The view from the factory
Epiphone's Lloyd Williams, Director of China Operations, and Scott Lewis, Plant Manager, oversee the day-to-day operation of building Epiphone instruments at Epiphone's factory near the northern coastal city of Qingdao, China. The idea of making Epiphones around the world is not a new one. In fact, founder Epi Stathopoulo had plans of his own to make Epiphone a world-wide manufacturer of quality professional instruments back in the late '30s just prior to World War II. Now in the 21st century, Epiphone has more than realized Epi's grandest dreams. In our continuing series honoring our 140th Anniversary, Epiphone.com spoke with Lloyd and Scott about their team in China, all of whom have been taught the secrets of building world class--and world famous, Epiphone designs. It's a unique factor with a unique mission: all Epiphones, all the time.
Scott and Lloyd, thanks for speaking with Epiphone.com. Tell us about what you do for Epiphone?
Scott Lewis: My initial role here in China was to bring my experience from two decades at Gibson USA to oversee all aspects related to production. This included training of our Chinese staff to adhere to processes and quality standards set by Epiphone USA as well as communicating on a daily basis with Epiphone staff on R&D related items like quality control, shipping and material supply chains.
I started working for the Impulse Division in 1988 located on Elm Hill Pike in Nashville producing Gibson's line of pickups and electronic assemblies. Two years later, I transferred to the main Gibson USA facility as I had a strong desire to learn more about the guitar building process. Through the years I was fortunate to work in just about every department from rough mill to final assembly in various capacities from machine operator, supervisor and plant manager. In 2005, I came to China to work for Epiphone and hooked up with Lloyd Williams to begin improving the operations in China to meet and exceed Epiphone's quality standards.
Lloyd Williams: Like Scott, I have been in the musical instrument manufacturing business for more than 20 years. I originally started with Baldwin piano company in Cincinnati, Ohio in the marketing department. I held a variety of jobs there and was serving as a production manager when the company was acquired by Gibson in 2001.
At that time, I moved to Nashville to work at Gibson's headquarters as a product manager under the Epiphone division. In 2004, I transferred to China full-time to oversee manufacturing operations. Currently, I am the Director of China Operations with the primary responsibility of overseeing the production of guitars as well as Baldwin pianos. I also work on a daily basis with our partner factories and suppliers to ensure Epiphone's high standards are maintained here in Asia.
Tell us about your life in China.
Scott Lewis: China has a unique culture that you have to adapt to achieve effective results. Like life in any foreign country, you sometimes need to change your way of thinking and adapt accordingly. From a cultural perspective since I moved here in 2005, I have seen the popularity and sales of musical instruments and specifically guitars increase dramatically. While piano's still have a larger presence in China, there are now more rock bands at the local clubs, bars and hotels than ever before. As a result, our China domestic sales continue to increase every year.
Lloyd Williams: The biggest lifestyle challenge for me when I first came to China was using chopsticks. I almost starved to death learning how to use them. But seriously, I enjoy Asian culture and the people and found that I adjusted to life here really easily. As to the revolution Epiphone is experiencing here in China, it is a beautiful thing to behold. Chinese culture is rapidly, becoming more open especially in the music scene. I watch a lot of music shows in person and on TV and it amazes me how many leading and upcoming artists are using Epiphones and Gibsons as their instrument of choice.
What are some of the advantages to Epiphone owning its own factories?
Scott Lewis: The two advantages that come to mind are having 45+ years of experience with Gibson/Epiphone between Lloyd and myself and our commitment to the Epiphone brand. Another major advantage is that we produce only Epiphone guitars, which allows us to focus 100% of our attention and our exclusive production techniques on one brand. Unlike other OEM or contract factories that produce for several brands. we are one family -- Epiphone only.
Lloyd Williams: This is a trick question, right? This is our company making our guitars. We are focused on making only the best guitars and only Epiphone guitars. It is our reputation that is at stake and we play to win. Epiphone controls the designs, development, manufacturing and quality 100% throughout the entire manufacturing process. You just can't get that through OEM factory production alone. A lot of guitar companies are trying to rely on OEM alone but not Epiphone. Our proprietary Epiphone designs are built by Epiphone employees and that really makes all the difference. While we do use OEM factories to extend our capacity, production is tightly controlled by a dedicated team of Epiphone quality technicians stationed onsite within these facilities.
Quality is a huge part of what we're about at Epiphone. Tell me about the significant changes and improvements that you've overseen.
Scott Lewis: Quality is #1, and to achieve that #1 status you must be efficient in every aspect of operations. We basically changed the entire footprint for production to mirror USA production in terms of flow and processes. As some processes may differ, such as binding and paint application, the end result is a great instrument. Currently, we are engaged in changing our finished goods and work-in-process system to emulate Epiphone USA's inventory tracking and bin location system. That will significantly improve our efficiency managing production but more importantly will allow us an additional level of QC inspection every step of the way. We are also in the process of making changes to our current designs for shipping boxes that will reduce transportation damage and be much more environmentally friendly.
Lloyd Williams: The most important thing any manufacturer can do is to institute and maintain a factory-wide philosophy that is focused on quality control supported by the use of only premium quality raw materials. If the factory is geared toward total quality control and uses the best materials available then manufacturing is relatively smooth and the end product will be world class. About 1 out of every 10 workers here are in a quality control position, which is very unusual in a manufacturing environment in Asia.
Tell us about the Epiphone employees who make our guitars.
Lloyd Williams: Wow, where do I begin? When a new employee starts on the line they are assigned a mentor. Depending on the skill level for their position they will apprentice from 60 days to one year. Once they have passed their apprenticeship and mastered their skills they in turn become mentors for the next new employee. But, we have very little turnover so most of our folks have been with us for years. All of our senior managers and supervisors started on the shop floor and worked their way up the old fashion way (like Scott) by learning to be master craftsmen with strong leadership skills.
We also have Epiphone Master Luthiers who are dedicated to teaching critical skills such as neck jointing, buffing and final setup. These are former line leaders who have the knowledge and skills of traditional guitar making and keep the Epiphone flame burning bright. Scott and I are extremely proud of our team and in return they are extremely proud to be part of the Epiphone family.
What are some of the new challenges you see for Epiphone in terms of manufacturing?
Lloyd Williams: For producing Epiphone future models the criteria is simple: build a guitar that a musician really needs. And second, build the guitar with unique features and benefits that the musician can really use to expand their musical horizons. Oh yeah, and while we are doing this we focus on quality, quality, quality. I personally hope we continue to resurrect Epiphone models from years ago and at the same time continue to innovate. Our biggest challenge is to continue to deliver the best instrument at the best value.
Do either of you have an instrument that is your personal favorite to see made?
Scott Lewis: My favorite instrument is the ES-339. The playability is unbelievable and the sustain is just pure pleasure to the ears. To be honest, any production of the hollow body instruments is an amazing sight to see as it is more than a just a block of wood and neck.
Lloyd Williams: Oh, I guess I would have to say any model with lots of multi-binding, metallic finish and is a bear to build. But seriously, I guess I am drawn toward the Casinos. To me they are the heart and soul of Epiphone. Oh... and Paul McCartney likes them, too! But I also bang on my old Epiphone AJ acoustic but that is just to annoy the cats outside my window.
We have a very informed and demanding audience. Quality is serious business, isn't it?
Lloyd Williams: Everything about making a quality guitar must be taken seriously! Though it is more fun compared to making a washing machine. But to answer your question, quality demands keep growing as more and more information is out there for review. I would have to say the biggest challenge is meeting the increased expectations of the customers. Dave Berryman, Jim Rosenberg, Scott Aisenbrey and Marty Burns keep us focused on what is needed in the musician's world so we have to be very responsive at the factory level. We seem to always be working on something new so there is a lot of collaboration back and forth between the big office and the factories. But hey, when you have an army of guitar fanatics back at the home office you can expect to be challenged on a daily basis.
Is there anything about the processes that you oversee that might surprise our audience?
Scott Lewis: Having worked at both Gibson and Epiphone, there isn't much difference in the basic processes with the exception of a few high end CNC's and few other minor variances. Epiphone remains true to what I would call a handcrafted instrument. Several of our processes today require hands on work that remains one of the most intriguing discussion points with touring guests.
Lloyd Williams: What really is unique about crafting Epiphones is that we are mixing 100-year old techniques with modern technology. Epiphone's engineers provide us with 3D drawings based on actual historical instruments for use in making our jigs and molds for many of the re-issue models. I remember when we tooled up for Casino production how accurate the shapes had to be and it took some time to get it spot on. We do use some automation but at the end of the day most of the work is done by hand. You are more likely to see our craftsmen with a chisel than pushing a button on some behemoth machine.
The guitar market is one of the most demanding markets in the world when it comes to quality. To be successful in this market you have to deliver the best guitar that can be made without exception. The passion shown by an Epiphone player is truly unique.