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Visiting the “King of Moulds”

(Clacton, U.K./Tyres & Accessories) Zhang Sheng is the “King of Moulds;” he and business partner Wang Ying lead the Foshan Nanhai Superband Mould Co. Ltd., based at an industrial estate in Foshan town centre (Nanhai district, Guangdong province).

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And, what’s more, it is probably the largest manufacturer of moulds for aluminium wheel casting in the world. The factory produces six moulds a day or 2000 per year says managing director Zhang Sheng ¬– that’s not the capacity, but the actual output. In addition the company produces moulds for well known international companies such as General Electric, Toshiba, Sharp and Sanyo in order to service their non-wheel casting needs.

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The King of Moulds’ customer base is generally made up of Chinese wheel manufacturers, but are also from other nearby far eastern countries like the South Korean Dooray Group and America. One US car manufacturer even goes as far as pointing its aluminium wheel suppliers to where they should source moulds and at which price. From this, one can deduce that this is likely to mean one of the large US wheel suppliers such as Superior or Hayes Lemmerz. Other impressions suggest that the car manufacturer concerned might be Ford. Zhang Sheng avoids name-dropping, but there are said to have been enquiries from the European branch of this manufacturer.

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To set the scene, the wheel manufacturers that produced their own tools were, in the past, suspicious at times. They would try to compensate for low wheel prices by overcharging for tools. This is a dangerous game, which the aforementioned American carmaker rules out by negotiating directly with Superband, forcing suppliers to buy there. For Superband managing director Wang Ying, this is only the first stage to a division of labour world also in this area. The one manufactures the moulds, the other makes wheels using these products. Either way, Superband sees itself as a “product development centre” for OEMs. It means more moulds, says Zhange Shen. His company charges only a third of the price charged by wheel manufacturers that do their own mould making.

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Whether or not that is also the case when it comes to complex technical requirements (for example for wheels, which are manufactured in the flow-forming process), is not clear.

The size of a wheel is not an obstacle for Superband, something that was demonstrated by the company’s production of a 28-inch mould. China Wheel later produced the final wheel.

Superband was founded in 1990, before the company entered a new factory in 2004. Superband also produces wheels in two other factories. In addition, Foshan runs a further enormous production plant where 3,800 workers assemble electrical kitchen appliances (water filters, chip pans, toasters etc) for the global market. T&A learnt in passing that this plant was responsible for generating a cool US$ 1 billion in turnover!

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Compare that with Superband, and its 400 employees can only be described as compact. On the one hand, the young workers work on the production line with great diligence, in a production process that requires the application of many different operations. And, on the other hand, there is a hesitance when it comes to purchasing a machine that costs $200,000 or more.

Here, the benefits of using high-tech machinery outweigh the delicate intricacies of intimate manual work. Superbrand, like all the others in China, must weigh up the pros and cons of using cheap workforce against the most modern, but also expensive, equipment. Anyone trying to explain away the competitiveness of Chinese moulds with cheap employees alone doesn’t do the philosophy any justice.

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At each stage it is examined as to whether a robot or manpower is most economically viable. In the research and development department for example, the best-trained engineers are recruited directly from university and have the best (and most expensive) computers. For the managing director the solution is quite simply:  “Whatever works!”

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