Design factories

Updated: 2012-04-20 08:43

By Todd Balazovic (China Daily)

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Design factories

Small international design firms lend helping hand to China's industrial dreams

As China pushes to re-gear its economy from a manufacturer of goods to the creator of new products, it is the small companies with big ideas that are best poised for new opportunities.

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For years large multinational companies have been the stalwarts for foreign business and innovation in China. With a long tradition of creating new products as well as enough financial backing to take the risks required to break into the Chinese market, it was never a question of if they would make it, but when.

Big names like General Electric and Microsoft rushed to snatch up early opportunities during the 1990s and have since established themselves as household names for many Chinese consumers.

But as China goes from imitation to innovation, small international industrial design companies are risking all as they try to grapple with the world's next biggest consumer market.

"The consciousness of unique design is increasing in China," says Peter Vec, creator of the Red Dot Design awards, one of the world's most prestigious industrial design competitions, and former president of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design.

"But to a greater degree, Chinese enterprises still rely on the technological input from highly developed countries such as the United States, Japan or Germany."

Combining a mixture of science, engineering and creativity, industrial design is the art of making products - from chic cellphones to sophisticated medical equipment - that look good and function smoothly.

It was the opportunity to delve into China's growing interest for generating unique products early that initially drew the Industrial Design Consultancy (Shanghai) Co Ltd (IDC), a UK-based industrial design SME, to set up their offices in Shanghai less than a year ago.

Establishing a team of six - out of 30 employees in total - IDC has seen a flurry of interest in its services.

"Manufacturers are looking for good quality design and product engineering and they are looking at some foreign firms to supply that. The ambition is to market themselves on a global stage," says Mike Pratt, general manager of IDC.

Hiring a mixture of foreign and local designers, IDC China specializes in conceptualizing, designing and engineering medical devices, primarily for Chinese companies.

After being on the ground for just 10 months, IDC has worked with Foosin, China's largest suture company, to redesign its dispenser to market globally and with Shenzhen XFC to create a device that aids people performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Both products are now being sold internationally with Chinese brand names, increasing their presence in the medical field and boosting their economic outlook.

"A foreign development company is a great short-cut for Chinese companies who have the wisdom to seek good advice from trusted experts, and we have formed long-term business relationships on this principle," says Pratt.

It is companies like IDC that are the minds behind the made-in-China-but-designed-elsewhere products often lining shelves of the local Walmart.

In the past, most design companies would be based in the West, providing designs to international companies which would then look to China to manufacture those products.

Significant shift

But an increasing number of small industrial design companies from across the oceans are heading to China's shores to set up shop, shifting their focus from creating products for international clients, like GE or Siemens, to creating designed-for-China goods.

It marks a potentially significant shift in the way the world views the Chinese market - from a manufacturing and production heartland to world innovator and creator.

"While traditionally China has been primarily concerned with manufacture, as the 1980s and 90s generation mature, you will see more people looking to China as a source of new ideas," says Elliot Richards, author of Eightsix, a design blog focusing on China's creative rise.

Design factories

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