APR. 12 th 2007 - UNITED KINGDOM
MAPEX FACTORY TOUR BY MIKE DOLBEAR
As featured at: http://www.mikedolbear.co.uk/story.asp?storyID=1284
Back in November 1999 mikedolbear.com had just started and the first event
we covered was at Honky tonk music in Southend on Sea. We were reviewing a
Gregg Bissonette clinic. Gerry wondered what someone with Gregg’s profile
was doing playing Mapex, such was the general impression of the brand within
the marketplace. Now, 6 years later, things couldn’t be more different.
With the continuous improvement of their product, their growing artist roster,
their supportive presence in education and a long term marketing strategy,
Mapex have firmly established themselves as one of the major forces within
the drum industry. In the UK this success is due to the work of their distributor
Korg UK, who have ensured that Mapex drums are now widely available in all
the major UK drum stores.
Coincidentally it was nearly 6 years to the day that we visited the Mapex
factory in Beijing, which is the nation’s political, economic, cultural
and educational centre and also China’s most important centre for international
trade and communications.
So before we get going with the tour lets look at some key facts. Mapex drums
are made by KHS Musical Instruments. In 1957 KHS was established by Chien-Chung
Hsieh, a teacher, with his brothers. It started with a small shop and school
called Kong Sheh Hsue literally translated to Contribution, Society, School,
with the ethos being to improve the quality of life with music in schools and
social surroundings. In 1992 KHS set their current factory in Tianjin, 2 hours
south east of Beijing. making a host of different musical instruments such
as Jupiter Brass & Woodwind,, Ross percussion, Majestic Orchestral percussion
and Hercules accessories. In 1996 Mapex USA Inc was established and in 1991
Korg UK started distributing Mapex drums in the UK.
KHS has grown from a small shop into an international brand, but still follows
its original ethos and supports many educational projects around the world.
They have been making Mapex drums for over 15 years and all the drums and hardware
are made in their two factories: JMH - their die cast factory and JMD drum
production, both based in Tianjin.
We’ll split the factory tour into the hardware production and drum production.
The hardware is made at the JMH die cast factory which is about a 20 minute
drive from main KHS factory. All of the die casting, processing, buffing and
electroplating is done here. The JMH cast factory is made up of about 6 large
warehouses and all of the hardware is constructed and completed for packing
from this factory. Let’s go though the steps required to make Mapex hardware.
Stage 1: The casting room
All raw material come to the factory as ingots and semi-finished products.
When they arrive they are split into two sections zinc/alloy and aluminium/alloy
casting. All of the mouldings and hardware for the stands, pedals, nut boxes,
and tension rods etc are moulded here. We started by watching a Bass drum pedal
being cast before it the edges were filled down and placed into a box for the
Responsibility is placed on individual workers at every stage of production
for quality control. A manager will walk their respective warehouse to oversee
the production of products and any parts that do not reach the high quality
control standard are sent back for recycling. At each stage however, there
is a dedicated quality assurance person. He or she inspects not just a random
sample of product, but every single nutbox, footplate clamp or whatever is
being run that day. The casting room also has a furnace which melts down anything
that does not reach standard ready for recasting. The majority of raw materials
however comes in from outside.
Stage 2: Processing.
The next stage is “processing” where products are drilled and
all loose particles are removed before they go to the buffing section. The
bass drum plates we saw in the previous section were being drilled in this
section. There was a line of people on industrial drills processing the newly
cast nutboxes and footplates. This was production Chinese style. You really
felt you were in the heart of the Chinese manufacturing revolution here. There
were boxes and boxes of items being processed and you wondered if they were
ever going to get through them! But there were also bodies everywhere – each
one with their own job, sitting there, getting on with it meticulously.
Stage 3: Buffing:
We moved along to the buffing section where loose particles are removed from
the bare metal before polishing. The room contained a number of large “tumble-polishing
units”. These were basically big drums filled with hard wax pellets and
water. The products are added to the “mix” and the unit then vibrates,
churning the products (in this case, the nut boxes) in amongst the wax pellets.
On completion, the products are removed by hand from the mix before heading
off be buffeted by a plethora of people working away behind their buffeting
wheels bringing the products up to a shine. After buffing, each item then heads
into the industrial heart of the factory – the electroplating building.
Stage 4: Electroplating:
This is another big warehouse where the work felt like it never stopped. The
electroplating process is quite industrial but also very precise. There are
teams of people hanging products on to plastic trees which are suspended on
rotating rails. Each tree is then dipped into the various chemicals along the
line. Electroplating is quite a time consuming process which has some seven
steps to completion. Rather than talking about it here. Visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electroplating
to read about the general principles. Each step takes just under 20 seconds
and over one million parts are plated here every month. Electroplating produces
waste water which is filtered and treated in an adjoining room. Great care
is taken to protect the local environment and this particular water treatment
process is the first of its kind in Tianjin.
All of the hardware parts are then transported to the KHS factory down the
road to be to be assembled and packed.
Stage 5: Assembly of hardware
We jumped back into the minibus and headed back for another theme park like,
heart in mouth drive to the main factory. Tracing the steps from birth to shipping,
we next went to the assembly area. Four large conveyor belts run around this
section with about 20 various docks on each. Two belts are stationary and the
other two are moving. On one of the belts they were putting together bass drum
pedals. At the first section the uprights, were placed on the belt, various
nuts and washers were added to put together the mechanism. The foot plates
were added followed quickly by finishing work then final testing wrapping and
packing. It took literally a minute end to end. And we met THOSE people… you
know the people who pack the hardware in such a way that you can never get
it back in the box exactly the same way!
On the other conveyor belt, snare drum stands were being constructed and on
the next hi-hat stands. Three of the four conveyor belts change products to
meet demand but the bass drum pedal conveyor belt is constant. The conveyor
belt itself doesn’t actually stop so you can imagine the rate at which
this stuff was being turned out.
So in summary the completion of a new Mapex bass drum pedal (as an example)
goes through eight steps
1: The casting room created the basic cast products
2: Rough edges and loose material of the bass plate is rubbed down
3: The pedal is drilled.
4: All parts are placed in the tumble-polishing unit and buffed.
5: The parts are then electroplated.
6: All of the parts are then transferred to KHS factory for assembly.
7: Pedal is wrapped and then packed.
8: Finished product is shipped out.
We didn’t include QA checking as a step as it’s constant.
At this point we sat down to some lunch, which was not too dissimilar to breakfast
and dinner the night before! Now, most of us are partial to Chinese food (
except Duncan from Korg of course who lives on a staple diet of crisps, Mars
bars and fags and is still as skinny as a pole – B*****d!), but when
you have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner you begin to appreciate your Cheerios
and toast a lot more. Mike managed to find some kind of sweet rice and milky
dish in the hotel which when mixed with brown sugar (we think) passed for a
porridgey like substance which, went down well for breakfast – with a
couple of dumplings of course. Having said that we were treated to some fantastic
food by our hosts. Hand on heart, we can honestly say we had the best Chinese
meal of our lives in Beijing. Miles, our host, guide, advisor, transport manager,
tour operator and surrogate father took us to a very famous restaurant in what’s
left of old Beijing one evening. It’s famed for its crispy duck. We had
a bit of a wait to get in and when we skated across the floor on the three
inches of grease to our table there was the usual banter and drinking. When
the food arrived you could hear a pin drop. Barely a word was said while we
savoured the amazing meal. Even Duncan had some! Sadly, the need for land and
the modern city is encroaching upon the restaurant and its demise to the bulldozers
Getting back to the factory tour, we now had a look around the drum factory.
After lunch we started in the “timber yard”. Every Mapex drum,
regardless of price, is built to rigid manufacturing specifications which include
high spec raw materials to build their drums. Premium grade hardwoods like
Maple, walnut, birch and basswood are hand-selected and sonically matched by
skilled acoustical experts before finding their way to the timber yard.
We headed for the timber cutting area where all the plys are cut to the various
sizes required for each drum in the catalogue. The wood used in Mapex drums
comes from Shanghai, Northern China and Taiwan and of course the Orion uses
North American Maple. All of the wood is stored in a humidity controlled area
and every sheet is hand checked before use.
Next the drum shell is constructed. Each series is constructed of different
plys; the Orion is 7-ply (6 Maple inner, 1 Burl Maple outer), Saturn is 6 ply
(4 Maple exterior, 2 Walnut inner)Pro M is 7 ply (All Maple), M Birch is 6
ply (5 Birch inner, 1 Maple outer), VX is 8 ply Basswood as is QR. The middle
plys is glued both sides and then the inner and outer layers are wrapped around
with all of the joins overlapping. Once the plys are glued they are expertly
wrapped into a cylinder shape before being placed around a forming machine
which is a series of metal barrels heated to 100ºC to dry the glue. Within
seconds out comes a new shell. Once the shell comes off the machine it stands
for 15 minutes to cool. Drum shells are then stored before assembly.
We then moved on to have a look at the wrapped drums assembly line. The shells
are placed on a conveyor belt 56 meters long. First they are buffed and then
a 45 degree bearing edge is cut to both sides. The shell is then sanded to
remove any rough wood and glue and a wax coating is applied to the bearing
edges. This is all completed in a noisy, dusty area at the top of the line.
The conveyor then passes through a gap in the wall and in the first process
in this section the shells are drilled. Next they are wrapped with the Delmar
finish which comes from Taiwan and Northern China. While one half of the
conveyor constructs the drums the other prepares all the lugs that have been
transported over from the other factory ready to be put on the now wrapped
drums. Another conveyor belt is running through the warehouse where they
are attaching the nut boxes and brackets to the now covered drums.
The drums are finally air hose cleaned and checked before the rims and drumheads
go on. Each drum is then separately packaged and sealed in plastic before packing
into boxes. All of the drums are packed separately into boxes or wrapped in
cardboard ready to be packaged as a complete kit. This is all done in one very,
very large warehouse at some speed by lots of people. It’s all very efficient
and was with all other parts of the factory, there were QA people with their
red armbands checking everything which goes through.
High Gloss Lacquering
Now we’re all familiar with the beautiful finishes offered by the high
end Mapex kits. There’s some serious amount of work which goes into this
process as we fond out. As you would expect the lacquering process involves
a lot more preparation which of course is reflected in the cost. The lacquering
section of the factory also has a large conveyer belt but this time running
through various rooms along one side of the warehouse. The lacquered drums
have a base coating applied then a colour stain; it is then dried before the
base coat is buffed with a fine-grade sand paper. Each drum goes through this
process a staggering 11 times for Orion and Satin drum lines and 9 times for
M-Birch, VX and Pro-M drum lines. This results in a very tough, high gloss
All lacquered drums have a base coat, middle coat and then a top coat, and
then each drum is stored and dried thoroughly in a dust proof humidity controlled
area. The drums then have a 45 degree bearing edge cut to both sides, holes
are drilled and then nut boxes and brackets are attached before the final cleaning
and buffing. The final lacquering process is done in an airtight pressurised
room. Before you enter this room you must remove your shoes and go into lift
size room where you’re blasted with powerful air jets to remove any dust
particles from your clothing. For a minute we were expecting to be beamed up
but the door opened and we entered the spraying chamber. A conveyor belt enters
the spraying chamber where each shell is mounted on a spinner. As the drum
enters the spraying chamber it rotates at a higher speed and the final coating
is sprayed onto the rotating drum evenly with a very fine jet. The drums are
then dried before moving onto assembly. The shells look quite special at this
point having gone through 11 cotes of lacquer.
Before the drum is constructed (you guessed it) it has to be quality checked
again. This job is done by one member of staff per shift, who gives every single
shell an eight point quality check. We stood in amazement at this girl who
has a mountain of shells behind her to check looking at the finest detail of
each shell and with such concentration and dedication. To qualify as a quality
checker of the high end drums you need to have worked as an assembler for -
wait for it - FIVE years! Put another way you have to have assembled a gazillion
quality checked shells before you’re considered for the QA job itself.
We began to wonder why Mapex weren’t making surgical instruments! In
a typical 8 hour shift some 600 drums are checked. Drums which pass this stage
then have rims and heads put onto them before being checked (yes again!) and
All the packing is done in one area where everything is wrapped and packed
into separate boxes ready for transportation.
So what stood out for us? Well you’ve probably guessed the first thing
- quality control. The quality control is exceptional and everybody, not just
QA inspectors, has the remit to discard the product at any stage if it doesn’t
come up to standard.
The staff are encouraged to play instruments and lessons are provided so that
they can appreciate and take pride in the musical instruments they are making.
The company’s’ endorsees are regularly brought in to perform and
are involved with product development.
The other striking this was being in the middle of the great Chinese manufacturing
revolution. There was people everywhere all with their own jobs who were diligently
getting on with it. There was one rule – quality and efficiency.
It became very clear for us why Mapex has made such an impact on the drum
industry in such a short space of time. Their dedication to R&D through
constantly looking for better ways to improve their drums and the quality control
is second to none. KHS musical group are investing in new machinery all the
time striving to improve their products while also helping their local environment
as well as the local economy.
In fact so impressed was Gerry with the product, he bought a kit!
Finally we were exceptionally well looked after and a big up goes to Mapex
UK for the invite to do the tour, KHS for their excellent hospitality and of
course to Miles for his tireless work and for being the hero of the day.
Gerry & Mike