The ‘truth’ about BYD – replication, cost cutting, and car production

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Caixin magazine have run a very interesting story on BYD’s business practices which detail BYD’s alleged copyright infringements, and cost cutting business practices:

Auto technician Li Xuelin never dreamed of dismantling his boss’ Mercedes Benz S300. But one day, that’s exactly what the boss ordered Li and a half-dozen colleagues to do.

It wasn’t easy. At first, the technicians just stood beside the shiny black car, daring not to touch it. But eventually their boss and BYD CEO Wang Chuanfu broke the stalemate.

Wang stepped up to the car and, with sweat on his brow, gouged the paint job with a car key. “Now you can start,” he said.

Li’s team disassembled the car, piece by piece, to reverse engineer the luxury car’s electronic control system. It was a painstaking but money-saving project that’s now become a trademark for Wang and BYD, a highly successful Chinese manufacturer that’s proud to be a master copyist.

Since its launch in 1995, BYD has expanded from OEM battery manufacturing into various unrelated fields including IT products, autos and new energy. Li’s experience with reverse engineering Wang’s Benz has been repeated at many levels by BYD’s army of about 30,000 engineers and technicians.

By reverse engineering products made by others, BYD pushed its way into manufacturing production, eventually expanding upstream and downstream in chosen fields to build a profitable, vertically integrated enterprise. BYD won big wherever its elbows went.

BYD’s success as a revolutionary copyist has drawn mixed reactions, but of course business champions seldom pay heed to grumblings from those they defeat. When carmaking, for example, BYD found that reverse engineering can cut the cost of a new vehicle by more than one-third.

BYD-Style Imitation

Last May, the city of Xian started switching its taxi fleet to the BYD F3 car, which at first glance could be confused with a Toyota Corolla. Indeed, the F3 is an inside-outside copy of the Japanese manufacturer’s small car but costs only half as much.

BYD isn’t shy about its business practices. In the F3′s introductory period, the company marketing department touted Corolla similarities as a sales point. At some service centers in the city of Zhengzhou, F3 owners could spend a few hundred yuan to have the exterior badge swapped with a Toyota logo. And last year, after just five years in production, annual F3 sales reached 300,000 units, making it one of China’s best-selling cars.

To develop good cars in the shortest time possible, BYD spends tens of millions of yuan every year buying and then dismantling the newest models built by manufacturers around the world.

That’s also how Wang set up the company’s first battery production line. In those early years, a fully automated Ni-Cd battery production line from Sanyo cost tens of millions of yuan, so Wang decided to make one himself. He reverse-engineered the setup for an identical production line that cost only about 1 million yuan.

Wang decided to move into autos in 2002, and the following
January his company bought a 77 percent stake in Shaanxi’s Qinchuan Auto Co. “A car shouldn’t cost so much,” he told his investors at the time, before revealing that he’d already dissected a large number of motor vehicles as part of his imitation quest.

Copying was in Wang’s blood. After a 2003 visit to BYD’s Songjiang laboratory in Shanghai, for example, a former Chery Auto expert noted that he saw only two pieces of lab equipment that had been imported; the rest were Chinese-made imitations of foreign equipment.

How can simple imitation win a market? The Chery veteran said BYD strategy’s is based on focus, brazenness and precision.

Rather than waste effort creating new models for the sake of variety, a limited number of resources are spent on developing key products. That’s the company’s focus. As a brazen market player, BYD picks best-selling products and blatantly copies them, head to toe.

The company also works to rigidly control costs and quality, and learns by doing. “BYD’s excellent quality imitation cars are tied to the fact that the company has accumulated experience in strict product control from its earlier practices in batteries and the IT sector,” the Chery source said.

“Maybe it’s right. They very well may become China’s flagship auto manufacturer.”

Unwelcome Buyer

BYD delights and frightens suppliers at the same time. Many have discovered that BYD typically makes one or two serious, large orders of models, materials, or components but never orders again. That’s because it just starts making whatever it bought.

This kind of vertical integration is a cost-cutting measure. And it worked well in the battery business. BYD overtook Japan’s Sanyo in just a few years to become the world’s largest supplier of Ni-Cd batteries, and eventually became the second largest provider of Li-Ion batteries.

BYD rose to a new extreme when it got into automotive manufacturing. The company went against an industry trend that started in the late 1990s, when the world’s major auto manufacturers were turning to outsourcing to increase efficiency and lower risk.

Auto stamping offers a good example of BYD’s strategy. The company obtained a complete stamping plant when it bought Qinchuan, eliminating the need for expensive outsource production of new car body parts, which can take two years and cost 200 million yuan. As a result, BYD started making new stamps in eight months for 80 million yuan, and now it’s building a third stamping plant near Shenzhen.

“Why are our cars so cheap?” retorted a mid-level staffer at BYD. “Money is saved on every part, from engine to dashboard.”

This do-it-yourself attitude stretches from manufacturing to distribution to sales. True, BYD’s homemade company ads are a little rough around the edges. But it spends only about 20,000 yuan to build a lighted, outdoor ad which, if outsourced to an advertising agency, could cost more than 400,000 yuan.

Hands-On Success

When U.S. billionaire Warren Buffett invested in BYD in 2008, major transaction player and MidAmerican Energy Holdings CEO David L. Sokol visited BYD’s Shenzhen battery workshop. He was surprised to discover employees sitting on rows of workbenches – like 18th century seamstresses – busy producing millions of batteries every year with simple tools and bare hands.

Indeed, from the start, low-cost labor has been integral to Wang’s strategy for overtaking Japanese competitors. He uses people instead of machines wherever possible, supplementing humans only when necessary.

BYD is proud of this operational model which it weaves into unique staff recruiting practices. In addition to laborers, the company hires top engineering students, sometimes an entire university class immediately after graduation, as well as capable engineers and retirees with extensive experience.

In a 2003 television interview with official CCTV, Wang said he thought labor costs plus market advantages were keys to success for Chinese enterprises.

At the end of 2009, according to BYD’s official statistics, the company had more than 140,000 employees, including more than 30,000 engineers.

After buying of Qinchuan, Wang brought his literally “hands on” manufacturing approach to the automotive sector. Now, even in usually high-tech areas such as painting, most jobs are done with manpower. BYD’s F6 assembly line in Shenzhen, for example, employs a sizable staff of 220 people.

“Whenever manpower can be used, they won’t use machines,” said a source close to BYD.

And the strategy began with batteries. Unlike box-shaped Li-Ion batteries made by many other companies, BYD’s are column-shaped because they are made manually. Box-shaped batteries require automated equipment.

Today, a BYD battery line employs more than 100 people to do the same work handled by 50 people in China’s most automated mobile phone battery-maker, Shenzhen’s BAK Battery.

A former BYD employee said relying on manpower for mobile phone batteries results in a higher waste rate, usually between 20 and 30 percent. A similar, automated production line in Japan would have an elimination rate closer to 5 percent. But to Wang, the waste rate is completely acceptable because it can save hundreds of millions of yuan.

Growing Pains

There’s no doubt BYD’s market share and sales are increasing. However, there are still debates about the sustainability of the company’s magic, low-cost wand.

The debates haven’t affected BYD’s bank credit rating. A high-ranking official at the Shenzhen branch of China Development Bank said the bank isn’t worried about BYD, noting other businesses such as telecom equipment giants ZTE and Huawei had shaky starts.

The bank has confidence in BYD because it gets substantial financial subsidies from the government for environmental protection programs. In addition, the company’s Li-Ion battery business is profitable.

But Wu Jinghui, a senior manager at market analyst A.C. Kearney, notes that automation offers uniformity in output and quality, while manpower poses risks for manufacturers. And a strictly manpower strategy is considered untenable for electric cars and new energy markets.

BYD officials understand Wu’s point. Eventually, the company may be heading down the road to automation, especially in the electric car and new energy arenas. By then, holding down costs will have become an even bigger challenge for BYD.

Yet, as of last year, most of BYD’s 5 billion yuan in automated production facilities were self-built.

Intellectual property right is another sticky issue, since most BYD cars pay homage to other manufacturers’ products.

BYD booths at car shows have been frequented by Toyota employees taking photos and collecting data. “It appears they’re building a case,” said an individual familiar with the international car market.

In the past, other Chinese automakers such as Chery and Great Wall have had to confront IPR charges and lost lawsuits in the United States and Europe, leading to export restrictions.

Wang has often stressed that his company imitates but does not plagiarize, arguing that South Korean and Japanese car manufacturers got their starts the same way.

In hopes of skirting patent issues, BYD has a team with hundreds of people who study global patent intricacies. At the same time, BYD has begun applying for large numbers of patents; it was the biggest applicant after Huawei and ZTC in Shenzhen last year.

BYD Sales Vice President Wang Jianjun says every automaker has to find its own path slowly. He notes that BYD is coming out with six, new models in 2010, all mid-range cars costing more than 100,000 yuan.

“You’ll discover that these new makes don’t resemble anyone else’s models,” he said. “We made them ourselves.”

Besides this particular article, Caixin also have another article on BYD’s mystical BYD E6, they raise interesting questions about the upcoming BYD E6, and how they’ve managed to jump over established car companies such as Nissan and GM in the electric car race:

The market had waited with bated breath for years before the anticipated pride of Chinese carmaker BYD finally appeared on a Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) annual list of new autos in early January.

Listing the E6 in MIIT’s 2010 catalogue put what’s still largely a secret vehicle in line for a final permit process, which should gradually answer persistent and sometimes troubling questions about the car’s technology, market goals and proposed commercial model.

BYD claims it has developed the world’s leading electric vehicle and battery technology. But the technology has yet to be verified beyond the company’s shadowy walls by industry and technical organizations. And so far, scale models of the E6 and BYD’s plug-in hybrid F3DM have been seen only at auto shows.

Despite unproven claims, BYD’s stock value has risen 10 times since U.S. billionaire Warren Buffet made a high-profile investment in the Shenzhen-based company in 2008. The attention catapulted its image into the stratosphere as a new energy vehicle company.

But to this day, no one outside the company really knows much about BYD’s research into electric vehicle technology or whether its promise will ever become a reality.

BYD officials say they don’t want to reveal trade secrets. But many in the industry have raised doubts, pointing to the fact that some automakers including Nissan and Daimler, which plan to start mass producing electric vehicles this year, have long offered their products for test drives.

The mystery gets even more profound when one considers that Wang Chuanfu, BYD chairman and CEO, once admitted on Chinese television that even without accounting for research costs, the company would lose 20,000 yuan on each F3DM sold.

Claims, Counterclaims

BYD has said the E6 will be able to travel 300 kilometers on a single charge — much farther than electric vehicles developed by Nissan and Ford. Skeptics say BYD’s numbers have yet to be confirmed by third-party testers, and some in the industry say an E6 could only achieve 300 kilometers by adding an extra battery pack.

BYD says charging an E6 battery generally requires eight hours, and that a high-current, fast charge can take about 15 minutes, outstripping Nissan’s electric model.

But BYD’s claims have raised technical issues. For example, Feng Fei, head of the State Council Development Research Center Industry Department, said fast-charging may slash in half the lifespan of an auto battery – usually about 1,000 charges –
and greatly increase an electric vehicle’s costs.

In a speech at Peking University on January 9, former Dongfeng Motor Corp. president and MIIT Vice Minister Miao Wei criticized some electric car companies and their experts, whom he said try to fool laymen by only releasing information that’s to their advantage. For example, Miao said, some leave out the facts that long driving distances are achieved by adding battery packs, and fast-charging reduces battery life.

Sources at the China Automotive Technology and Research Center say no tested, domestic-made electric vehicle has simultaneously met targets for driving range, battery weight, failure rate, maximum speed and battery life.

Electric car developers are racing to close the performance gap with traditional cars with internal combustion engines. But they still lag far behind in areas such as driving distances per fill-up, which a survey by the consultancy McKinsey found is among the foremost issues for consumers in Shanghai when considering electric vehicles.

Barriers to Mass Production

Manufacturing an electric vehicle is not difficult, but it’s a challenge to mass produce battery-powered cars at low cost that can guarantee safety. And to date, there’s been no indication that BYD can mass produce electric vehicles, given its inability to find a commercial solution to battery consistency issues.

A Shenzhen Development and Reform Commission (SDRC) source close to BYD said the company has not put an electric car into mass production because of its inability to ensure battery supplies. He stressed the problem was not technical, but that the company just needs more time.

The source insisted the E6 would reach “a certain scale” of mass production in 2010. Generally speaking, 10,000 vehicles is a basic industry qualifier for mass production. It’s unclear whether the F3DM or E6 will reach that mark.

Speaking to Caixin Online, BYD officials said their battery production methods are automated, and that they have full confidence in their manufacturing system. But they declined to provide direct proof of these and other claims.

Cao Jianhua, vice president of Shenzhen B&K Rechargeable Battery, said BYD probably runs only a single production line that builds two F3DMs per day. He also noted the E6 is still in the prototype stage.

Cao said a battery comprises up roughly half of an electric car’s weight and cost, and according to his projections the E6 may require as many as 1,600 batteries. The challenge for BYD, he said, is to guarantee the quality of each car’s 1,600 batteries while maintaining low costs.

Experts say ensuring battery consistency and safety requires automation and high-quality materials. So far, however, BYD’s success has been built on leveraging China’s low-cost labor, using people instead of machines in the production process.

Shen Yang, director of investment banking strategy for Beiqi Foton Motor Co., a Chinese auto manufacturer with early investments in new energy vehicle research, calls BYD a “battery king” with distinct advantages in single-cell batteries. But he said the company lacks a competitive edge in the areas of battery pack management, electronic control technology and vehicle integration technology.

Mao Huanyu, general manager of Shenzhen BAK Battery, said BYD in the past mainly produced single-cell mobile phone batteries but never ventured into the field of notebook computers, which use six- or seven-cell batteries.

An electric car needs hundreds or thousands of cells, so consistency is paramount. “So far, I have not seen a technological bright spot for (BYD) in terms of integrating multiple batteries,” Mao said.

Government Business

BYD and other electric car hopefuls also must overcome the infrastructure hurdle. For example, charging stations and other supporting facilities will be needed before the ubiquitous electric market takes off. Questions about the form of this infrastructure, investment sources, and their likelihood remain unanswered.

But local support is in place. A SDRC source said the city of Shenzhen plans within four years to buy 2,000 electric cars from BYD for use as taxis. And the Pengcheng Taxi Co., a subsidiary of Shenzhen Bus Group, plans to jointly establish an electric vehicle servicing company with BYD. BYD’s investment would consist of 100 E6s, while the bus group would handle company operations.

To offset the high cost of electric vehicles, the source also said policy subsidies for the E6 are under discussion. The government plans to provide a 50,000 yuan subsidy for each E6 purchased, and is currently choosing between two subsidy programs: a direct subsidy to buyers, or subsidies to the manufacturer. Additionally, the government plans to offer electric vehicle drivers half-price parking and highway toll discounts.

If its electric vehicle business is forced to depend on government subsidies, BYD will need more friends than Shenzhen officials. But local car companies already have connections and stakes in Beijing, Wuhan, Guangzhou, Chongqing and other major urban centers. Each city government is likely to offer preferential treatment to a hometown favorite, and BYD is a latecomer in China’s crowded public transportation sector.

Competition among government departments may be another challenge for BYD. For example, Science and Technology Minister Wan Gang has long supported electric vehicles as a target for state investments. But officials at MIIT, which oversees the automotive industry, advocate energy-saving and emissions-reduction solutions for traditional auto technology given the immaturity of new-energy technology.

Perhaps aware of the complexity of the policy environment, BYD has adopted a maverick, behind-the-walls business style. Its officials also have been keen to lobby the government; in recent years, the company has frequently invited national leaders and industry experts to inspect its facilities.

BYD’s development strategy called for evolving from small beginnings as an OEM maker of cell phone batteries to a become a manufacturer of autos, from traditional to new-energy vehicles, including electric cars. Many industry insiders and investors are bullish about this path.

But a slow start for the electric vehicle market and an uncertain future are putting pressure on BYD. And the pressure will only rise as CEO Wang and his team seek a genuine market solution.

Some investors are speaking with their wallets. After BYD received MIIT approval for the E6, the company’s stock fell to HK$ 55.80. It had reached a high of HK$ 85 in 2009.

At this point, Mao of Shenzhen BAK, said the company’s veiled approach to public relations, product development and technology may be hurting.

“Technology will depreciate over time,” he said, but practical applications help technology develop. Persistently holding back a new product to protect a secret technology is simply illogical, Mao said.

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