Fast boat to china

Now is the time for manufacturers to tie up with Chinese companies to share skills and expertise and expand product markets, says Matthew Link

With booming trade between the UK and China, exporting original equipment manufacturers from both regions will need product designers with up-to-date, local experience of these markets. And as China follows up its strength in manufacturing with a growing creative expertise, designers who collaborate across continents will be in the best position to help clients with global ambitions.

As a Cheshire-based product designer, I took advantage of this opportunity in 2004 by forming a cross-cultural design team that co-operates between the two countries, sharing skills, experiences, influences and clients.

From my experience I believe the time is right for joining up with Chinese counterparts. The country now boasts many professional, world-class product design consultants. Creative talent and regional success is giving them increasing confidence to export their services to the West and, rather than burying our heads in the sand, we should embrace this change by working in partnership with them.

Until recently, one possible drawback would have been China’s reputation for copying designs. But Chinese companies and their government now see the economic benefits of working to professional international business standards, and the revision and improvement of their International Property Rights laws are now widely acknowledged by international observers.

While there are many talented product design consultants in China, one should research their previous work before joining forces. I waited a year before partnering with a Beijing consultant after looking at its impressive work for clients such as Samsung, LG, Lenovo and Danfoss. I visited all its suppliers and tested them first on several live projects.

The team now works as uk:chinalink to offer a versatile, highly innovative, product design and manufacture service to clients in Europe, Asia and beyond. One of the main advantages a team like ours can bring to UK clients is our strategic location in the world’s major manufacturing region. A team based here not only means in-depth experience designing for Asian manufacturing methods but also easier quality control and lower costs throughout production.

I have found that many projects benefit from a western design perspective, which can distinctly differ from an eastern one. The Chinese are not known as leaders in innovation (although they were historically and are becoming so again), whereas western designers push the creative boundaries because their clients need innovation to survive.

Chinese consumers demand brash products that boldly exude status, but the pinnacle of style and status in the West is typically a product with a minimalist, clean design and discrete branding. The status is understated, focusing on quality of finish, colour and texture to set the style, and of course, the brand.

China has a huge workforce advantage over us, so manual assembly of multi-component products makes sense. Western designers know this approach would not work here, so products need to be designed with minimal or automated assembly. This leads to more complex parts with clips and rapid-assembly features — so our costs rise again.

UK clients who want to break into lucrative Asian markets must adjust or redesign their products to appeal to the foreign audience. For example, my team offers a service that helps clients understand the needs and scope of their target market. We can help them redesign their existing product to meet specific local needs, cultural styles and approval standards. We can redesign a company’s product into a form that can be economically transported as whole or kits to be reassembled in the destination country. We also help UK clients translate and redesign graphic media and packaging and set up local manufacturing facilities and distribution networks.

Another developing sector of the Chinese market is rapid prototyping (RP). Our team has joined with Beijing Rapid Prototyping, and I find there is not a huge difference between UK and Chinese prototyping methods. The UK RP bureaux invest heavily in modern equipment capable of outputting high-quality unfinished components, but the crucial finishing stage such as painting, texturing and screen printing is very expensive due to our high labour costs.

Chinese RP companies also invest heavily in the same modern equipment but they have a vast pool of highly-skilled modelmakers who can finish models to exceptional standards in a way that is faster and less expensive than here.

UK businesses that rely on the skills of these Chinese modelmakers will definitely see value for money.

Matthew Link is the founder of design team uk:chinalink