Aquatic Plants and Sheet Metal Working：Experiences Create a Brighter Business Outlook
Esther Tseng /photo byJimmy Lin /tr. byScott Williams
How do you extend the value of a brand? How do you forge ties with consumers? B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore’s book The Experience Economy suggests that experiences are in fact a kind of economic product, one that goes beyond traditional goods and services and creates new value for companies. When Yilan’s Sheng Yang Leisure Farm faced price competition, and when Tainan’s Chih Kang Material Company struggled to hire employees, each of them responded by incorporating “experiences” into their product lineups. The former now offers visitors a full sensory experience of aquatic plants, while the latter provides an education in the basics of sheet metal working, as a means of expanding their business opportunities and brightening their businesses’ outlooks.
The curious fourth graders visiting Sheng Yang Leisure Farm from Yilan’s Liming Elementary School are making “bottle ecosystems” and asking questions as they learn. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
“Hey! Where’d my shrimp go?” “Teacher, do shrimp eat aquatic plants, or their own poop?” The curious fourth graders visiting Sheng Yang Leisure Farm from Yilan’s Liming Elementary School are making “bottle ecosystems” and asking questions as they learn.
“Bottle ecosystems simulate the Earth’s natural environment. The water, sand and aquatic plants they contain form a miniature ocean,” says a docent, who goes on to explain the principles that enable the ecosystems to be self-sustaining. “The shrimp inside them are the consumers. The algae are the producers, providing food to the shrimp. They also contain decomposers, which clean the water and break down the shrimps’ excretions into nutrients the aquatic plants can use.”
The ancient Egyptians used reeds like these to make papyrus.
Poling a raft teaches the importance of working together to achieve shared goals.
From cultivator to leisure farm
Sheng Yang was once Taiwan’s largest supplier of aquatic plants. Anticipating the rise of price competition and a downturn in the aquarium market, company president Hsu Chih Hsiung heeded the Council of Agriculture’s call to establish agricultural and fisheries parks in every rural township by beginning Sheng Yang’s transformation into a facility open to tourists while also maintaining the company’s production.
Hsu’s sense of crisis arose from his parents’ repeated failures in the aquaculture business. “My parents began raising eels in 1967, and enjoyed ten good years before their business began to decline. They went on to raise giant freshwater prawns, and then Chinese sturgeon. They probably tried their hands at everything but turtles.” He says that after their many ups and downs, they finally realized that Yilan’s relatively cool temperatures and limited sunshine made it unsuited to aquaculture. Their experience caused Hsu and his younger brother to try a different approach—they began cultivating aquatic plants in 1993, when there were just two companies in that market.
Sheng Yang’s annual revenues hit a peak of more than NT$10 million in 1997, but its success attracted new entrants to the market who competed on price, which hurt the company’s margins. Making matters worse, demand from the aquarium market began falling at around the same time. These two factors impacted Sheng Yang’s revenues, which were down to just NT$5 million or so in 2019.
Fortunately, the company’s leisure farm venture now brings in at least 70,000 visitors a year. “A lot of people have told me that I was smart to get into this business early,” says Hsu. He explains that the key is giving people an experience: “The NT$150 visitors spend to fish here could buy them a 1.8 kilogram tilapia at the market. They don’t get to take our fish home, but instead get the experience of catching it. They then take a picture and toss it back.” Just as Pine and Gilmore write, the experience economy offers producers a way around price-based competition.
Sheng Yang Leisure Farm has expanded the scope of its operations by providing visitors with a sensory experience of aquatic plants.
Under the direction of general manager Hsu Chih Hsiung, Sheng Yang Water Plants, once Taiwan’s largest supplier of aquatic plants, has remade itself into a leisure farm.
Knowledge = a good experience
The depth of an experience depends in part on the providers’ knowledge of the topic. Hsu, who is also the head of the Yilan Leisure Farming Development Association, says, “Our topic is aquatic plants. No one knows aquatic plants better than we do, so we can provide a lot of information.”
Sheng Yang spent a great deal of time surveying its resources and exploring the possibilities of aquatic plants. One result was its use of herbs such as rice paddy herb (Limnophila aromatica), culantro, and Limnophila rugosa to flavor an “aquatic plant” meal. Another was its development of DIY bottle ecosystem and globe ecosystem classes.
“The spinoff products that have lasted have been knowledge oriented.” The products that his visitors buy, which include aquatic-plant night lights and self-watering potted plants, have to be fun, make use of some particular attribute of the plants, and be affordable.
Visitors are looking to try something new. Children learn while having fun, and everyone enjoys new experiences that brighten their day. A visit to Sheng Yang makes for a great day out, filled with experiences that create added value in the form of learning and pleasure.
Three years ago, Hsu and his brother also began making use of the aquaculture ponds their parents left them to raise western rock lobsters (Panulirus cygnus). Once the lobsters acclimate to Yilan’s winters, Sheng Yang plans to feature them on its menu and add yet another experience to its palette.
When Sheng Yang treated aquatic plants as a simple product, it could only sell them to the aquarium market. By turning the plants into a full-fledged sensory experience for visitors, it has created new and limitless possibilities.
Creative versions of everyday items incorporating aquatic plants make life a little more fun.
Kuo Chih-hua, the general manager of Chih Kang Material Company, established the Taiwan Metal Creation Museum, a factory open to tourists, as a means of resolving the company’s labor shortage.
Turning crisis into opportunity
Chih Kang Material Company got its start manufacturing elevator cab shells. In more recent years, it established the Taiwan Metal Creation Museum (TMCM) and moved into the experience economy, doing so not because it needed to transform its business or spur sales of its products, but rather because it was having trouble hiring enough skilled workers to meet the strong demand for its products. General manager Kuo Chih-hua gambled that the “experience” provided by a platform highlighting sheet metal products and production techniques would pay off with a solution to its crisis.
Chih Kang’s six original shareholders founded the company in 1995 after each of their employers relocated to mainland China. Not wanting to follow their employers there, they partnered up to make doors and shells for elevators and platform lifts.
Kuo says that during the financial crisis of 1997 orders to factories serving Taiwan’s domestic market dried up, while those of firms selling to the export market remained steady, prompting Chih Kang to transition to exports.
“I remember our first overseas sale. We sent a container of metal cases to the customer, but the quality wasn’t up to standard and all of them were returned—an entire container full of goods instantly transformed into scrap metal.” But Chih Kang’s customer continued to work with them, even personally explaining the reason for the return, which turned out to be a problem with quality assurance procedures.
Kuo mulled the situation when he got back to Taiwan, and then fully implemented the customer’s quality assurance standards and methods. The application of these QA standards has enabled Chih Kang to win orders from around the world.
Kuo speaks at length about Chih Kang’s successful transformation, which he says led to high-quality products, a large and steady stream of orders, and a very bright outlook—but then a labor shortage.
A visitor assembles a sword-wielding lion robot that she has created by bending pieces of sheet metal into shape.
The “welding experience camp” enables children to don protective gear and experience “welding” for themselves. (courtesy of TMCM)
Working through a problem
Kuo found himself unable to recruit younger graduates of his alma mater, National Tainan Industrial High School, and heard that the school was on the verge of eliminating its sheet metal program. He explains that the declining popularity of sheet metal programs compared to machinist programs, was causing many vocational high schools to merge their sheet metal courses with other courses or even drop them entirely.
Chih Kang participated in job fairs, operating a booth as big as those of companies like Taiwan Semiconductor or Innolux. “But they had long lines of prospective hires, and we had no one. It hurt.” For all that the company had made a bit of a name for itself in the business community, it was largely unknown to the general public. Kuo therefore resolved to open Chih Kang’s factory to tourists.
Fortunately, he did so at a time when the Ministry of Economic Affairs was introducing its factory tourism policy. Chih Kang applied to become Taiwan’s first tourism-oriented sheet metal factory in 2010. Seeking to create space between this endeavor and its core OEM manufacturing business, in 2014 the company raised capital on the GISA board of the Taipei Exchange to establish the TMCM in Tainan’s Yong Kang Industrial Park.
The TCMC proves that women can operate metal forming presses as easily as men.
A form of marketing
TMCM has created experiences aimed at increasing the general public’s understanding of sheet metal, introducing DIY metalworking and welding camps that enable participants to use their hands as “bending machines” and to operate “welding rods” (actually, sparklers). They bend and shape metal to make robots, cellphone stands, and music boxes to gain a better grasp of what sheet metal working involves.
Opening the TMCM factory floor to the public helps visitors realize that modern metalworking facilities aren’t the dirty, smelly places they imagine. It also enables the TMCM to serve as a sort of “offsite classroom” for sheet metal programs in schools.
Working with sheet metal used to be dangerous. “In the old days, experienced sheet metal workers rarely had all ten fingers.” The docent explains that modern computer-controlled metal benders have infrared sensors that stop the machine the moment they detect something unusual, and that modern hydraulic presses take little strength to operate. You can even run modern tools from your chair.
Kuo says the factory now has many young skilled workers and interns, and visitors see machinists using tools to make medical instrument casings with familiarity, confidence and care. The highly skilled work is well paid, which is attracting young people into the sheet metal trade.
No longer considering eliminating its sheet metal program, National Tainan Industrial High School has now expanded it with the addition of a “metal creation” class!
The Taiwan Metal Creation Museum is Taiwan’s first tourist factory dedicated to sheet metal.
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama