KBC Helmets - The Chinese Hat Factory

Qingdao, on China's northeast coast of the Yellow Sea, is known for its red tile roofs, green trees and blue skies, as well as being the home of both Tsingtao (the old spelling of the city's name) beer and Asia's largest beer festival.

Apart from such colorful, hop-flavored factoids, Qingdao is also the new residence of KBC Helmets' manufacturing facility in China. Built in March 2003, the 322,928-square-foot plant employs 500 workers (210 men, 290 women) and represents an investment of $10 million. Production capacity is currently a little over 500,000 helmets per year, which will ramp up to more than 600,000 starting in 2007.

In case you haven't heard, Korean firm KBC is a company that's definitely on the move. Although smaller and younger than its Korean rival HJC, KBC has been making helmets for almost 15 years. Its first helmet was a sample made for snowmobile- and ATV-manufacturer Arctic Cat in 1991. In the ensuing years, KBC started making helmets for private-label firms. Current clients number 14 companies, including Harley-Davidson, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Fox, Answer and others. Some five years ago, however, KBC began focusing far more closely on building its own brand, such that its helmet sales totaled $60 million in 2005.

So why did KBC choose the People's Republic of China for its new factory? The same reason many manufacturing firms do: a large, (relatively) cheap workforce, thanks in part to China having 20 percent of the world's population. And why Qingdao? Mostly because of the Qingdao Free Trade Zone, where businesses don't pay tariffs on goods exported or imported. Qingdao also happens to have China's second-largest port (Shanghai's is the largest), and is roughly an hour awayvia commercial flights.

What follows, then, is a photographic look at how a Korean firm makes helmets at its new Chinese facility for distribution to a world market. We think you'll be equally impressed and amazed at the degree of human involvement the process requires, every step of the way. And this is key: As KBC's methods of helmet manufacturing don't differ radically from those of other companies', you might gain a special appreciation for the human touch that went into your helmet, whatever brand it might be.