One of the inevitable aspects of any visit to an overseas manufacturer is The Factory Visit, writes Andrew Everard. To those of us who've done a good few of them, it can be a cause for fascination or trepidation – thing is, you never quite know what to expect.
I've stood up to my ankles in water, machine oil and who knows what else in the dark satanic heavy machine shop of the old Wharfedale factory in China.
I've had it explained to me that young girls from the farms were recruited for a speaker plant in Thailand because they had small, nimble fingers ideally suited for intricate work (and not of course because they were cheap).
And I've been hustled off the shop floor when someone in our group spotted a Panasonic factory long ago and far away was making products for a deadly rival.
Oh, and I've so far arrived at three factories in a day by helicopter, and been driven for four hours in pouring rain to a factory in Japan which was closed for a public holiday. It looked jolly impressive from the outside, though...
And I often wonder how the people who work in the factories must feel when a bunch of strangers turn up, pointing cameras at them doing what they do every day, being dragged away from their lunch break to make the place look busy or – on one memorable occasion – being interviewed via a translator about how happy they were in their jobs.
Certainly the women assembling Pro-Ject turntables in the former Tesla factory in Litovel, Czech Republic, found the whole business of being repeatedly photographed the subject of hilarity in some cases, and a major annoyance in others. I have a fine set of pictures of their backs!
"No pictures please" - arm assembly in the Pro-Ject factory
The factory itself is real old-school, having once made everything from domestic appliances to windscreen wiper motors and telephones. It was founded over 50 years ago as Tesla Litovel, the name having nothing to do with Nikola Tesla, the inventor of the resonant coil and thus the 'lightning machine'. In fact Tesla comes from TEchnika SLAboprouda (low-voltage electronics) – not at all what Nikola Tesla was up to.
And as well as everything else, the Litovel factory made gramophones, such as the 1950s beauty above. It's a business that's being continued even today, from raw materials to finished products – or should that be Pro-Jects?
A forest of arms awaiting finishing and assembly
In the factory we saw even tiny components of the arms and bearings being made on massive milling machines, the acrylic plinths for the pricier RPM models being finished by hand on lathes (below), and the banks of turntables being run after manufacture to check all is well before they go for packing. And that's every turntable, not just one or two from each batch.
Machining an acrylic platter for the RPM turntables
And one more thing. On some of the models, the surface on which your prized records sit to be played is made from the very best material for the job: someone else's less than prized old LPs, machined flat and bonded to the platter. They've tried other materials, but that's what sounded best.
You see, you learn something on every factory visit...
Red Debuts await their turn on the running-in bench