As with so many things in China, Western companies often find the execution to be more difficult than the planning when it comes to making products. Just ask Andy Switky, managing director of Asia for Palo Alto, Calif.-based product design and development firm IDEO.
Switky, who oversees IDEO's Shanghai office and is part of its consumer experience design practice, runs the company's 9-year-old manufacturing group - a collection of engineers and materials scientists.
``We don't make anything, but we set up supply chains,'' help to link customers with qualified vendors, and offer consulting services, he said in a June 20 interview. Switky spoke during the opening day of Hong Kong Design Education Week, where he was a presenter at the event's product design conference.
In China, he noted, ``Manufacturers often don't use what [materials] we specify.'' He gave the example of a Swiss maker of upscale housewares that decided to use white nylon and ABS handles on its various utensils and gadgets. But shortly after IDEO specified certain brands and grades of materials, the Chinese molder opted to buy less-expensive resins, which resulted in the products being different shades of white.
``They looked OK in isolation, but not together, as a family,'' he said. ``The color drift, over time, is almost imperceptible,'' but it matters.
He understands why such things happen. ``Their motivation is speed,'' he said of Chinese processors. ``Faster cycle times mean lower cost - because they think that's what their customers want.
``There is much motivation to shave pennies off the price,'' especially on products with razor-thin profit margins. In such cases, Chinese manufacturers often do not even recognize the problem they are causing.
``They're trying to do the right thing. They're not trying to be duplicitous or underhanded,'' Switky said. But such factors still require extreme diligence and accountability by the brand owner. They require close collaboration and calibration of objectives between all parties.
Switky, who joined IDEO in 1998, said Chinese universities are training engineers to do what local Chinese companies want them to do, but the universities ``are trying to play catch-up'' with the demands of global multinationals and internationally recognized best practices. ``They've done a good job at training, but they need to train differently.''
Most Chinese universities today offer good classical engineering training, including such things as memorization and mathematics, he said. But there is not much about context, applying innovation and the like. They need to promote ``a more integrative way of solving problems,'' and they also need to tie engineering together more closely with other disciplines, such as art, industrial design, etc. He singled out two institutions - Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Tongji University, also in Shanghai - that have young programs that are trying to do just that.
He also said there is ``a loose knowledge'' among most Chinese molders about how to process engineering thermoplastics. In many shops, he finds a ``one size fits all'' mentality in terms of handling materials.
``Factories buy resins; brands don't,'' he said, and very few of the buyers in those plants have developed a deep understanding yet of the important nuances between various materials.
Switky said he has had huge problems with variability of materials, even more so with metals than with plastics, with grades being ``all over the lot.''
But such challenges are just part of the landscape and must be factored into the equation when managing a manufacturing project in China, the world's factory.