At Chinese truck factory, it's look out Daimler-Benz

Thirteen years old, Foton is the second-largest commercial-vehicle producer in the world – and is nipping at the heels of German powerhouse Daimler-Benz.

Ng Han Guan/AP
Chinese workers assemble a bus at a factory owned by Chinese auto manufacturer Foton Motor Group in Beijing Friday. China's recovery gained momentum in August as stimulus spending helped boost industrial output, investment and retail sales in the world's third-largest economy, offsetting a slump in exports.

CHANGPING, CHINA – When you’ve lived in China for awhile, you tend to get accustomed to just how fast things move here.

You forget to notice daily changes in the cityscape – three massive new shopping arcades within a couple of miles of my home, for example – or in the nation’s foreign reserves – up from $1 trillion to $2 trillion since I got here in 2006.

So it is worthwhile, from time to time, to take the sort of trip I went on this morning. It was a press visit to Foton, at their factory an hour’s drive north of Beijing.

“Fo-who?" I hear you asking. Well, as I found out, Foton is the second-largest commercial vehicle manufacturer in the world, churning out 440,000 trucks, buses, and vans in the first half of this year.

But what was most surprising was their founding date: 1996.

This company has been going for only 13 years, and already it is snapping at the heels of the world’s biggest producer, Daimler-Benz. Messrs. Daimler and Benz lodged their first automobile patents in 1886, 123 years ago.

This kind of pace blew Kent Molen away, too. He is a long-time employee of Cummins, the US engine makers, and he came to China last year to be plant manager for the new joint venture that Cummins and Foton have set up.

“When I came here in January 2008, there were 16 beams up, that’s all,” he recalls. “I was told we’d be producing engines by November, and I thought, ‘How the heck is that gonna happen?’ "

But it did. The first engines rolled off the line in early December. “I was absolutely amazed that this building came together so quickly,” Mr. Molen admits. “We went from ground to a producing facility in a year.”

He was also pretty impressed by the cost. The million-square-foot, state-of-the-art plant designed to turn out 400,000 engines a year cost only $400 million. “That’s incredible,” he says.

How much would a similar factory cost in the United States?

“I don’t know,” he replies. “Too much.”


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