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Feature report 2007 | The Making of a Manufacturing Powerhouse for Tennis Rackets in Taiwan

The history of tennis rackets industry in Taiwan offers the best exemplar of how Taiwan has successfully become a global manufacturing powerhouse in the postwar era and best positioned herself to become the "carbon-fiber valley" of the world in the years ahead. This is an industry that embodies the features of economic success in most of the East Asian newly industrialized countries: a robust industry that sweeps the international markets with technological innovation, competitive processing techniques, comprehensive outsourcing network, and relatively inexpensive superior workforce. Through this kind of competitive advantage, they earn huge amount of foreign exchange and make the small island-nation an envy of the world. It is a world-class technological development that bequeaths us an invaluable historical legacy with enormous social and economic implications as well as humanistic spirits to the international community in general, and Taiwan in particular.

The highlight of this industrial achievement can be summarized by a beautiful account the honorable President of Tennis Industry Association Jim Baugh made in 1990: "Taiwan learned the art of pressure molding racket frames within two years after a pair of California companies pioneered the idea. Today, 85 to 90 percent of tennis rackets are made in Taiwan."

The story began in the 1960s when Taiwan was still a poor country and about to be incorporated into the world system of division of labor via classical international product cycle. At the earlier stage, business people in the central part of the island with dynamic entrepreneurship and excellent craftsmanship made arduous efforts to manufacture badminton and tennis rackets for Japanese trading companies who came to its previous colony to seek outsourcing partners for the emerging tennis sports. From technological point of view, it was actually quite complicated and delicate to produce wooden rackets with reliable quality, due to the natural limitation of the material. The industrial cluster in the area began to emerge with flexible peripheral factories that gradually cultivated the skill of drilling, stringing, painting, stamping and so forth and laid the foundation of the take-off soon to come. All the pioneering companies that later helped make Taiwan a manufacturing powerhouse of the world's tennis rackets, like Kun-Nan and San-Ho-Sun, participated in this stage of learning-by-doing. Following the Japanese companies, many of the prominent brand-names at the time, such as Dunlop, Slazenger, Wilson, Spalding, to name a few only, also started to develop trustful business relationships with local manufacturers one after another.

Taiwanese manufacturers also had their first encounter of the composite materials when the first generation of graphite reinforced wooden rackets composite materials was introduced. For instance, Dunlop Maxply Fort was the most famous model in the 1950s. The frame, shaft and handle are made of laminated wood, with the shoulder made of vulcanized fiber and is as hard as armor. Taiwan used to export large quantity of similar rackets in this period of time. Some of the representative best-sellers made by the local firms include Spalding Impact 310 and Impact 444 (by Kun-Nan), Slazenger Vintage (by Taiwan Strong), Wilson Epic (San-Ho-Sun). At its height in 1960s, a wooden racket sold for as much as US$10, equivalent to NT$400 and was tremendously profitable for the local economy! In other words, this early experience to link to the world market and to master the art of crafting wooden rackets gave Taiwan an window of opportunity for playing further important roles in the next phase development of the global tennis rackets industry.

Until the 1970s, wood was still considered the most suitable material for tennis rackets. However, it was too heavy, too flexible, and prone to moisture and easily deformed. The introduction of steel and aluminum rackets began to challenge the maker-share of, and eventually replace, the wooden ones. Wilson developed the famous T-2000 in 1967 and was a hit when Jimmy Connors used it to defeat the wooden racket wielding Ken Rosewall. Spalding introduced the first aluminum racket in 1968. Aluminum rackets became a sensation after the legendary Arthur Ashe won the US Open with the famous racket named after him. However, it was when the legendary Howard Head patented the revolutionary oversized racket in 1976 that put the last nail in the coffin of wooden rackets. It was at this juncture that Taiwan truly jumped into the world stage.

The Prince first aluminum racquet, that green throated thing called Prince Classic, was not a particularly good racket, though it was better than many others. Prince then formed a partnership with the leading manufacturer in Taiwan, Kun-Nan, to produce its second aluminum racket. The Prince Pro was such a success in the market that Kun-Nan had to come out with as high as some 300,000 rackets a month for a period of 3 to 4 years. It was arguably a historic record for all tennis rackets ever sold to this day. With the kind of deep pocket out its successful business operations for the manufacturing of wooden and aluminum rackets, Kun-Nan then was well positioned and ready to launch its revolutionary project that would soon shake the entire tennis world: the commercialization of carbon fiber composite rackets for the global market.

After the end of World War II, as the cutting edge technology was increasingly applied to civilian products, tennis rackets also entered the era of ultra light and high performance with the introduction of carbon fiber composites. In 1976, Kun-Nan Luo, the President of Kun-Nan, accidentally spotted a light and strong "carbon fiber composite racket" in a sports show in the United States. With the instinct of a visionary entrepreneur, Lo immediately realized that the "black stuff" in front of him, which was obviously not yet mass-produced, would be the future of the market. Having no idea whatsoever of the theory of the composite materials, Lo painstakingly sought after any assistance he could find among the overseas Taiwanese engineering community. He found his salvation in an engineer at the Lockheed Corporation, Harvey Chung.
Harvey, the legendary figure behind the "Manhattan Project" of Taiwan's tennis racket industry, taught Lo the basic ideas of composite materials, especially the critical "pre-impregnated fiber" (prepreg), a kind of "presoak cloth" or unformed carbon fiber material that is used in the pressure molding of racket frame. The secret of making a carbon fiber racket begins here: the solvent, resin and hardening material are properly prepared to allow for the wetting of carbon fiber before it turns into a prepreg. The prepreg is then cut and layered according to design of the racket before entering the process of pressure molding. At the time, the only available processing technique available for manufacturing prepreg was the so-called hot-melt machine, which unfortunately was too costly to make any economic sense. Harvey told Lo that the only viable option was to try the solvent-type approach on a "drum-winding" machine, the kind of approach that was discarded by the US engineers due to the environmental concerns.

The inventive idea is there. It takes engineering talent to turn the idea into physical reality. Hun-Hu Chang, an artisan with little formal education, decided to adapt the rotating axle of a lathe machine into a drum-winding vehicle and brilliantly came up with the first and rudimentary drum-winding machine in Taiwan! Master Zhang's ingenious design is still the model-design of all the numerically-controlled state-of-the-art machines used today!

The revolutionary breakthrough in this processing technology is more than this. Chang and his group of remarkable "invisible technologists" also invented the so-called "inner bladder pressure molding" process with perfect control of pressure, temperature, and timing that still remains a kind of "seat of the pants" approach even after many Taiwanese firms, following Kun-Nan, have produced millions of tennis rackets to conquer the world market for years. Since then, all the major international brands have given up their in-house manufacturing of tennis racket and flocked acquisition orders to Taiwan for sheer economic reason.

Besides this fascinating story of technological innovation, the success of Taiwan's tennis rackets manufacturers should also be attributed to the highly efficient, flexible, and dynamic outsourcing networks that supply moulds, resins, strings, decals, grips, grommets...etc., all the necessary accessories for the making of a tennis racket. Together, they demonstrate the foresight, the determination, and the dynamic quality of Taiwanese entrepreneurs that make Taiwan an indispensable partner in the global market.

Most importantly, the development of composite-materials, especially the innovations of processing technology, in Taiwan in the past decades has made this island a reliable and trustworthy partner in the expanding applications of carbon fiber materials to not only sporting goods, but also such high value-added targets as bicycle parts, medical devices, helmets, auto-parts, industrial and aviation components and so forth. With strong support from the government, Taiwan is best positioned for the production of various kinds of carbon fiber products in the global village.
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