The Trouble We Had with Chinese Tenkara Rods
22 CommentsMonday, 15 May 2017 | PG
There is a big problem that we've not been able to solve when it comes to having rods manufactured in China.
But there have also been plus-points - so it is a pretty complicated picture...
I'm writing this just before we head out to Japan on an epic mission to film a ton of unique content AND go on a mission to discover just what makes Japanese tenkara rods so good. BUT before I get going, I need to start out by saying that this is our personal experience - and may or may not apply in other cases. So, with that said, here's the deal in our personal experience...
The first rods to carry the Discover Tenkara badge have, so far, been manufactured in one of the two Chinese factories that supply a UK tenkara company (Tenkara Centre). We were introduced via TCUK as consultants so that we can provide specifications and test prototypes before production.
Our first move was to take the highest quality (Japanese) carbon cloth used in two rods in the existing TCUK range (the Hayase and the Honryu). These were 360cm long/delicate and 400cm long/big fish rods respectively - and we decided to make a rod to bridge that gap in terms of length and stiffness.
Both these rods were made in TCUK's initial factory and we were able to have TCUK send samples to the new facility with a design brief to come up with a rod that basically split the difference between those two models.
The quality of prototypes that came back were excellent and, with some testing, tweaking and getting the right handle design to counterbalance the blank perfectly...a prototype was produced that we were really happy with...and the price also meant that it should be possible to sell at a profit. Happy days.
Then, when it came to full production, is where the fun starts...because we had not factored in to our costs how long it would take to sort through the batches of rods to check for defects or inconsistencies...Nor did we expect to have a reject rate of somewhere around 30% of the rods that were sent.
So here's what that meant - we had a rod that starts out as clearly profitable; until you factor in the checking time to ensure quality before supplying to clients. On the one hand, the ones that "passed" meant we could supply a really, really excellent rod...but the high reject rate is incredibly costly...and also makes you paranoid about defects that you might not have spotted. This is frustrating, because when manufactured without defects - they are wonderful rods.
Then there came an even larger problem. We noticed in prototyping photos for other rod developers that the handles we supplied for our rods had been attached to their prototypes. At the same time, a strong similarity between the specifications of our blanks and another brand was also brought to our attention by folks doing testing for that brand...
Now, we don't have a way of finding out just how much crossover in the manufacturing process/machinery/mandrels etc. there was in that factory - but it identified a huge problem; there is no such entity in Chinese law as "intellectual property". At the very least it would seem to give a different spin on how they had managed to answer our brief with a high quality first prototype.
So - big problem for us and a big problem for our fellow brand using the same facility!
Neither brand could feel confident that any development wouldn't just leak across into each other's ranges (and there isn't an easy way to combine forces on rod development without significantly cutting into your revenues).
OK - I expect if you are able to order big enough batches of products on a regular basis then it would make financial sense for the factory to provide more exclusivity...But when you are building up from a standing start that isn't going to be the case!
That is a pretty good summary of the problems we have had with developing rods using the two major tenkara rod factories in China - but what would be the positives?
Well, if companies are able/willing to spend the time and money sitting hard on quality control, it means that good volumes of affordable tenkara rods can be brought to market. This is excellent news for the potential to grow the tenkara community. There is a vital place for this capacity - and the hobby that we are so passionate about would not exist without it.
It also needs to be stressed that other people (either in the same or in other, unknown, facilities) may have very different experiences with those factories. It is only possible for us to describe our own experiences.
That does bring me to another point; while there is that vital role for affordable kit - I think there is a critical balancing factor that cannot be ignored...
If tenkara is to thrive, develop and provide lifelong fascination for folks who do it regularly (and not just one or two weekends a year as part of another activity)...then there has to be more than entry-level to mid-level kit. There's a need for people who are willing to seek excellence and continual incremental improvements to provide the best possible experience at any point in time.
It is too easy to see how mainstream fly fishers in the West may automatically overlook tenkara as trivial and a poor second to "real" fly fishing when the tenkara industry outside Japan only consists of the cheaper Chinese production rods.
That is why we are taking on a quest to see if we can develop and market a high-end Japanese-made tenkara rod. We might fail, but we will certainly have fun trying. At the very least, the Japanese manufacturing practice of having all components checked as they come off the production line will mean that me and JP can spend more of our time testing them on-stream and also continuing to produce and share the wealth of authentic tenkara information that we are always discovering.
Chris Stewart at Tenkara Bum has shown that it is possible to approach and work with Japanese producers as a Western company - so we are on a mission to develop our own relationships with other Japanese producers and bring our own specifications and preferences to a continually-developing range of high-end rods.
Again, to be absolutely crystal clear - this is not to "put down" existing tackle and brands (the whole range of producers across the board is vital to the global tenkara community). We do believe, though, that the strengthening and expansion of widely-available top end Japanese rods is one essential component of tenkara's future that is currently under-represented.
I hope you enjoy coming along on the ride (even if it ends in a fireball wreck) - we think it is best to skid in sideways with your hair on fire and a good stiff drink in one hand than to slowly grind to a halt with a quiet fizzle.
Just don't tell my bank manager that...
PS Let me have your thoughts in the Comments below!