Product Development and China

By Phil Baker

We all saw the coverage of President Hu's visit last week. This man holds the keys to a big part of our future, particularly when it comes to the products we create and consume.

I've been involved in developing consumer electronic products for my entire career and have been fortunate to be part of the teams that developed the Polaroid SX-70 camera, the Apple Newton, the Stowaway folding keyboard, the Barnes & Noble nook, and much more.

Over the last decade we've seen a huge revolution in how products are developed, a consequence of the amazing advances in digital technologies and the rise of China's capabilities. By and large, it's had a very positive effect on new consumer products and technology, as well as on the creation and growth of those businesses that have embraced these changes.

Today, products that once took years to develop now take months. Digital building blocks, chips that perform multiple functions, let almost anyone develop sophisticated products without having to know the detailed underpinnings.

Products are being designed with software that creates digital data to define every detail. This allows the engineer to email a digital file anywhere in the world in just seconds. The same file can be fed into a machine to print out a three-dimensional model in an afternoon. It can go to a model maker in Taipei to create a prototype in a couple of days and to a toolmaker in China to build the tools used to produce the product in high volume. 

China has also enabled companies to do much more with less capital and fewer employees. Small companies can use the same manufacturers that the Sonys of the world use and be cost effective in the same marketplace.

Examples include Jawbone and Griffin Technology, that were each begun by an entrepreneur, and that have grown to compete with the more established brands. Think Outside, a company I co-founded, developed the Stowaway folding keyboard for the Palm. We used a small U.S. design team and went to Asia to work with experienced keyboard designers and manufacturers.

With the rise of China and its huge community of manufacturers and suppliers in the Shenzhen area, specializing in consumer products, we've seen many of our manufacturing jobs move to Asia. But at the same time we've seen the growth of higher-paying jobs in this country at those companies that invent, design, and market these products. And we've seen lower-priced products that have enabled more people to afford and enjoy them. 

As consumers, we have more choices than ever for every product type and category; some would argue too many. There's not enough shelf-space in stores to carry all these products, and having such a choice adds confusion, encourages obsolescence, and results in more products filling our land dumps. At this year's CES alone, 20,000 new products were introduced. 

Yet the net effect is positive. We can turn an idea into a finished product a lot faster and less expensively than ever before. China's efficient manufacturing and supply base has brought wealth to many American companies and have allowed them to move quickly into the digital age.

But today, the product development process is changing even more quickly than it did in the past decade. China is not satisfied to be just an efficient manufacturing machine. They're quickly acquiring the skills to invent and innovate, They're watching us leverage off their low-cost manufacturing and asking why they can't do it all. And they're doing a lot more than watching. They're educating a populace with the skills to do it all. They're investing in future technology such as batteries, solar, and software.

For us to compete, we need to be a lot smarter and do a lot more. While Congress is still fighting last decades's battles, such as the loss of low-paying manufacturing jobs, this country needs to strengthen its innovative capabilities to stay competitive. It means schools at every grade level need to emphasize science and engineering, much as we did at the beginning of the space program, so that we will have the skills to fill the jobs of the future. In the meantime, it means attracting the smartest engineers from around the world, and convincing them to stay here and work, rather than sending them back home after graduating, because of visa issues.

It means new investments in education, research, and renewable energy, much as China is doing, to stay competitive. Sadly, based on the daily discourse in Washington, many of our elected officials just don't get it.