An amazing interview this week. Robert from Fink & Co interview reads like the what to do of australian manufacturing design and brand building. I have long admired Fink & co product. When I saw them In New York I felt an immense sense of australian pride that they looked so good in the big apple too.
This is an inteview you will return to time again.
This is an inteview you will return to time again.
Why did you decide on Australian made?
There are various reasons that we choose to be part of Australian industry and make our products solely in Australia. F!NK & Co evolved toward manufacturing much the same as the traditional Crafts and Arts transitioned into mass production during the industrial revolution of the mid 1800’s. We took our hand making knowledge and aesthetic sensibility and fed it into manufacturing. We have always placed strong emphasis on fostering Australia’s emerging Design industry (F!NK & Co started in 1993) with products aimed at challenging and responding to the beautifully styled products from Europe and Scandinavia. F!NK & Co set about using the refined skills and of its crafts and design practitioners to create surprising and distinctive designs through their in-depth knowledge of materials, process and aesthetic. Much of F!NK & Cos distinctive style was achieved through a rigorous programme of developing new and advanced production processes and this high level of exploration remains pivotal to the company today.
F!NK & CO commenced in 1993 and in the initial stages of F!NK & Co’s development we had the philosophy that as much of the product as possible should be made outside of the business. However this rational became an issue, when faced with continual quality control problems and the difficulties arising in establishing a strong feed-back loop between the design intent of a product and the manufacturer. Trying to develop a new product remotely was difficult and expensive when it involved the types of advances and new approaches to production we were attempting to adopt. Over the past 18 years we have now learnt that it is far easier and more cost effective to develop tooling, test new processes and do all of our manufacturing in house. This way we have total control over the quality and integrity of the products we strive to produce and are renowned for.
In the long run we have been able to provide our clients with high quality and individualistic products that stand aside from other imported products and we are proud to promote our product range as pure Australian design and manufacture.
Did you look into manufacturing overseas?
In 2004, we moved the manufacture of one of our most popular products off shore to China. Our reason for doing this was that we could not sustain the production of our hand polished water jugs for export orders such as MOMA in New York within a cost effective margin. The amount of hand work required to polish the jugs and high failure rate in the anodising process made the production costs prohibitive. So we developed a close working relationship with a manufacturer in China and after moving tooling and investing considerable skills and time training workers in the production of this product. Initial the quality of the product we received was acceptable and the relative ease of quality controlling proved a worthwhile exercise, however only after two years the quality of the production dropped significantly mostly due to the quality of aluminium the manufacturer was able to source. Although we worked together with the manufacture to source new aluminium suppliers, the issues in the raw material could not be overcome. As a result we decided to cease production in China of this product and discontinue the production of the hand polished jug from our range. We also worked with another manufacturer on the production of one of our table lights in 2003, however we encountered the same issues with repetitive quality problems and lack if initiation to correct these issues, so again we ceased production of this product.
I don’t think we would manufacture off shore in the future, we think it is far more environmentally and politically beneficial to keep manufacture in Australian and support the Australian design industry. The greatest problem we had with off shore manufacturing was with communication issues and the refined understanding of manufacturing. We also had issues with design appropriation and IP attached to the processes we had developed. Although we had IP agreements, four of our products were copied and other products made by our company used our IP to make other similar products. This experience has made us considerably less trusting and more cautious in our manufacturing approach.
Today we adopt the philosophy that new products should be designed and evolved in the most cost effective manner as possible. Product design must utilise the most cost efficient tooling and manufacturing systems as possible, while still maximising the aesthetic appeal and functional merits of the product, otherwise it is difficult to remain competitive. We try to use innovative and specialised manufacturing techniques as a way of protecting our brand from copying and plagiarism. We always aim to create products that stand out, have longevity and ingenuity built into their style and function. We don’t believe in adding new items to the massive quantity often poorly made and designed object out there, unless it really adds value to the world and does not become part of the throw away ethos.
Can you describe the process of idea to first sample?
Every product has its own mode of development and as I work both on my own and designs and collaborate with other designers/artist the process is never really the same. However there is usually a combination of three ways as to how a new work begins. They are; 1. To design a specific product that fits a niche in the market, 2. Develop a production system or techniques that can create something exceptional and unique, 3. Translate a design that started as a one-off art work or a prototype design concept and refine it so that it is possible to manufacture.
Design Development begins with drawings/sketches, mock ups, or initial tooling to test potential forms. Most often I use my hand making skills to prototype a finished item, enabling the assessment of its visual assets and functionality to be fast tracked. This information is then used to evolve tooling by creating it digitally or directly in an analogue manner. New design concepts are reviewed throughout the design process according to their potential cost efficiency and manufacturing credibility in an effort to preclude the development of a product that is overpriced or has inherent manufacturing problems or inefficiencies.
In the first years of F!NK & Cos evolution, we developed products that either took too long to make or in which production systems were unreliable and ultimately the product failed. Thus the investment was waisted before the product could bring a reasonable return. We quickly learned that all efforts should be made early in the design process to stop poor investment returns; unfortunately being human often involves learning the hard way!
Good design always considers a composite of issues throughout its progression and works through every detail, miss something unseen and the product can become a burden, not liberation. One of the great advantages of having in-house manufacture is that such details can be addressed expediently through a good feedback system. Another very important consideration is to always try and keep the essence of the initial design, its “spunk” and to ensure that the manifestation is not contaminated during its progression to finalisation. We are also not hindered by traditional manufacturing methods or techniques, which can often lead to the watering down of the initial idea or concept due to manufacturing constraints. We take the opposite approach and create a technique or process to allow us to produce the true essence of the idea.
What would you do differently if you did it again?
What I would do differently given the chance is a hard to know, as exploring new ground often involves making mistakes which can inform new ways of thinking and for me exploration is inherent in my design process. The process of exploration is a critical part of creating things that are exceptional and success must always involve a level of failure. If anything I would say that we could have experimented more often and being looser with our boundaries. We could have taken greater risks but when you are working on a shoe string budget and every day is an issue of survival it is difficult to capitalise on risk taking and experimentation. The products that have proven most successful and have endured over time are those that have a distinctive and courageous look but still fit within consumers acceptable boundaries.
The best thing about Australian made...
Fostering a design industry, albeit small, that manufactures its products in Australia is very important for the long term health of our nation for several reasons.
Given the ever growing concern over global warming keeping it local would certainly decrease the carbon footprint of the product and allows for greater control of environmental considerations. There are advantages in terms of control over the quality of the finished product and of the materials used.
But possibly the greatest advantage to keeping it Australian made, is the direct or close link in the development of products between the designer and manufacturer and therefore many more doors are opened and the quality and value of the product can be improved more easily. Succinct dialogue between parties leads to greater innovation and more cost effective manufacturing. Issues to do with quality control can be also be addressed more immediately rather than after they have landed on shore and the manufacture has been paid and then the costs to address these issues is compounded. Innovative production is hard to achieve at a distance and with language and cultural differences this can narrow the potential design outcomes. Off shore manufacturing could lead to greater mediocrity where it is harder to create a product that stands out from the rest. Supporting a local industry also helps foster up and coming designers and design culture.
The real problem with “Australian made” is that we have a shrinking manufacturing industry with expensive labour costs where important knowledge and skills are disappearing, unfortunately much of it is not being transferred to new industrial economies.
What do you hope for Australian manufacturing in the future?
I have always believed that there is enormous value in pushing the boundaries of existing technologies as well as developing new ones. New ways of producing things, informs new objects and aesthetics which intern gives you an edge on the market. This type of intellectual property also protects your brand and makes it much harder for others to appropriate your designs. Copying or appropriating IP can halter progress and in some ways is blight for design worldwide. Everyone stops taking risks and starts watching each other, consumers are coxed into buying copies and choosing the lowest common denominator with brands that have little integrity.
I believe that a model similar to Scandinavia is where Australian manufacturing should be heading. We are a small country so we need to form an identity based on high quality, well designed products, that says something about essence of OZ. An often used compromise is to import components or materials from off shore and value add to them with more complexly made components that demand greater care or need there manufacturing IP guarded.
There will always be people willing to pay for high end products; the trick is to find ways to manufacture products that look, last and perform like a Rolls Royce but don’t cost a lot to make. Smart and innovative design and manufacturing is the way to go. We are a nation of pioneers and explorers let’s do something that no one else has, instead of following what is already past!
Supremely functional but never mundane