Known as the “Village of Faucets,” Lugang Township in Changhua is home to Taiwan’s leading plumbing brands, suppliers, and OEM factories. More than half of the world’s faucets are made here. In 2000, faced with multiple challenges including the relocation of numerous labor-intensive plumbing and hardware companies and growing maturity of relevant industries in China, Lugang’s production network was able to quickly adapt and adjust, securing its leadership in plumbing industry. And one of the key factors in Lugang maintaining its leadership position in plumbing has been “brand transformation”.
Years of original equipment manufacturer (OEM) experiences have enabled Lugang’s plumbing and hardware manufacturers to access foreign production techniques and quality management philosophies. By continuous improvement and introducing new technologies, these companies have broken free of the OEM and ODM constraints and built their own brands and channels to promote Taiwanese plumbing and hardware worldwide. Sheng Tai Brassware Co., Ltd. has been particularly successful and currently has 28 worldwide distributors and yields more than NT$500 million in revenues in each year. What has enabled Sheng Tai to achieve global success? Let’s take a closer look at their factory.
Integrating OEM Strengths to Build Own-Brand
“We were the OEM to various renowned international firms and customers came from Germany, Japan and the United States. We were satisfied with our OEM business and did not need to understand market changes. Customers did not need to explain why things were designed the way they were in the specifications we received. We could not see market trends or demands and merely focused on meeting delivery schedules on a daily basis. Our lifeline was basically controlled at the customers’ mercy; perhaps we were doing okay at the moment while competing for costs and prices, but what about next year? Or the year after that?” said Kai-Hsiang Chang, Sheng Tai’s Marketing Manager.
Hence, Sheng Tai took a shot and invested toward setting its own brand. After relocating its OEM production lines to Thailand and China, in-house Design and R&D departments were set up while contractor firms were designated as backup support for its new brand – Justime, founded in 1993.
In the early days, Sheng Tai committed the same faux pas as other OEM firms during brand transformation: changing bits and pieces of existing, popular products and marketing them as their own. While it is indeed cost-saving, they were soulless. Though Sheng Tai has successfully penetrated the European and American markets, something was still amiss. After forming in-depth collaborations with European and American brands for many years, Sheng Tai has overhauled itself as a comprehensive brand from a simple OEM firm. Additionally, its product lines have also been expanded from faucets, shower heads to complete sets of bathroom accessories and towel racks. At this point, Sheng Tai has begun to reconsider the unique points of Justime.
Infusing Oriental Elements in Fresh Brand Positioning
Having recruited a team of young designers, Sheng Tai took a very hands-off approach, and the designers were allowed to roam in their imagination and to discuss with their highly innovative R&D team. Starting from the Tai Chi series infused with Oriental Zen aesthetics in 2009, which bagged the Bred Dot Design Award, Sheng Tai has established a highly distinctive and differentiated groundwork for its products. Currently, Sheng Tai has 20 staff, or roughly 1/9 of its total employees working for its design, R&D, and brand management teams, and invests over NT$1 million to participate in various international design awards in each year. By giving up on more than NT$100 million of OEM orders, Sheng Tai chooses to be committed to building its brand and spends over NT$30 million on brand management.
Presently, Justime has bagged more than 100 international design awards; their Lucky 7 series, which has recently won the 2019 Golden Pin Design Award, is conceptualized from budding seeds, sprouting toward the sky from among pebbles and symbolizes life. Simplistic water outlet and components are adopted on a cylindrical form along with linear shapes, creating a simple yet elegant look. The Chapter touchless faucet and sink combo, is a modern interpretation of pumping water from a well in the old days. Just like a water pump, water is drained from below and rains down from the top. It is a classic example of how local culture could be interpreted in a contemporary, linear form.
LUCKY 7 wall-type faucet (Image: Sheng Tai) Chapter touchless faucet and sink (Image: Sheng Tai)
Difficult vs. Impossible: Using Manufacturing Competence to Support Creativity
After its brand transformation, Sheng Tai is now obligated to observe the market on its own. On top of understanding the differences between diverse products, it also needs to propose actionable ideas. However, besides aesthetics, these ideas also need to be useful and feasible. Sheng Tai’s R&D process usually begins with its salespeople unearthing users’ pain points from the market and the design team then strives to solve these problems. These solutions are then communicated and discussed with R&D and manufacturing personnel for mass production.
“It’s common for the production side to think of designers as farfetched, while designers usually think the production people are stubborn and opposed to change. However, whether something is simply ‘difficult’ or ‘impossible’ to make requires a lot of communications.” The best example of which was the YES wall-mounted faucets. Much R&D and manufacturing efforts have gone into creating a Y-shaped design that pleased everyone.
Design Director Ting-Yao Huang, in charge of integrating design ideas and providing production advice, explained to us that the cold water and hot water pipes are usually separated in buildings. But in order to create the appearance of having only one water inlet, an innovative valve is used in the YES faucet. In addition, different components and processing techniques are also used so that essential parts could be all stored at one side. Though the faucet seems to be in one piece, it is actually connected by multiple parts and then surface treated – a true testament of the craftsmen’s skills and patients.
An innovative valve that integrates the cold and hot water pipes. Many of its details are crafted by hand.
A complete production and installation process has also resulted from the elaborate installations required by the Chapter line. Traditionally, a bathroom sink is comprised of a basin and its faucet. Many parts need to be connected, and not only is the installation time-consuming, but the design of which is also prone to dust and deterioration. Therefore, on top of the aforementioned unique trait in using traditional wells as its design concept, the design process also needed to ensure its structural support and visually pleasing quality. Since it would be difficult to make one long copper rod, different parts needed to be separately processed and then welded together and polished. Finally, the water outlet and the screw thread would be processed again. It is a true test on the teamwork between design and production personnel.
“Our front-end designers can readily innovate because they are supported by Sheng Tai’s strong manufacturing competences. Or else even the best ideas would be rendered moot.”
Justime’s faucet designs factor in a user’s overall “plumbing use experience” rather than their sole faucet use, to this end, the company focuses on the faucets’ connectivity to the overall environment and problem-solving. By relying on the advantage of having a comprehensive plumbing and hardware supply chain at Lugang, Changhua, Sheng Tai integrates the entire production value chain to achieve an industrial organization that is quick to respond and provides flexible production. This is also an important factor that allows them to produce various complex designs. Not only does Sheng Tai benefit from the ability to grow its brand in this niche market, but also leads to the creation of a positive industrial community.