Sourcing It: Jaime Salm Creative Director of MIO Culture @ ICFF 2007

From the 2007 Metropolis Conference: Design Entrepreneurs: Rethinking Energy
May 21, 2007

Jaime Salm: Today I am going to talk about local manufacturing in the area of contextual thinking. For me, local means transparent, flexible, and accessible. There are many advantages to designing and thinking about producing products locally. Cultural and physical barriers are in place if we fly over to China and manufacture something there—it’s extremely hard to transfer values.

At the end of the day, as product designers what we are doing is more than the product: It is what the product stands for. Part of the message of the product is derived from how and where it is made. Conveying this idea across different lands, languages, and cultural perspectives becomes harder. That’s something I have found over the course of designing my products that I think has made them successful.

When I design, I go to, get in a car, and drive fifteen minutes at most. There are plenty of manufacturers in Philadelphia, and when I get there I find inspiration, it is all around. There is immediacy. I can go from point A to point B, and I am there and I can understand, because all those barriers have slowly disappeared, because it is local.

Here is an example where local manufacturing has produced innovation. There is a millenary factory we have been working with for the last five years making a product called SoftBowl, a container made out of wool. What we have done is recontextualized the technology of the millenary. The idea for this product really came from the millenary, from having access to the place and being able to stay there the whole day. Yes you could take a plane and fly to a manufacturing facility and see what is going on there and be inspired, but there is a relationship, a transfer of values, and an understanding of why we are doing what we are doing when you have regular contact.

Another way in which this production floor innovation happens is during the design process. There were several challenges when we were designing lighting products. First was an issue with some of them not being to spec. Because of the sizing, the bottoms of the lamps were not able to harden so they were spraying them with this very awful chemical and I saw them doing this. It is not that they are telling me over the phone that they are doing this, I am there to see exactly what it is they are doing and exactly what it is they are using. I am able to say, “Let’s look for alternatives”. When I am able to do that, I am able to change them and they are able to change me. It is a relationship, and that’s what it boils down to when you are designing with local suppliers.

One of the workers, Quang, contributed to the design itself. We didn’t know how to put the two components together and were coming up with all sorts of schemes that weren’t working quite right. Because of Quang’s understanding of the material and her ability to communicate with us and over the course of a couple of weeks we were able to come up with a solution that was based on her idea.

Another point to make has to do with ethics in design. The questions of ethics have to be answered. The real question is why we are doing what we are doing. Anything can be made, we have the technology and we have the know-how; it is a question of why we are doing it. If we build from that kind of baseline, how do we move forward? How do we educate consumers? How do we educate manufacturers? We have to reconnect. The designer has to have access to manufacturing in order to communicate. Yes the Internet works, but there are huge advantages we have found just by being there.

Some of these things may seem abstract when there are jobs cut. But to me they are not abstract at all because I know these people, I know who they are, and their ideas about design. Just being personal with people; one on one dramatically changes the way you design. It’s not just a person working in a factory producing your item, it’s Bob and you have some sort of connection with him.

There is a tremendous opportunity in using local resources, they’re everywhere. It is a question of looking where you haven’t looked before. Technologies that have been in place for many years may have been driven into a particular niche and stayed there for years without any transformation. They already have some built-in advantages that nobody has tapped into. That is a tremendous opportunity for industrial designers today, especially for those that believe design is about ethics and that design can be made locally.

Another thing to consider when thinking about local manufacturing is speed to market and market segmentation. Things are getting to market much quicker, and the quicker we can get to market the harder you will hit. You have to be the first one, it’s part of the game.

The other issue is segmentation. You know factories are producing small runs when you go to a store and see 400 brands of toothpaste. If we are moving to a more specialized market, one that is trying to deliver a message or a product to every specific individual consumer, local manufacturing is viable from a business perspective.

In the United States manufacturing has become extremely specialized. Every manufacturer we talk to has a lot of value added to their products. They are talking about the engineering process, short runs, and custom things that they would have never considered before. Now they are considering it and the market of course is heading in this direction. We need to take advantage of that as designers and say, Look, it’s not that these guys can’t do millions, they can, but they can also do short runs and customs stuff, they are more flexible, they are able to produce things that other manufacturers could never produce in time.

We produced one of our designs in a couple of weeks because we were in the plant a couple of times, the manufacturing guys came to us about seven times in the course of a few days. If you have an overseas supplier, maybe if you are a very good client of his he will do that, but if you are local he just gets in a car and he is there in five minutes.

From a business point of view, particularly for our small company, being local is actually a money saver. We are able to keep very low inventory, we just keep in stock what we need to keep in stock. They turn around fairly quickly so we have a small warehouse, we don’t need a big one, and it reduces the footprint of what we are doing. In a way, the manufacturers are extensions of MIO. That’s how we are managing the business.

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