While you were out: 15 years later

By | September 6, 2019

The locus of Industrial Design and Manufactured Product Development has shifted halfway across the world to Asia – South Korea, China, India, the ASEAN. Wherever there is manufacturing and industries, there will be the necessary critical mass of skills, experience, and knowledge for industrial design to flourish.

In December 2004, I wrote an article for the industrial design magazine Core77 on the shift of manufacturing and production away from its historic origins in the original industrialized countries to the emerging economies of Asia, most famously China. Back then, major product development firms such as IDEO and Frog were opening offices in Shanghai to be closer to the factories producing the products of their design studios. And, the idea was that the fuzzy front end of innovation – the conceptualization of product portfolios, the strategic design planning, “design thinking”, et al – would remain behind to provide higher value projects whilst the mundane activities of preparing the final design for manufacture would be outsourced to ‘CAD monkeys’ closer to the factory floors.

“..with the increasing commoditization of the back end, low intellectual investment portion, a service that most OEMs in China can now offer as part of their service, industrial design firms need to restructure to focus more on the product definition end, the early research, the strategic design planning and platform innovation end of the development cycle in order to generate revenue and stay profitable.” ~ Michael Winnick, December 2004, Core77

Fifteen years later, all I see when I browse for writing on design, in the English language, are articles with UX in their titles, replacing human centered design or product design that once was prevalent – it is the digital products and services sector that has filled the vacuum left by the departure of  industrial design and the production engineering. User experience (UX) with its elements of strategy, multidisciplinarity, and the necessary human-centeredness has come to represent the design industry in the professional writing I see on company blogs, Medium channels, and magazines.

Harry West from Frog Design noted as more nations develop the technological, transportation, and human capital infrastructure to compete, their comparative advantages turn more to creative designs that are able to command high value not only because of their function and reliability but also because of the experience or special applications they provide to their customer. ~ pg 13, Industrial Design: A Competitive Edge for U.S. Manufacturing Success in the Global Economy, NEA Report 2017

In the meantime, the Chinese city of Shenzhen has evolved into a recognized innovation hub in the relatively brief period of time since I last wrote on this topic. Much of this evolution has been built on the back of the low cost manufacturing that originally made Shenzhen’s name.

… businesspeople leading Shenzhen’s transition from “factory of the world” to a global center of technological innovation. The city accounted for more than half of China’s international patent applications last year, far outpacing Beijing, a Nikkei analysis finds.

Having been the ‘factory of the world’, the city is full of experienced hardware engineering talent, that in turn provides the critical mass for technological innovation. This 2017 Fast Company article on Shenzhen’s hardware accelerator captures succinctly what I mean when I say the locus on Manufactered Product Development (as opposed to purely digital) has shifted East:

Late in 2015, Bronx native Nisan Lerea and a friend toiled away in Lerea’s parents’ basement on a waterjet cutter, an effort that began as a senior thesis project at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. Now he’s 8,000 miles away in Shenzhen, China, sharing an apartment with three colleagues, trying to turn the prototype into a commercial success.

Lerea’s company, Wazer, joined HAX, a venture-capital firm and hardware accelerator. “We got excited about the idea of doing development in China because we knew we were going to have to rely on the supply chain here,” he says.

Wazer’s 3′-by-2′ waterjet cutter costs less than $5,000, sits on a desktop, makes digital cuts, and is geared toward small businesses, artists, custom mechanics, automotive hobbyists, and tinkerers who perform these functions manually. Capable of cutting through glass, ceramic tile, stone, carbon fiber, copper, steel, titanium, and other hard materials, its cutting functions are otherwise available only from industrial-scale machines that cost between $100,000 and $1 million.

This locus will not move back, even if manufacturing and industries were to flourish once more in the erstwhile developed world. The deeply interconnected value webs of global supply chains, however loosely joined, have for too long been centered around the hubs of industrial production rather than the fuzzy front end of innovation planning. The concept for Lerea’s waterjet cutter may indeed have been born in Pennsylvania but it could not have come to life in any viable and feasible manner without having to go abroad.

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