Dongguan, China — Quality control and intellectual-property protection are two challenges all manufacturers operating in China ignore at their own peril.
French silicone kitchenware manufacturer Super Silicone takes a hands-on approach to both problems at its 5-year-old, 13,000-square-meter factory in Dongguan.
Super Silicone makes more than 150 different bakeware molds, ranging from the familiar cupcake, muffin and bread to such Gallic exotica as canelés (fluted pastry with a custard center) and financiers (a sort of fancy sponge cake). The factory also pours forth baking trays, steamers, funnels, ice cube trays, pot holders, hot plates, spatulas, spoons, ladles, whisks, rolling pins, tongs, ice cream-scoops and more.
All these products — more than 20 million pieces every year — are for preparing and storing food.
“We are very specialized in one thing — kitchenware. We don't make anything else,” company founder and CEO Jean-Charles Viancin said flatly.
Sixty percent of the company's $20 million in annual sales are in France — the country, after all, that invented madeleines and petit fours.
The boyish-looking Viancin spent five years trading silicone kitchenware in China before opening his factory. Processing 3,000 metric tons of silicone a year, it's bigger than any silicone kitchenware factory in Europe, he said.
Research into linking organic-based polymers to a silicon-oxygen backbone chain began in the late nineteenth century. Last year, the world market for silicones — technically known as polysiloxanes — topped $16 billion.
Super Silicone runs as many processes as possible in-house. It makes its own silicone resin. It makes all dyes and catalysts. It blends everything together, in a dust-free room.
“There is no outsourcing in this factory,” Viancin said.
The prepared resin has the stretchy feel of Silly Putty — no surprise, as the perennially popular toy was one of the first consumer applications of silicone. Out on the factory floor, workers cut and arrange it in vertical compression presses. The presses are more economical than injection molding machines for the company's short runs, Viancin said.
The product is carefully separated onto racks and cured in a large oven for five hours. Separating product is a must, said Viancin, to allow proper aeration.
After quality-control workers reject items with cosmetic blemishes, lab workers randomly choose 50 products every day — the factory runs around the clock, seven days a week — to be cut up, weighed, and baked at 230° C for four hours, then weighed again. It's a test for volatile organic materials (VOM) — not from the inert silicon-oxygen backbone, but from the additives. Super Silicone products regularly register less than 0.1 percent weight loss, Viancin said.
If any of the products lose more than 0.5 percent of their weight, the company will throw away the entire batch. In five years of operation, this has never happened, Viancin said. French standards, which are among the toughest in the euro zone, allow no more than 0.5 percent of a food-contact product to migrate to the food.
All tested samples are filed and stored for two years.
Work well, not fast