In the motion control hall at this year’s Hannover Fair in Germany in April, brightly colored paper lanterns festooned the tiny stand of the Fujan Dongfeng Machinery Electrical Co. of Fujan, China. Two other Chinese motor makers, Wonder Electric Co., and Shanghai Moons Electric Co. had sprung for slightly more space, but were still dwarfed by the huge presence of global competitors like Lenze, Maxon, and SEW EURODRIVE.
One couldn’t help but wonder how any of the two dozen of so Chinese motor companies with miserly marketing budgets and a reputation for cheap knock-offs (one Chinese company here even had on display a product with a “Schneider Electric” logo) can make any kind of an impact at a show like the Hannover Fair. But for companies like Wonder Electric, the payback clearly has been enough to keep them coming back for ten years. And, they say, their value proposition is changing.
“It’s not just about the price anymore,” stressed Wonder Electric Manager Martin Zhang. (Martin is a transliteration of his Chinese name, which is nearly impossible for English speakers to pronounce.) He told me that while his company, which manufactures a wide range of motor types up to 400 kW, does offer competitive prices, it’s the high-quality products and good delivery times that draw engineers from all over the world.
I heard a similar pitch over at Shanghai Moons, a $20M (U.S.) maker of stepper motors—some of which are private labeled for the North American market. Manager Ricky (another transliteration) Chen told me that Moons’ strongest selling points are its technical know-how and innovation.
Two engineers from Detroit kicking tires in the nearby stand of a Chinese motor maker weren’t convinced: “This is all pretty standard stuff here—and for this they better be able to offer a price advantage,” they scoffed. “If you’re looking for innovation, check out the European companies.”
A pair of engineers from the U.K. scouring the fair looking for innovative new motor controls begged to differ. “In the past the perception of the Chinese was cheap copies, but over the past five years that has been changing,” said Trevor Holder. “We’re starting to see some creative designs coming out of China. Not a lot yet, but from a technical point of view they are beginning to move up the food chain.”
“I see a tremendous parallel between where China is now and where Japan was in the mid 1970s,” says Dan Jones, President of the consulting firm Incremotion. Jones, who has spent his entire career in the motor industry, says that while Japanese motors were cheap and dirty knockoffs in the 1950s, by the 1970s motors made in Japan were starting to challenge American and European-made products. “I think the Chinese are in a similar position today. Today it’s no longer the cheap and dirty knockoffs—they are starting to move into products with reasonable performance.”
That may be the case, but at least for some Chinese motor makers they are going to need to work to change the mindset, of not only their potential customers but also their own sales organizations. Over at Fujan Dongfeng, “Melin” stressed the quality of his company’s laminations, the service, and the innovativeness of the motor designs. To what extent this is actually true is left to the individual buyer to figure out, but even Melin apparently wasn’t prepared to stick to his own story for too long. As he hopped up to greet an engineer checking out the company’s line of pump motors, he started out by saying. “We make you a good price, very competitive. Quality is okay.”