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Designed in Raleigh, made in China?

A product steeped in local globalism


My wife and I own a firm called Gamil Design in Raleigh. As a product designer, it's become normal that I work with clients all over the world to create their product ideas and help get them manufactured. Frequently this has taken me on travels throughout Asia and Europe. I believe that it's a reflection of the times that a small design firm like ours finds itself at the very heart of globalism, fascinating and scary as that is.

Much of Gamil's consulting work consists of developing sporting goods for major brands. We are generally constrained by our clients' sales goals to create products at a competitive price, and it is almost a given that their intention is to produce those items in China. In fact, our experience in developing relationships with responsible factories abroad is essential to most clients.

Despite current technological and cultural trends of making products available in new, inventive ways--over the Internet, in custom small batches, design-it-yourself, etc.--many of our clients rely on selling in giant retail chains. A "successful" product like an iPod sells all over the world in the exact same form, materials, workmanship and brand. A "successful" retail model like Wal-Mart achieves its ends by selling those same items in the same store format all over the world. The more they sell the same thing, the more efficient the process gets, and the lower the price drops. Ultimately, this model equates ubiquitous sameness with success, and it makes me restless.

Eight years ago, a design challenge fell in my lap: Our friends at the Third Place Coffeehouse requested help with their service of loose-leaf tea. They needed a tea infuser sized to brew a single cup, and it had to be durable enough to take the abuse that comes from being slung around in a cafe. What emerged was the Teastick, a device that can scoop, infuse and stir tea. It's comprised of stainless steel tubing and a perforated sleeve.

Believing that we had a simple product, we got the prototype made at Design Dimension in Raleigh. We found domestic suppliers for the raw materials fairly easily and believed we were well on our way to showing our clients that it was easy to produce a niche, high-quality item like the Teastick in the United States.

It turned out not to be easy. After a six-month search, we were fortunate to find Don Hart, a machinist in Sanford who generously allowed us to make the first few runs of our creation in his shop. The catch was that we had to help him fabricate them. So after our shifts at Gamil Design or the Third Place, we would head to Don's to cut, polish and weld.

Through the unbelievable support of friends and the local community, we sold out of our first test run of 150 Teasticks immediately. We reordered from Don, supplied a few signature stores and then sold out again. We were thrilled that our local product was resonating in New York and L.A.

Excited about our success, we ordered more, but Don told us that his costs needed to double--yet stores told us that we were already too expensive. I remember wondering if people have already been so inundated with products made in Asia that they unconsciously expect "Made in China" pricing for everything.

We looked all over for a way to revive the Teastick but our problem was scale. We could not find someone who would do a job as small as ours for a price that we could sell in the market. We were now stuck in that same economic predicament that our clients are in. We scoured the country for someone who could produce our Teastick, and continually hounded more than 70 suppliers only to have our drawings faxed back with "No Bid" written across them. The two military contractors who did give us bids listed prices in the stratosphere.

Stubbornly, we decided that our domestic sourcing problem was due to our design being mismatched with domestic capabilities. So we redesigned the Teastick so it could be made from castings (popular in the Midwest). However, the result was too heavy and sloppy to be at home in a fine tea setting. We gave up, and the Teastick was dropped.

  • Chinese Street Scene by Aly Khalifa

A couple of years later I was asked by Roger Yin, a good friend from Taiwan who manufactures in China, to design some bicycles for his factory. Roger had actually introduced me to tea years before, and he used to take me to his Oolong farm outside Taipei. It then hit me that the equipment used to make bicycles could also be used to make Teasticks! He thought it was a wonderful idea, and we struck a deal: I would trade him design work for Teastick production.

What I've learned in the process is that relationships are more compelling than nationality. For some reason, I couldn't garner support through Gamil's domestic contacts to take a risk with a low-production order. But maybe it should not be so surprising that it would take a tea farmer and friend to understand our vision. And we traded with him what we do best: listening to local needs, gathering market insight and producing new designs.

Though I'm a proponent of buying local products for local needs, I have to admit that the current manufacturing atmosphere makes it tough. But I've also learned that manufacturing is not
just about economics and nationality.

This experience has allowed me to further deepen my relationship with Roger, and see how we can help each other with projects. Now we're selling Teasticks at a substantial volume all over the world, including Canada, Australia, Europe, Japan, Taiwan and Korea. In an ironic twist of our place in the global market, our latest and largest opportunity is to sell the Teastick is in China.

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