It is great to see manufacturing with focus.
Serving the Mobility Impaired
A worker inspects mobility scooters before they leave Pihsiang Machinery MFG Co.’s factory in Hsinchu County, northern Taiwan. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)
Taiwan is a major manufacturing and research and development hub for the power mobility device industry.
Relatively few people outside of the assistive mobility device industry have heard of Pihsiang Machinery MFG Co., but for decades the Taiwanese firm has been developing innovative products that have enhanced the quality of life of disabled and mobility-challenged people around the world. In 1989, the company launched the first four-wheeled electric mobility scooter. It subsequently released the world’s first power wheelchair capable of rotating 360 degrees in place as well as a pioneering electric mobility scooter that can be disassembled and put back together with ease. “Many disabled people spend a lot of time at home in relatively confined spaces, so the smaller the turning circle of a wheelchair the better,” says Sharon Wang (王靜如), the firm’s sales manager. “Meanwhile, we created an electric mobility scooter that can be effortlessly taken apart and reassembled so that people can fit it into the trunk of a car and can take it with them wherever they go.”
Taiwan is home to a number of the world’s leading producers of power mobility devices. Statistics from the Republic of China (ROC) government-supported Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) show that the nation ranked second globally in the manufacturing of electric wheelchairs and mobility scooters last year, making around 143,000 units, or approximately 22 percent of global production.
However, while Taiwan retains a pivotal position in the industry, power mobility device manufacturing has in fact fallen significantly over the past decade. In 2006, the country was the world’s top production base, making approximately 268,000 units, or 42.5 percent of the total global output. In the years since, mainland China has overtaken the nation as local firms moved their factories across the Taiwan Strait to take advantage of cheaper costs.
Despite the decline in domestic production, Taiwan remains a key center for high-end manufacturing and research and development in the field, as evidenced by the work of enterprises such as Pihsiang. Founded in northern Taiwan’s Hsinchu County in 1983 by Wu Pi-h
g (伍必翔), an inventor who made his name designing vehicles for transporting agricultural produce, the company was one of the earliest pioneers in the battery-powered mobility device industry. “Unlike Pihsiang, other major Taiwanese firms in the sector started out as producers of manual wheelchairs before moving on to creating electric versions,” notes Huang Yu-bin (黃裕斌), a medical device industry researcher at ITRI’s Industrial Economics and Knowledge Center.
Sharon Wang, sales manager of Pihsiang, says Shoprider is the top-selling mobility scooter brand in Australia, Canada, mainland China and Taiwan. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)
“The rise of Taiwan’s manual wheelchair sector had much to do with its strength in bicycle manufacturing as the two areas have much in common in terms of design and components,” notes Jonathan Cheng (鄭舜遠), vice president of Merits Health Products Co. Founded in 1987 in Taichung, central Taiwan, a region known globally for its bicycle industry cluster, Merits is one of the local enterprises that began as a manual wheelchair maker. The company started producing electric wheelchairs in 1992 as an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for a top US-based company. Today, it is also an original design manufacturer (ODM) for several prominent international brands.
While a significant number of manual wheelchairs are still made in Taiwan, Cheng notes that most of the manufacturing in this sector has been shifted overseas. Merits relocated all of its manual wheelchair production to mainland China by the mid-1990s before moving some of its basic power mobility device manufacturing there in 2013. All of the company’s medium and high-end devices are made locally.
Over the years, clusters of electric wheelchair and mobility scooter producers have emerged in Taiwan. Perhaps the most prominent of these is found in and around the Taichung City Precision Machinery Innovation Technology Park, where Merits is located along with many of its component providers. “There are countless suppliers within 30 kilometers of our facility,” Cheng notes.
According to Huang, the majority of the parts required to manufacture battery-powered wheelchairs and mobility scooters can be sourced in Taiwan. For instance, some famous Taiwanese auto parts manufacturers make components for the sector, includ
ing Kenda Rubber Industry Co. and Uni Auto Parts Manufacture Co., which produce tires and seats, respectively. That being said, local firms still rely heavily on imported controllers—key components that regulate the movements of power mobility devices. A number of local enterprises such as Merits studied the practicality of producing controllers, but they found the cost to be prohibitive.
Demand for power mobility devices is expected to grow significantly in graying societies such as Taiwan. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)
Taiwanese firms also face other challenges, notably the rise of competitors in mainland China. “Once our companies set up factories there, locals qu
ickly learned the techniques needed to develop their own businesses,” says Formosa Lu (呂溪賓), president of the Taiwan Institute for Assistive Technology, an industry group. “And in turn mainland China’s low-priced, mass-produced products have put great pressure on businesses in Taiwan.”
Over the past decade or so, companies have also encountered obstacles to growth in the United States, traditionally the world’s largest market for electric wheelchairs and mobility scooters. In 2003, the US government tightened regulations concerning subsidies for the devices, and support for purchases of mobility aids was further scaled back in the wake of the global financial crisis, Cheng says.
In response, businesses have been seeking to boost their sales in emerging economies, where market penetration rates are significantly lower than in developed nations. According to Wang, the United States and Europe still account for more than 70 percent of the global market for power mobility devices. This can be partly explained by government subsidies for assistive devices in these regions, as well as by differences in how the elderly live. “In Asia, old people tend to stay
with their children, but in the West they generally live on their own and thus tend to rely more on mobility aids,” she says.
At present, however, populations in major emerging markets such as mainland China are becoming richer and grayer, while young people in these nations are adopting lifestyles more akin to those in Western countries. These factors are expected to lead to a significant increase in demand in these economies. “There is considerable need for these devices among the elderly not only because people tend to lose mobility in old age, but also because they have higher incidences of debilitating diseases such as diabetes,” Wang notes.
Jonathan Cheng, vice president of Merits, says his company aims to emulate Taiwanese bicycle producer Giant Manufacturin
g Co. and become a globally recognized brand. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)
Meanwhile, increasingly fierce competition is spurring Taiwanese enterprises to invest considerable resources in research and development. “Mainland Chinese manufacturers are not far behind their Taiwanese counterparts, so local firms must constantly innovate,” Lu says. Indeed, Wang notes that in the past a product’s lifecycle could last for as long as 10 years, while today enterprises must develop new models or add features to existing products every few years. “Taiwanese firms still enjoy a competitive edge over mainland Chinese companies in terms of quality, but perhaps they have only a three-year lead today,” she adds.
While many Taiwanese enterprises built their reputations in the sector as OEMs or ODMs, increasingly local companies are seeking to build international awareness of their own brands. Though it still operates as an ODM for international clients, Pihsiang has long sold its electric wheelchairs and mobility scooters under the name Shoprider. According to Wang, Shoprider is currently the top-selling mobility scooter brand in Australia, Canada, mainland China and Taiwan.
Merits, meanwhile, started to move in this direction in 2004, when it began introducing its brand at international trade fairs and investing in domestic and overseas advertising campaigns. Today, the company, which is now focusing on enhancing its brand recognition in the United States, mainland China and Taiwan, earns between 20 and 30 percent of its revenue from devices bearing its own name.
There are currently 17 businesses in Taiwan that operate primarily as assembly centers for electric wheelchairs an
d mobility scooters, and at least 10 of them, including Merits and Pihsiang, have developed their own brands. Another notable company in this bracket is Karma Medical Produc
ts Co., which is based in Chiayi County, southern Taiwan and sells its products under the name Karma. In 1990, it became the first local company to produce a lightweight manual wheelchair made of aluminum alloy, and unveiled an electric wheelchair created using the same material the following year. Today, it dominates the domestic market in both manual and power wheelchairs.
high-quality manufacturing are the keys to long
-term growth for local enterprises in the power mobility device sector like Pihsiang, Merits and Karma, all of which have won Taiwan Excellence Awards, annual accolades g
iven by the ROC government to outstanding local businesses. Due in part to the similarities in their operations, many firms in the sector look to Giant Manufacturing Co., the world-renowned Taiwanese bicycle producer, as a source of inspiration and believe that they too can become leading global brands. “If we keep strengthening our abilities in terms of marketing and product design,” Cheng says, “hopefully someday we’ll be the Giant of the power mobility device industry.”
(source: The Republic of China)