China's electric bike manufacturers are strengthening various competencies to provide extra value as competition intensifies and margins decline. In addition, although demand continues to rise, a number of suppliers believe the line has already reached maturity and are expecting growth to decelerate.
R&D tops the list of functions being strengthened as companies strive to differentiate themselves. Many enterprises intend to invest 10 to 30 percent more in product development this year.
Among such makers, improving energy efficiency is a priority. To this end, several are looking at ways to decrease the weight of their bicycles so that these will require less power.
Besides adopting lighter materials for the frame, which most are already doing, another popular solution is to employ lithium-based batteries. Generally lighter than other chemistries of the same size, these also have high energy densities, which enable them to store a greater amount of power.
Technological advancements have given rise to lithiumbased batteries capable of providing even more driving time per charge. Golden Motor Technology Co. Ltd, an e-bike maker that produces its own cells, has released units that can power bicycles for 50 to 60 kilometers. This is in contrast to most batteries, which allow only a running distance of 45 kilometers when full.
To differentiate further their electric bikes, a few suppliers have adopted or are exploring the use of solar batteries. Designs employing PV energy are mostly for the EU and the number is currently limited due to the new technology and high costs.
Still in line with achieving greater energy efficiency via lighter weight, a number of enterprises are fitting more compact motors in their bicycles. This method can decrease the weight of the product from 40 to 25kg. Using a lithium-based battery can mean a reduction of an additional 2kg.
For better comfort and safety, lighter power sources are being paired with smarter controllers. Golden, for example, offers its e-bikes with systems that allow the rider to adjust speed with greater precision based on his or her weight and road conditions.
Some companies are also incorporating wireless and Bluetooth technologies in their releases for enhanced convenience.
Under efforts to gain an edge, aesthetics is gaining increased attention as well. Suppliers are offering various frame shape options, investing about $450,000 in each design.
A number of makers are engaging in vertical integration to raise competitiveness an extra notch. Anticipating room for product differentiation to grow smaller as related technologies mature, these enterprises are expanding into the manufacture of batteries, motors and other key components to gain better control overquality and costs.
A few are moving forward, establishing sales and service centers in chosen markets.
China is estimated to account for more than 50 percent of electric bikes produced worldwide. In 2009, national output exceeded 20 million units.
The industry includes over 600 manufacturers, most of which are privately owned. The majority of companies consist of small operations with 10 to 50 personnel and annual sales of less than $3 million. Larger companies can have up to 500 workers and an annual revenue of $15 million or more.
Entry-level units with steel frames and cantilever brakes range from $170 to $300. These typically have lead-acid batteries and domestically sourced tires, derailleurs and suspension systems.
Midrange releases, priced up to $450, come in steel or aluminum alloy. The products are fitted with disc or cantilever brakes and run on NiH or lithium-based cells.
The gears, suspension and tires may be procured overseas. At higher quotes, disc brakes and lithium-based power sources are common. Derailleurs and suspension systems from Japan, and Taiwan-made tires are often seen as well.
Aluminum and magnesium alloys are the primary options for frames in this segment. Features such as overcurrent and low-voltage protection, battery status indicators, alarms and locks are incorporated in several units.
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