Back in the 90s, people would come into our workshop with instruments that were almost impossible to fix. Invariably they were products of China or the Czek Republic, and our conversations would revolve around brand names and the saying, ‘avoid anything that flies or swims’.
Many people are surprised to learn that the situation has completely changed now. But despite the changes, the stigma of poor quality from Asia has persisted.
So, what has changed? These days, no one is manufacturing student-quality instruments in westernized countries. It’s almost impossible to compete in the student instrument market without outsourcing to Asia. If you can name a major brand, then you can be sure that their student instruments are made in Asia, at least in part.
The paradox to this story is that today, high quality student instruments are now far cheaper and of much higher quality than they were 4 decades ago. Technology and automation have raised the standards for faster, cheaper manufacture.
How has the situation changed in Asia? It is not automation that has been the saving grace of Asian instrumental manufacture. Even with all the automation, there is still a lot of labour involved, not only in instrument design, but in hands-on labour, too.
The key areas that have been changing are:
- Manual skill of factory workers
- The precision of the parts
- The materials that the instruments are made from
A week before writing this post, I met flute-maker, Jim Phelan, co-owner of Burkhart-Phelan Inc (Burkhart and Resona flutes and piccolos). He was describing a few of the key troubles with running a new operation in Asia.
The easiest tasks to start up include acquiring a manufacturing company in the area, and supplying it with tools and materials. The difficult part is to change the mindset of the people. When a group of people have already been working in a particular way with a certain standard in mind, it is very difficult to change. This principle can be applied to any industry, anywhere in the world.
Jim admitted that changing the mindset of the workers was a long and time-consuming process. His story was one of those feel-good tales where the workers eventually set out to please him in his methods and standards of quality.
The story is similar for most of the larger brands. As long as the parent company has capable technicians and engineers involved in the production, instruments can be made anywhere.
Poor quality instruments are still on the market, and are easier to source than ever before. Both poor quality and good quality instruments are coming out of Asian Factories.
However, the markers for a good quality instrument have always been the same. As long as the instrument has been constructed with precision, the metals have strength & resist corrosion, the design is good, and the materials are of good quality. If this is all true, you will have an instrument that is durable, and plays well.