Myth: Cheap Rubbish From China

David Mantey, from PD&D Magazine, recently sat down with the President and Founder of Star Rapid for a fire side chat.

Star Rapid is owned and run by Gordon Styles, a British businessman and engineer. In 1993, Styles began building what became the U.K.’s largest rapid prototyping technology (RPT) company, which he later sold. Styles then founded Star Rapid — a full service RPT bureau that specializes in rapid prototyping, CNC machining, rapid tooling and molding — in 2005 with the intention of offering western clients the opportunity to use a reliable and high-quality rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing supplier in China.

PD&D: What is the biggest myth regarding manufacturing in China?

Gordon Styles: The biggest myth is “cheap rubbish from China.” There is no correlation between the price and quality in China.

I have spent top dollar for rubbish, and equally I have received some of the world’s best quality for prices so low they make your eyes water. In terms of quality, I would say that the 80/20 rule applies, inversely.

In developed countries, 80% of suppliers are good-to-excellent quality, whereas in China it is only 20%. This is changing fast though. Sometimes the price is double the U.S. or Europe — this is usually driven by inefficiencies in a particular niche.

PD&D: Why do companies choose to move to China instead of continuing work in the U.S.?

Styles: For the last 40 years in the U.K., and to a similar degree in the U.S., industry and manufacturing have been ignored by the government, and allowed to wither on the vine.

In the U.K., manufacturing went below critical mass in the last 10 years, and is now gasping its last breaths; U.S. manufacturing is in danger of doing the same.

The blame for this can be laid at the feet of successive governments of all persuasions. Many companies go to China now because they simply can’t get the capacity anymore at home. It is a vicious cycle that will need some serious political leadership to reverse. I believe that as the U.S. and U.K. emerge from recession the move to China will actually accelerate. This is because of the “last man standing” effect — the guys who survived get to feast as the economy starts to grow again — lead times go out and prices go up — ipso facto, more business goes abroad.

PD&D: In your opinion, how would you describe Chinese working conditions?

Styles: In China, you have the whole spectrum. Generally the foreign owned enterprises offer better working conditions. That includes Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, Japanese and, of course, the “Westerners”.

My own business partner James Li Xue Zhong previously worked building ships. He could go a whole month without emerging from the inside of the hull of a ship — breathing welding fumes; no masks; minimal ventilation; a bowl of rice twice a day (much less common nowadays) — and at the end of three months the company refused to pay him.

When we recently installed a new paint booth, we were required by the government to insist that our workers wore active carbon masks and that we fit an active carbon exhaust filter. All the factories in the area were forced to do this. Health and safety at work in China is certainly improving at a pace that I would put it on par with the U.S. and U.K. of the 1980s.

PD&D: To what do you attribute the rapid expansion of the Chinese manufacturing industry?

Styles: Here come two completely unexpected and extremely controversial answers:

1) The entire Politbureau [the executive committee and chief policymaking body of Communist China] including President Hu [Jintao] are engineers. In the case of Premier Wen [Jiabao], he is a geologist — earth engineering, same thing.

China is run by engineers that understand the importance of manufacturing and construction as the major wealth creating sector of a modern society.

2) The Chinese Government does not have to answer to the masses and can therefore make bold and very long-term decisions that benefit the country long-term. Deng Xiaoping laid out a long-term plan for China in the 1970s, and the government of today continues to be true to his original goals. In my opinion, Western-style democracy in China would have led to a much less potent manufacturing sector.

PD&D: Why is Star Rapid based out of China? You state that you’re “western owned, and managed in China”.

Styles: I couldn’t make money as an engineer in the U.K. anymore. I also love the feeling of working in a country where the top guys are also engineers. I feel special in China. I felt professionally worthless and unwanted in the U.K.

PD&D: How did you get into the business?

Styles: I started out in precision engineering in 1983, and in 1993 I started what became the U.K.’s largest RPT Bureau. We were up to 80 guys, and in 2000 I sold STYLES RPD to ARRK. After a number of years out of the industry, I decided to go the China to seek some opportunity.

PD&D: How has your life changed since you relocated from Britain?

Styles: I am a very proud and patriotic Briton. I love my country, I love my Queen and I love the great spirit of the British worker. I hate what the career politicians have done to my country.

The greatest change for me after relocation was to regain my self-respect as a businessman and as an engineer. Not to mention I took up playing blues guitar again after a 14-year break.

I miss my kids, but they love to holiday here in Zhongshan. Great beer, great music and the nightlife is great. Not as good as the Gas Lamp in San Diego – but not far off.

PD&D: In the current economic climate, what keeps you up at night?

Styles: I did my personal recession between 2002 and 2006. I was running on financial fumes at that time.

In that period, I used to hate guys telling me how much money they made each week from the increase in the house price. Putting food on the table and keeping a roof over my family’s head kept me awake back then.

I sleep pretty well nowadays as we were almost untouched by the recent economic recession and have continued to double sales each year.


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