What do you need to defeat the forces of global trade? The bicycle frame factory in Triangle’s Cycling Equipments in northern Portugal has thirty large white machines.
Workers insert aluminum beams, which a while later appear as triangular frames for electric bicycles. Fully automatic – and therefore competitive with cheap manual welding in Asia.
It seems simple, but it requires many years of thinking, says director Luis Pedro during a tour of the factory hall. “If it was easy to automate everything, Asians would have already done it.” But there are still thousands of people working in the frame factories, says Pedro.
Triangles factory is unique in Europe. After all, the production of bicycle frames has almost exclusively ended in Asia in recent decades. The majority of frames on European cycle paths now come from China, Vietnam and especially Taiwan. Due to the low wages, these were fine production countries for the companies.
Until recently. In recent years, companies that make bicycle frames in aluminum have reappeared very cautiously in Europe. Thanks to automation and supported by a huge demand for bicycles, it is now possible to compete with Asian manufacturers. This makes the bicycle frame a rare example genhorning: the phenomenon where production that has disappeared from Europe returns.
Start-ups in Bulgaria and Turkey are also making an attempt at the moment, but Triangle’s – located on a business park sixty kilometers south of Porto – was the first in Europe in 2017. The idea came from the Portuguese bicycle wheel manufacturer Rodi, says Luis Pedro. “They started thinking: can we design a factory that can do this?” That could be useful, they thought: you are much closer to the European assembly plants.
Rodi’s questions were not answered simply, the director emphasizes. Robot welding is common with steel, but very rare with aluminum. The material is different; aluminum is more susceptible to cracking and reacts very differently to high temperatures. This makes welding more difficult to automate.
Director Pedro thought it was a good challenge and gave up his job as a manager at a nearby Bosch car factory. “Bikes are … How do I say that? A sexy product.”
According to him, engineers and people from the German robot supplier Kuka talked a lot about what was and was not possible. “There were a lot of people who said: You will never succeed. There is no know how around the market. ”
Instructor Pedro is a modest guy in sneakers that one can not capture a lot of emotions. But when you walk through the factory with him, some pride seeps through. He constantly points to large installations buzzing to his left and right. “We designed this ourselves.”
Here and there people still walk around to operate machines and to move and pack materials. In total, Triangle’s employs around 350 people. About a third of them work with design and engineering worksaid Pedro.
After a few years of talking and thinking, Rodi decided to build the factory in 2016. It was possible, or so they thought in the company. Two other Portuguese spare parts suppliers, Miranda and Ciclo Fapril, thought the same way and stepped in. Together, the three shareholders invested approximately $ 30 million in Triangle’s plant.
They chose the village of Borralha as their location, in the region also known as the ‘Bike Valley’: the Portuguese do not necessarily cycle much in their hilly country, but the northern part has a large cycling industry. It grew out of a long history of metalworking in the region. The country exports even the most bicycles in Europe, in 2020 there were 2.7 million. Often these are not well-known brands, but bikes for chains such as Decathlon.
Fully booked until 2025
That investment of $ 30 million was a big game, Pedro says. But today he can only state that it was a good step. “We are fully booked until 2025,” he says. And he can already now say exactly what he wants to earn in the coming years. “In 2021, the turnover was 20 million euros. This year it will be around 39 million, in 2023 around 50 million. So those are not predictions, right? These are orders. “
The big bike companies seem to be able to find Triangle’s really well. Sometimes the frames are a little more expensive than the Asian ones, says Pedro, but the transport costs are much lower and the supply lines shorter. Once Triangle’s has put its frames in the truck, they will be on the doorstep of major Dutch manufacturers such as Accell (Batavus) and Pon (Gazelle) within a few days.
In fact, the price is not doing much at the moment, Pedro says. He makes no secret of the fact that his good grades are partly the result of the huge bicycle boom that erupted in Europe after the corona crisis. There is simply a lack of framework. “In a way, we are not competing with Asia right now. There is room for everyone. We make 250,000 images a year – a fraction of Europe’s demand for tens of thousands of images.”
At the end of the trip, Pedro wants to show something. He steps out of the factory through a door into the scorching sun. There are two plots of land with red sand fallow – in the distance the hills in the Portuguese interior. Construction of the extension will begin soon here.
A version of this article was also published in the newspaper on May 16, 2022