Many modern piano factories produce dozens of brand names, from cheap to expensive. With such a wide range of quality being built under one roof, it's inevitable that the manufacturer will learn from the high end of their production what can be applied to the low end at little or no cost, to raise the latter's quality level. These technological advantages have also made it possible for new, up-and-coming companies to design and build an excellent product in an extraordinarily short development time, and to a higher level of quality at a lower price.
Nevertheless, there are still those who believe that "they don't make ‘em like they used to," and who would further assert that the best piano available today is a century old, and has been restored in a way that remains true to its original design with "genuine" parts. Others would argue that if such an excellent instrument has been built before, it can be built again, and just as well. Furthermore, with the application of new technologies, it can be built with even better quality, with a greater degree of consistency, and at a lower cost due to greater efficiency. They don't make 'em like they used to? Quite true. For the most part, we now build them much better than we used to.
"Hand-built" used to be the hallmark of a quality piano. Many high-end piano builders trumpet "hand-built" as justification for their higher prices. But in today's reality, "hand-built" does not automatically equal higher quality. It harks back to a time when uncontrollable inconsistencies required higher levels of skill to work out Band-Aid fixes to overcome those deficiencies.
In the Golden Age of American piano manufacturing, in the early 20th century, true talent was required of master piano builders. It was essential that those highly skilled craftsmen be able to take a flawed cast-iron plate and make it work when parts didn't quite line up, and when the strike point at the string was not at precisely the correct height from note to note. When we finally made use of the precision and repeatability of CNC milling of the plate, virtually everything else in the production process fell into place. Less time is now expended working around unpredictable deviations. We can build a better-quality piano at lower cost, with less reworking to fix problems that no longer exist. With the proper application of modern technologies, a well-designed piano still requires skilled workers, but their skills can now be focused on precision and consistency, not on perpetual problem solving.
Most Americans are saddened by the loss of jobs and entire industries to China, but there is a positive side to this circumstance. China's new and growing piano-manufacturing industry is just emerging. Unencumbered by tradition, these manufacturers are eager to apply the newest technologies. They are fully implementing all of the promises of each new technology, reducing costs, improving consistency, and raising quality to a higher level than could otherwise be attained. True, the early Chinese pianos were poorly designed and built. But anyone who would loudly complain about the poor quality of early Chinese pianos should take a serious look at some of the poorly designed and built American pianos of the mid- to late 20th century. Many of those self-destructing piano-shaped objects don't measure up to the quality produced by many companies in China today.
Some companies, determined to produce the very cheapest pianos, will use new technologies to the extent that they reduce cost, even if it is at the expense of quality. At the opposite extreme, many of the makers of high-end pianos continue their "handmade" mantra. However, the piano makers in the middle, who use technology to improve quality first, and see cost savings as a secondary benefit, are the real beneficiaries of technology. While there will always be those who believe that the most expensive must be the best, moderately priced pianos are now challenging those at the high end.
George F. (Frank) Emerson has been working in the piano industry for 48 years, including 11 years as a university technician and 23 years designing pianos for manufacturers, including Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin, and Hailun. He has been a Registered Piano Technician (RPT) member of the Piano Technicians Guild for 38 years. Emerson currently consults part-time for Hailun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.