Yang Wah Kiang is combining innovative design and entrepreneurial spirit with recycled plastics to make his vision of producing ``the world's first eco-friendly eyewear'' a reality.
Yang is managing director of Nanyang Optical, one of Singapore's largest optical retailers. He also is a self-taught designer and the driving force behind creation of two new brands of high-end designer eyewear. The lines, called Linkskin and Urband, are made with some novel construction features. The frames use no springs, screws or soldering, to make them stronger and to avoid the age-old problem of screws that loosen.
Instead, the Linkskin model employs small, snap-fit buckles much like those on backpacks to attach the temples to the front frame, while the Urband employs a multifunctional S-clip that simultaneously connects those pieces, provides a springlike effect and locks the lenses into place. Both models come in two versions of nose bridges: the Western version is wider; the Asian version is narrower.
Nanyang Optical rolled out the upscale Urband line first, at a big Paris eyewear trade show in October 2005. Urband initially came in two versions sleek, expensive and virtually indestructible titanium, and thicker, hipper-looking acetate. They carried the hefty price of about 200 euros (about $240 at that time), but still cost less than luxury brands such as Cartier.
The firm then introduced the early versions of Linkskin (initially called Link) in fall 2006 at the same venue, priced at 130-150 euros ($165-$190).
The journey to get that far merited a 13-page case study, published in September 2006, by the Nanyang Business School at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. But the story continues to evolve, with plastics playing a central role. Yang provided an update in a recent interview at his headquarters.
After beginning operations in Singapore as a workshop grinding and edging lenses, Nanyang Optical transitioned into an optical retail chain, and expanded and launched Alexis Eyewear boutiques with six outlets in Beijing to cater to an upscale niche market. That experience on China's mainland led him in 1999 to start a company called Eye-Biz with the aim of capturing some of the wholesale market by producing low-cost copies of popular European frames at factories in China.
That venture failed, but Yang said it taught him a valuable lesson: For a small to medium-size enterprise to have any chance of breaking into the wholesale business, it must have a unique and differentiated product.
Though Yang was a retailer selling prescription eyeglass lenses and frames, he said he always had a passion and an aptitude for product design. He wanted to create his own style of eyewear, and he brashly thought he could do it better than even the high-end fashion brands.
He started sketching out his own products and in 2002 relaunched the failed Eye-Biz business as his product-development arm in a 1,000-square-foot apartment in Shenzhen. Yang hired 10 skilled local Chinese research and development professionals and product designers, and paid them well, according to the study.
Yang and an Australian-Chinese business partner then spent the next three years designing and developing two new types of eyeglasses based on new frame design concepts. When the prototypes were ready, Yang collaborated with three young French fashion designers who created contemporary styles, branding and packaging. As recounted in the case study, that led to the launch of the initial product lines, first in Europe and later in North America and Asia.
Yang said his next challenge producing enough of the high-end frames to meet demand proved difficult. He had no interest in owning and operating his own factory, so he looked to outsource production to suitable plants in Shenzhen, which already made much of the global industry's eyewear.
But the unusual design and construction of the frames made them challenging to manufacture, and he had trouble finding factories that could make them to an acceptable quality level. Plants would have to specially train workers to do the job. The case study's authors wrote: ``Most Chinese factory managers would rather make copies of simple, conventional designs, which involved no learning curve.''
Yang considered outsourcing to Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, where quality would be better, but costs considerably higher.
Selected Chinese factories produced 10,000 of the Urband titanium frames in a test run, but quality was unreliable. Fewer than a third passed initial quality inspections.
``It was a production nightmare,'' he recalled. It would be even harder to produce the acetate version of the Urband frames, since the component pieces would have to be cut by hand from extruded sheet, and acetate is subject to temperature-related shrinkage. Yang wanted to injection mold the acetate template pieces, but the molds were very expensive.
The Link model proved easier to manufacture, since all the plastic template pieces were identical and more easily injection molded.
Yang's trust in his French partners paid dividends, and the design efforts were validated, when the Urband and Linkskin won a pair of prestigious German design awards the 2006 iF material award in 2006, and a 2007 Red Dot award. This past May, the Dulles, Va.-based Industrial Designers Society of America named Linkskin a finalist for its 2008 International Design Excellence Awards.
Still, it was Nanyang Optical's latest product development that caught the eye of IDSA's judges. This spring the firm relaunched in Italy its Linkskin glasses as ``the world's first recycled eyewear,'' using recycled polycarbonate for the temple pieces and front pieces, with a stainless-steel top bar.
``We are working on a recycled nylon to replace the stainless-steel bar,'' said Yang, noting that the change will mean the next generation of Linkskins will be made entirely of recycled plastic.
Even the case for the Linkskin glasses is innovative. It's a doughnut-like oval, with a hole in the middle, and the two halves open like a clamshell. They can be looped through a purse strap or shoulder strap, making the glasses easily accessible. Nanyang is making the cases from recycled polypropylene.
``We're doing a nice, metallic finish on recycled PP material,'' said Yang, noting the firm is in the final stages of confirming the molding process for the cases.
Another collection in development is called the Thread, with the top steel bar totally encased in plastic. The firm plans to convert that top bar to recycled nylon, as well.
Yang claims there already is strong market interest in his new eco-eyewear. One of Nanyang Optical's largest distributors in Europe L'Amy Group, based in Morez, France by late May already had placed a Linkskin order. ``For them, one order is usually about 10,000 pieces,'' Yang said. L'Amy also has an arm in Wilton, N.Y.
Currently, Nanyang Optical does not intend to use recycled plastic in the Urband models, though the firm is experimenting with temples made of everything from leather to bamboo.
Yang is coy when talking about resin suppliers and manufacturing vendors, not wanting to give away any scrap of competitive advantage.
``One of our suppliers is one of our ex-staff. We helped him financially to set up a factory. He worked in one of our Chinese subsidiaries, in Shenzhen. You have to be in the place of action. We don't believe in remote control, especially when you want to do inspection, [quality control], etc. We have a team of staff who stay there. My Australian-Chinese partner stayed in Shenzhen to manage the business. We made that mistake before [of trying to manage from afar]. We made a lot of mistakes.''
He said Nanyang tried to source its recycled resin from China, ``but recycled product [there] is very risky just one dot, you try to bend, and it will snap, it'll crack.''
The sourcing of a reliable material is the toughest part ``because when you have some impurity, your rejection rate will kill you, especially when you have volume.''
Nanyang already has submitted samples for consideration by Singapore's Green Label certification, and it's applying for both Germany's Blue Angel mark and also Japan's Eco mark.
So what advice might Yang have for other entrepreneurially minded individuals?
``You must believe in R&D. When you have your own R&D, then you can develop your own product designs and product innovations. Or else you end up a copycat, which is happening very much in China.
``How can I compete making something in China to compete with the Chinese? I'd be dead. My costs of operation are different. I have a lot of office staff, with the standard of living in Singapore.
``If we sell in China, it will be not a China price; it will be the same, standard price. But we look at the market differently. The priority is not in China at the moment. The priority is in Europe, the States and so on.''
It wasn't easy getting to where he is now.
``We went through some bumpy roads. We burned our fingers. But I think there is no shortcut. You have to go through the school of hard knocks.
``Still it was a rewarding experience, looking backward. For us, I'm sure, it was very, very worthwhile to go through the learning curve to build a foundation for future growth.