, which debuted a range of carbon-spoked wheels that drew admiring glances, as well as a few parallels with German manufacturer Lightweight.

There’s nothing new under the sun, after all. Another readjustment, and one that has become the primary driver for the business, is price point.            

‘In many respects our technology is old technology. There are hundreds of factories in China making carbon rims like ours, and many are very good, but we feel the market demand is an “M” shape.

‘First it was extremely cheap, then extremely expensive, and now it’s cheap again. It will become very high-end in the near future, but right now we’re concentrating on making carbon rims much more affordable.’

Lee’s philosophy is that Gigantex will do the simple things well. That means rims on trend with things such as tubeless compatibility and wide profiles, but the company doesn’t spend money on wind-tunnels or WorldTour teams.

There are drawbacks to this model, admits Lee, as Gigantex ‘finds it hard to keep pace with the market’, because to keep production costs low turnover must be high, so Gigantex needs to wait to see if things such as disc brakes take hold before investing money in the manufacturing process so as to avoid the risk of winding up with redundant tooling and unsold stock.

Wheel room

To end our factory tour, Lee ushers us into a hushed, open-plan office filled with rows of identikit desks. Only instead of computers and in-trays, each desk contains sheaths of black sheet and metal implements that wouldn’t look out of place on a dentist’s tray.

This is the mould assembly floor, where 30 nimble-handed workers – almost exclusively women – are laying up around 40 pieces of individually cut pre-preg pieces into wheel-shaped moulds, together with silicone mandrels and air bladders. They’re doing all this to the very complex instructions of a thick A4 manual.

‘This is low season, so we might have twice as many people here other times of the year,’ says Lee.

‘Each wheel takes around 40 minutes to assemble before it can go downstairs to be heat-cured, so each employee will make 13 or 14 a day.’

The completed moulds are shipped out on industrial-sized tea trolleys, heading downstairs to where a series of giant heat presses are adding to the heat of a stifling Taiwanese afternoon.

Each mould weighs 80kg and takes several technicians – down here all men – to lift onto conveyers that feed the presses.

The moulds are gradually heated up as the bladders are slowly inflated to 150psi, thus forcing the pre-preg sheets into the sides of the mould and ensuring an even spread of resin across the fibres.

Each mould then has to be transferred to a cooling press before its carbon fibre treasure can be extracted.

‘The key to creating good products is management, and this is the pay-off,’ says Lee, picking up a rim so glossy that it looks painted, or at least lacquered in some way. But Lee insists not.

‘This is how they come out. There’s no need for finishing, no filler, no painting, not like other manufacturers.

‘We’re not doing anything groundbreaking here, but what we do we do ourselves, very carefully, which is why we can just make things better.’