Exclusive Interview with an Aussie Bike Expert Stranded in Taiwan

Aldo Contarino would be best described as an inventor and manufacturing expert who’s been in the Australian bike industry for over three decades. 

Through his Quantum Bicycles workshop in Perth, he and his team have manufactured and repaired frames and taken on all sorts of tricky jobs that most bike workshops would pass on. 

He’s also highly regarded in the Taiwan bicycle industry and has done a long list of expert consulting projects. 

Thanks to covid, what was supposed to have been a short trip to Taiwan is slowly turning into a nightmare as each month ticks by and he’s been unable to return.

Although he’s not allowed to work for local companies there, at least he’s been able to work for a range of Australian companies who are taking advantage of the rare opportunity to have another Aussie ‘on the ground’ in this key manufacturing nation for our industry. 

Given his rare first-hand insights, The Latz Report took the opportunity to video call Aldo via WhatsApp and see how he was going. 

At the time of our interview Aldo and a small team of Taiwanese were busy testing a new, more compliant suspension system that he’s developed for an electric wheelchair, which is a vast improvement on what that industry has accepted until now. 

Happier times in his workshop in Perth.

The Latz Report: How long have you been in Taiwan for so far this trip? 

Aldo Contarino: I’ve been stuck here for about seven months. With covid it’s either been a lockdown in Perth or it’s been a lockdown over here. The number of flights has been ridiculously low and the number of people that are allowed to come into Australia is ridiculously low. So it’s been extremely difficult to get back. 

TLR: When you left Australia, how long were you expecting to go for? 

AC: A total of eight weeks. I had all the documentation. It was actually quite difficult to get all the appropriate documentation to get in and out. I had flights booked in and out, but the return flight got cancelled. 

TLR: What part of Taiwan are you staying in? 

AC: Predominantly I’m staying in Taichung (the centre of the Taiwanese bicycle industry). I am able to travel within Taiwan. I have two sim cards, one is government sponsored. They track all the covid cases. You’re tracked everywhere you go. Everyone has to scan QR codes. I also did the quarantine as well. 

TLR: What have you mainly been working on while you’ve been stuck there? 

AC: We’ve been doing some R&D (research and development) for different companies from Australia and looking to get procurement of different items for the companies. Everyone’s having problems obtaining components and materials. 

Just the other day we were trying to source 600 tonnes of aluminium per month and we still couldn’t get hold of the aluminium we wanted. 

TLR: What are some of the factories that you’ve visited? 

AC: I’ve been visiting component manufacturers and sub-component suppliers. I’ve been at KT who supply a lot of components for the industry. They do a whole bunch of different hub brands – they’re predominantly a hub manufacturer. 

I’ve also been working with some CNC (computer numeric controlled machining) companies that make machines and equipment. Looking at how to resolve problems for collets in CNC machines to make sure they can spit out components much faster, which we’ve done. 

I’ve also worked with some polymer companies with different elastomers and materials, so we can process things quicker. I’ve also looked at their systems and QC (quality control) processes and set up some clean rooms up here. 

TLR: What are you seeing in the factories? To what degree have the Taiwanese manufacturers been able to ramp up their production? 

AC: There pretty much at full capacity with just e-bikes. The e-bike market has smashed everyone like you wouldn’t believe. But it’s also being able to get components and materials. 

I’ve been in rim manufacturing and tyre manufacturing factories and the lack of materials is the biggest killer over here at the moment. 

A lack of shipping containers and freight is the other issue. There’s a lot of containers around the world but they’re not getting back here, so freight prices have gone anywhere from two to two and a half times the old rates. 

Lead times on steel tubing is anywhere from five to six months. Lead times on tyres are anywhere from five to six months through to a year, depending upon which supplier you go to. Lead times from Shimano are blown out to 305 days, brake suppliers 300 days… 

I’m seeing problems across the entire industry. Shortages of axles – inability to source axles to finish hubs. Manufacturers run just in time processes, but this has fallen flat on its face purely because because maybe they can’t get an axle component or a pawl component or a gauge – just stupid things. Collets out of Germany are not arriving fast enough. Let’s say a collet for a CNC machine is usually $1,000. Now the air freight might be twice the cost of the collet! 

TLR: Are you seeing any expansion of factories and production capacity? 

AC: Everyone is expanding , but with all of the expansion that they’ve done, they’re at their maximum capacity. They’re all showing record volumes going through, but they just can’t sustain it.  

Number one, they can’t find enough workers, because they rely on workers coming in from overseas and covid’s affected that. 

TLR: I hear there has been a record breaking drought there. Is this effecting bike industry production? 

AC: It effected everyone. There were two days of no water for households and businesses, so a lot of businesses were not able to open because they couldn’t supply food or anything else. 

Finally it’s started to rain. It hasn’t rained for a year but now there’s been two weeks of rain. 

The dams are back to 98% capacity.  

Water is really important production in the electronics industry here. They need a lot of water.  

Some of the dams were down to 3%. It was getting pretty desperate. 

TLR: There’s been a lot of media in Australia about China becoming more aggressive and wanting to take over Taiwan, one way or the other. What is the feeling about this amongst the Taiwanese? 

AC: China has been really harsh in deploying aircraft every day. Taiwan was actually responding by having to deploy aircraft. In fact I’m not far from the base. You hear the aircraft taking off all the time. It has been a big concern.  

On top of that there’s been a couple of earthquakes. One was 6.2 and I can’t remember what the other one was. 

Taiwan keeps talking about independence for a long time, but China keeps insisting that Taiwan is part of China. 

TLR: Taiwan had one of the lowest covid case numbers in the world. For over a year, there were only seven deaths. But in the past two months there’s been a surge with over 650 people dying so far. What’s it been like living through that? 

Aldo is keeping busy in Taiwan but still trying to get home for his daughter’s wedding, scheduled for mid-September

AC: Everyone has worn masks everywhere. Everyone’s in lockdown. A lot of businesses require special permission for anyone to go in: QR code, hands washed with alcohol, temperature check, then you’re allowed in. 

One of the factories I went to, we had to sit in a separate area and the people I met with had to do a two week quarantine, just in case, even though I’ve been here for a long time. 

They just don’t want to let people into the factories because there’s too much of a risk. They’re keeping their crews as safe as possible.  

Gloves are worn everywhere. If you’re caught on the street without wearing a mask, you’re fined. There’s no ifs or buts about it. 

The hotel I’m staying in has been fantastic in helping everyone out. They deliver your food to your room. The restaurants are not open. 

They’re extremely thorough. Everyone is very serious about what they do. 

TLR: Finally, when do you think you’ll be able to get back to Australia? 

AC: I’m stressing out because my daughter is getting married and I really want to get back as soon as possible. I was trying to get one flight out (which fell through) and a one way ticket was $10,500. 

I’m hoping that this particular lockdown starts to break within a couple of weeks. There were only 46 cases today, so they’re going down quite rapidly. 

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