If one is not careful, innovation can get lost in translation. Ton Borsboom and some colleagues at General Electric Corp. discovered that the hard way in the late 1990s. And it's a lesson that Borsboom, now GE Plastics' manager of global industrial design, remembers and applies daily.
Prior to assuming his current, Netherlands-based post in mid-2005, Borsboom managed GE/Fitch Pte. Ltd. in Singapore for seven years, with responsibilities for that industrial design consultancy's activities across eastern Asia.
In the late 1990s Borsboom's team, along with a group at GE Medical, found that a successful product innovation in Western markets does not necessarily resonate in China. Initially, GE Medical marketed its state-of-the-art X-ray machines in China, but the state-owned hospitals in rural areas could not afford to buy high-end products and needed only a technically basic machine that they could operate efficiently. GE Medical changed its strategy, and introduced a lower-cost X-ray machine, the Definium 6000, using technology and materials better-suited for that market.
In his Dec. 2 presentation at ``Design for the New China Markets,'' in Beijing, Borsboom noted that in China ``price is still the main competitive tool; innovation is in its infancy.''
But, he predicted: ``China is all about rapid change, and [the changes] in design in China will be just as dramatic.''
High-end products represent only one aspect of the use of plastics in design. Counterfeit packaging and trademark infringement, a result of price wars in China, dramatically affect the bottom line of many global and domestic Chinese brands.
Borsboom related the story of a GE Plastics client in China whose tea packaging became subject to counterfeiting. The unnamed tea manufacturer came to GE Plastics with this issue and the resin producer developed a solution, using advanced materials, that yielded an attractive package whose design was difficult to copy.
In an interview during the Beijing conference, Borsboom said he sees the automobile industry as the catalyst for cutting-edge design and materials developments in the near future.
``I'm excited about automotive glazing, where the technology is coming to a point where the momentum in the car industry and our technology are on the crossroads for what is going to happen.''
European automotive companies started using some of these new materials in 2005. Germany's Opel, a subsidiary of General Motors Corp., uses GE's Lexan SLX film in the roofing module for its Zafira compact van. The Zafira offers a roof with large transparent panels or so-called daylight openings that replace the traditional, painted steel roof.
``The bottom line is that plastic glazing is creating the opportunity for [designers] to do some fantastic work in form freedom where they can do [three-dimensional] curves. We have the ability to put other colors and finishes in the layers. You can mold-in graphics,'' Borsboom said.
GE Plastics said the Zafira roof module, manufactured by Wesbasto AG, is back-molded using a long-glass-fiber-reinforced polyurethane substrate and pre-formed Lexan SLX polycarbonate film. Opel created that roof module with the objective of reducing the amount of paint used on the vehicle, to avoid harmful volatile organic compound emissions.
On Dec. 6 at the Auto Parts Shanghai/Auto Manufacturing Shanghai 2005 exhibition, GE Plastics announced the creation of a dedicated China automotive team. Based in Shanghai, but with four sites serving the country, the new team is headed by Eric Herman, who holds the title of China general manager for GE Plastics Automotive.
The firm said the unit is structured to focus on growth areas critical to China's fast-expanding auto industry which, by some estimates, could export as much as US$100 billion (807.9 billion yuan) worth of cars and components by 2010. The sector is expected to export US$15 billion to $20 billion of such products this year.
Borsboom said new, advanced materials allow automotive industry designers to enjoy ``the freedom of the plastics'' by offering new design options. The materials' light weight and molding options can help lower costs and add value, which are always among the greatest concerns for automakers and their major component suppliers.
These same factors are becoming increasingly important to Chinese automakers as they look to start exporting vehicles during the next five to 10 years.
Borsboom sees much opportunity in Asian markets, while noting that the design skill base in China is perhaps 10 years behind that of the West.
At GE/Fitch, the regional design teams consisted of 30 percent Western and 70 percent local designers, Borsboom said. He stressed that, in ``creating great design teams, [companies] have to provide the space and opportunity.''
``The results you can get out of a team are the same - in terms of quality.''
Borsboom cited the following firms as innovators in the China market: computer maker Lenovo Group Co. Ltd., with whom GE Plastics began working in 1998; and electronics manufacturers Hisense Group Co. Ltd. in Qingdao and SVA Group Co. Ltd. in Shanghai.
``We can get excited about the leaders, innovators in the market, but there is still a lot of work to be done,'' Borsboom said.
He and others at the Beijing design conference stressed the need for business managers to recognize the importance of design and innovation to the whole organization.
``Design in Asia is still relatively young and needs to find its footing. I believe there are many companies here that can provide 100 percent locally designed stuff that is appropriate for this market.''
The conference was sponsored by the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.