James Canton, CEO and Chairman of the Institute for Global Futures, in his book on The Extreme Future, devotes a chapter of his work to the future of China. Alongside many startling statistics and comments about the speed at which China continues to develop into one of the world’s superpowers, his main point remains clear: ‘We all need to wake up and learn to better understand how the future of China will shape our world. This is a future fast touching everyone on the planet, and the implications are huge.’
Many of the issues that Canton raises directly affect designers in Australia, such as how ‘many manufactured products, from clothing to medical devices to industrial equipment to auto parts, will soon be made in China, just so the manufacturers can compete for quality and price in world markets’ and that ‘the Chinese have five times more business schools and ten times more science and engineering schools than the US and Europe combined.’ 1 Add to these revelations the facts that China will be building a city bigger than Philadelphia each year for the next 20 years, and that it already has 400 schools offering design courses from which 10,000 industrial designers are graduating annually, and you have a hell of a lot of change and Chinese influence at hand.
To get an idea of how Australian designers are faring in China, Object asked them about their experiences manufacturing products that are currently on the market. Their experiences paint a detailed picture of the pros and cons of getting gear ‘Made in China’, and of what the future holds for Australian designers investing in this booming region.
Crumpler Australia, which began humbly in 1999 with the design of a courier bag, has become a multi-million dollar company famous for its innovative bags. It has 99 per cent of its products manufactured in China.
In Crumpler designer’partner David Roper’s words, from a marketing point of view, having ‘Made in Australia’ on its products would be fantastic, but pricing would then be an issue, and Crumpler would prefer to devote its energies to design and marketing, rather than running a factory. Crumpler has been manufacturing its products in China for three years and feels that the service and quality has always been good.
‘Like anywhere, though, there are good manufacturers and average manufacturers working in accordance to a price point,’ Roper says. ‘Working with good manufacturers has brought a lot to our products and the way we make stuff. China is becoming increasingly professional as it competes with cheaper manufacturing destinations.’
And although Roper admits that there will always be a market for cheaper things being churned out in China, he also sees the scene changing and a more design-led future emerging. ‘Chinese brands seem to lack design and innovation and have purely sold on price, but I think this will change over time as the Chinese population becomes more choosey. There are many non-Chinese-designed items being made to very high standards for foreign firms.’
David Rocks supports this idea in his article for Business Week Online, ‘China Design’,:
As Chinese companies seek to build global brands and foreigners aim to boost sales in the mainland, they’re transforming the country’s design business. Chinese manufacturers realise they need better products if they want to break out of China and beef up margins in their sales abroad.
So the question on many minds is, will China one day be recognised as a manufacturer of high quality products, as countries such as Italy and Japan are’ The Crumpler team thinks that outcome is very possible. ‘Perhaps not to the same level of perception as Italy, but we have seen incredibly modern facilities in China ‘ better facilities than those in Italy.’
Australian fashion designer Bowie Wong thinks China will have no problem in reaching the heights of European manufacturing:
China has money now. China can now afford the technology and machines that Europeans have previously taken advantage of ‘ It now has the machines to make the perfect button holes, and all other details. Now cheap manufacturing will move to somewhere like India, and China will produce quality products ‘ just as well as Europe [does].
But Bowie believes that getting good products manufactured in China is all down to good communication:
At the end of the day, you are the designer and you have employed workers to make your products. You can’t forget that you’re the designer. You have to get every detail down and work closely with them.
Robert Foster, designer and founder of Fink and Co., has components of three Fink designs manufactured in China. He agrees that it all comes down to communication, and has spent the last few years working on building relationships with Chinese companies in order to get their products made to the quality necessary when dealing in the global top-end design market:
We’ve noticed that it can be difficult to get the quality of product we need. I think it’s really up to you and what you put into it ‘ in terms of your energy and demands. We’ve also invested time training workers on the factory floor, but we’ve had problems with the constant staff changes ‘ you’ll go back to visit and no-one you’ve spent time working with will be there and it’s all new staff, so the training cycle starts again.
Ben McCarthy, an industrial designer from Sydney who has had two of his designs manufactured in China by commissioning companies, agrees with Robert that it’s all about haggling over quality. For instance, although the Launch Stool that Ben designed for Go Home ‘ an Australian design company ‘ was on par with European standards, they had to fight for every last bit of quality:
At first things like the parting lines on the stool were not perfect. You could see the joins. In Italy, for instance, they’re used to doing something like that right the first time around, because they’ve done it all before.
Ben agrees that the perception that China can’t make high quality products is changing. ‘You just have to push for what you want.’
Designer Jon Goulder, founder of the self-titled design company, has three products that are manufactured in China and have been in production for six months. Jon has spent the last two years directly dealing with the Chinese, and has spent 18 months developing relationships that have placed his company in a position to directly access factories rather than taking the more popular route of using an agent:
I’ve found that over the past two to five years of going back and forward I’ve gained an understanding of what their machinery and technology and workers are capable of. I’m not having any of my high-end products made there, but [rather] ones that are less technical, such as an outdoor seating range that was designed to be mass-produced. The designer pieces that I am known for aren’t the ones I’m having manufactured in China.
One has to ask whether this decision was also influenced by the massive piracy problem in China but, having become familiar with the Chinese manufacturing scene, in Jon’s opinion it’s not the Chinese that are ripping off designs from Australia, Europe and the United States:
It’s the Australians, Americans and Europeans who are doing the ripping off. Someone takes a piece to China and asks them to copy and mass produce it and then takes it back to their country to sell.
Bowie also makes a good point on the topic of piracy:
And whether it’s fashion or furniture, fashion changes and moves so quickly, you’d be stupid to mass produce a copy of something that is fashionable for one season ‘ it’s the labels and the mass-produced items that people keep buying and that are the ones they rip off.
Fashion designer Akira Isogawa sees many designers’ issues with Chinese manufacturing as solvable:
I think designers have two options: they either have an agent who is bilingual and can perform quality checks as well as communicate with the manufacturers, and this person needs to travel regularly back and forth; or, option two, they go there themselves. I go to Shanghai twice a year to check quality and to see the work in progress. This gives me an understanding of the process and helps me to understand the methods used. I find it’s also really beneficial for me, because I am inspired while there and often think of other designs by being there and seeing the work being done.
Being there also gives Akira a thorough understanding of the capabilities of the manufacturers he is dealing with.
When asked about the future of design and manufacturing in China, Akira wants to see China creating its own great designs, instead of just manufacturing designs from designers abroad. ‘What I’d like to see now is more creative inspiration and innovation coming out of China.’
The Chinese now have the machinery, technology, design schools, a massive population of 1.3 billion from which to source a never-ending hardworking workforce, and masses of bright young design graduates entering a global design scene every year ‘ so innovation could be the last step in China’s assertion, in its own right, as a design and manufacturing force to be reckoned with. Watch this space.
Michelle Hespe is a Sydney-based journalist currently working as the Assistant Editor of Australian Giftguide. She writes for many publications in Australia and abroad and recently wrote a book on Industrial Design for students considering a career in the field.
This article was first published in Object magazine, issue 52. Object magazine is published bi-annually by Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design.