China is turning out industrial designers by the hundreds.
Both Hong Kong and Singapore are vying to be the next great Asian design capital.
But Wen-Long Chen, president of Taiwan-based international design company Nova Design, said Taiwan still has an edge: it is able to mix Asian sensibilities with manufacturing capabilities and an understanding of product development.
``We have the experience of the global market and global production,'' Chen said Oct. 19 at the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design and the Industrial Designers Society of America meeting in San Francisco.
Design and manufacturing is moving east and west, with Western manufacturers looking to China both to make products and as a market for products, while Chinese firms are eyeing growth outside their borders and are anxious to tap into markets in North America and Europe.
Products, from cars to hand tools, are being developed with an international outlook and global strategy.
That is a big change, said ICSID President Peter Zec. For years, the Western world has set the archetype for day-to-day products. Televisions evolved from sets developed in the United States and Europe. Cars were based on platforms first established in Germany and the United States. Asian manufacturers echoed those design cues, Zec said.
One exception has been the high-speed bullet train - first developed in Japan, Zec noted. Those used elsewhere have been based on that Asian design.
``But is it possible that a TV set or a refrigerator can take a different form?'' he asked.
Taiwan has been promoting its creative industries by tapping into its unique base, Chen said. The country historically is linked to China, but also is influenced by the West, with settlements from the Dutch and Japanese.
``It's Asian, but it's not completely Chinese,'' he said.
And Taiwan's history in manufacturing gives it another edge that competitive design centers lack, he said.
Nova Design opened in 1988 and quickly invested in technology and computer-aided design to boost its capabilities. It is now a key partner in creating new products for Western firms like Germany's Siemen's AG and for Asian firms like Chinese carmaker Chery Automobile Co.
Its in-house capabilities include six computer numerically controlled machines, stereolithography, vacuum casting and other processing for prototypes.
And Nova has expanded internationally, now with more than 300 employees in offices located in the U.S., Italy, Vietnam, and China.
``When Nova began, `Made in Taiwan' wasn't seen as a very good thing,'' Chen said.
But Nova's designers now may work on a product developed by a brand owner on one continent, manufactured on another and sold in a third.
Nova has helped clients build new products for China, but also is working with Chinese manufacturers interested in expanding outside Asia.
``We are in the process of bringing research methods on the North American market to China,'' said Joshua Chang, a director who focuses on the U.S. market from his base at Nova's office in San Jose, Calif.
At this point, most Chinese manufacturers still are learning what they must do to develop their brands for international sale. They are learning about market research and focusing their products, but are taking aim at those potential customers.
``It's important to keep in mind that the industrialized nations have a lot more experience with product designers,'' Chang said ``We are bringing the process and technology to China.''
Chery has grown so rapidly in such a short time - from about 2,000 vehicles made in 2000 to more than 300,000 in 2006 - that it believes it is ready to expand, and is looking to firms like Nova to make that possible.
And while some companies may have to address improvements in design and engineering quality, they see it within their grasp.
``They think that they are ready, or almost ready, to export,'' Chen said. ``How fast can they do it? I can't say.''
The speed makes it clear, though, that design issues will keep moving through places like Taiwan for years go come - and will be moving in both directions.