Everyone, it seems, wants to get into the design world these days, even small contract manufacturers like the Dutch firm AMS Group BV.
The Amsterdam-based company, which opened a factory in South China in 2006, was at the recent Business of Design Week conference in Hong Kong to try to build strategic partnerships with product-design firms.
The company sees more industrial design capability developing in China's coastal regions, which is opening up opportunities for AMS' China production to work more closely with product designers, said Simon Masters, design director for the firm's Guangzhou office.
We are looking to get more integrated with design companies here, Masters said Dec. 4, during an interview on the sidelines of the design conference.
Masters, who worked as a designer at consumer electronics firm Philips Electronics NV in Hong Kong and the United States before helping to start AMS in 2003, said the company focuses on design for manufacturing.
AMS manages plastics and metal suppliers that make components and then does final assembly in its Foshan, China, plant, where it can better protect intellectual property and quality, he said.
We have a very in-depth relationship with our customers, said AMS Director Bart Bakkum, who is based in the firm's Amsterdam office.
If they don't trust us, we cannot be their partner long term, he said. It's in the mutual interest that the start be done in a proper way. We don't have those tricks of asking 'Can it be 1-cent cheaper?' We are partners. We know their strategy.
Design connections have helped the firm in the past, Masters said.
The European-based home security division of a large multinational firm, for example, had hired a Dutch design agency to help with a new product, but the design agency was having problems getting nice, aesthetic products from the supply chain in China, he said.
We tried to educate their supply chain, bringing it from a technically oriented supply chain to a more aesthetically oriented one, Masters said. As a result, he said the multinational company now involves AMS much earlier in the product development process.
The firm focuses on products in office automation, sports equipment, medical and emergency lighting, but steers away from automotive because that industry squeezes its suppliers, Bakkum said.
The small firm employs about 65 in China and the Netherlands, including in its factory, and focuses on niche production runs for big firms or building products for smaller firms.
That business has proved generally successful, Bakkum said. The company, which has annual sales of between 5 million and 10 million euros ($7.2 million and $14.5 million), is projecting a minimum sales increase of 30 percent in 2010, as its business base returns to normal, he said.
It is starting to see signs of an uptick, with its customers beginning projects that won't hit the market for at least six months, and some of its suppliers, such as toolmakers, reporting that they are busier.
You cannot walk away from the fact that China is the manufacturing powerhouse long ago, for low-end products, like garments and shoes, but nowadays for high-tech as well, Bakkum said.
We are in that business and that business will not change, he added.
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