Tag Archives: innovation

China Innovation

China is famous for cheap manufacturing. We all have stuff at home that is Made in China.
Acceptable quality at an attractive price. Like your iPhone or your garden parasol.
This is obvious for everybody.
What is harder to see from the outside is that innovation is bubbling in China. Contrary to popular belief, there is a lot of new thinking going on here.

  • Low start-up cost for companies and production
  • Fantastic E-commerce infrastructure
  • Plenty of people with nothing to lose
  • A lot of people with cash to spend

Setting up the legal structure of a business is very simple in China, especially if you are Chinese. Low cost for the initial establishment reduces the cost for expensive bank loans and lowers the threshold and the risk for the founders.

The Taobao/AliPay platform makes it easy and cheap to show your products to an audience of a billion internet users in China. Taobao is a combination of Ebay and Amazon – a strong platform for displaying goods and allowing the users to order what they need. The AliPay platform is a banking layer that channels the money from buyer to seller, like PayPal but better.

I would like to give an interesting example of this.

The solar-powered-bicycle-tail-light. It is a combination of existing technologies into a new product that I have never seen before. Solar cell + Battery + LED lights = maintenance-free light for my bicycle. It is obvious that the value is that you wont have an empty battery when you are heading home in the dark.

Solar powered rear light for bicycle.
Solar powered rear light for bicycle.

This product is available on Taobao.com for 15 RMB + 5 RMB shipping. (total cost to the consumer 3 euro/4USD).

 (and for consumers outside China, check out AliExpress, $50 for 10 pcs, free shipping)

One question is then, how about IP protection, patents and copyright law? Is this product infringing on some smart American inventor’s patent?
Actually, no. There is a patent for this product, filed 1990 in Korea and China by Yu Gunjong and Kim Yonggab at Yukong LTD. The patent has expired and everyone is allowed to make and market this product.
There have come a host of newer patents, mainly from Chinese inventors in the last five years for new functionality.

Innovation is booming in China – and all of society enjoys the benefits!

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The Car that Changed the World (part II)

A new car has been born. In the Shandong backwater province, halfway between Shanghai and Beijing, a revolution is unfolding.
This will change the world. Again.

Ten years after the unexpected success of Chery QQ, a new generation of cars is being created. Light weight, compact cars with 100% electric drive.
By radical re-thinking of how cars are used in cities, they have developed a concept for mobility based on medium speed (<80 km/h) and very low weight (<500kg). This makes it possible to use all the technology from the electric scooter revolution.
By re-using these mass-market components, reliability and low cost is achieved. A complete electric car is yours for less than 2500 euro.

(In 2002 petrol scooters were banned in the 10 largest cities, and a mass-market for electric scooters was created almost overnight. Today there are more than 100 million electric scooters on the streets in China, and the price has dropped to 90-200 euro, depending on model. More about this another time.)

The electric carlets are officially recognized in Shandong province, where the first wave is rolling out.
In other provinces they are popping up like mushrooms.
However, there is no nationwide launch planned yet. The legal boundaries are still murky whether it should be counted as a scooter or a car. As soon as this is clarified I predict that there will be another hundred million electric vehicles on the streets a few years from now.

Electric 2-seater (hyev.com)
Electric 2-seater (hyev.com)

(www.hyev.cn)

Most traditional car-makers in Europe and America are attached to all the ideas and concepts of what a car must be, with comfort and gadgets and a powerful engine. The modern car is developed for a suburban environment. Large loading capacity and higher speeds were necessary.
However, since this year, more than half of the planet’s population live in cities where speeds are low and space is limited. Therefore it is imperative to look for new solutions to the mobility problem, and an excellent proving ground is China, where hundreds of millions of people would like to have something better than a scooter.

Of course a 450kg thin-steel-and-plastic car will not survive a head-on collision with an SUV, so safety is a concern. However, an enclosed compartment is probably better than an open scooter. It all depends on what you compare with. And sooner-or-later we should probably separate traffic by weight.

Electric four-seater "SMRT".
Electric four-seater “SMRT”.

This year, city air quality and air pollution has come to the top of the political agenda due to the fact that the municipalities have started to publish the air quality measurements on-line. Everyone I know has an App on their smartphone that displays the air quality index. The school of my kids keep all children inside during recess when the levels are particularly bad.
I strongly believe that these light-weight mini-cars is part of the solution. If Beijing would ban petrol engines inside the ring-roads, the local air quality would certainly improve.

I dare the European Union to ban petrol scooters. I dare you to endorse these electric mini cars.
Europe should not miss this round of mobility revolution!

Family electric car from Haima.
Family electric car from Haima.

The Car that Changed the World

Chery QQ - the car that changed the world
Chery QQ – the car that changed the world

I am convinced that Chery QQ is the most influential car from the last 10 years.
“Which car? Why did I never hear about this one?” I hear you thinking.
Still they have produced more than a million of these cars in the last few years.
This year, Chery was exporting more than 400,000 cars to Asia, East Europe, Africa and South America.

Some background first. Chery started out as a license-producer, making Seat cars in 1999, in the backwater town of Wuhu. Nobody noticed. At that time, there were ten car factories in China, most of them 50/50 joint ventures with Chinese government owned car plants with multinationals. Most successful ones were First-Auto-Works-VAG producing Audi in the north and SAIC-VAG “SVW” producing Volkswagens in Shanghai.
Ten years ago, in 2003, when the story begins, cars were quite expensive in China.
It was a very profitable, but small market, dominated by a handful players – all joint-ventures with foreign companies.

When nobody was looking, Chery launched a car on the market with a very low price under their own brand. It was a rip-off/copy/shanzhai of the Daewoo Matiz/Chevrolet Spark, but at an even lower price.
Here was a small four-seater at a price HALF of the second cheapest car on the market.

Within a year, car prices fell with 30% all across China in response to the very low price alternative of Chery QQ.
After two years, Chery was exporting hundreds of thousands of cars across Asia.

There has been much media attention in the last five years for the Tata Nano, the affordable micro-car that would raise the living standards of the masses.
However, it has been a commercial fiasco. Millions of dollars invested, and sales are less than 10,000/year.
In reality, the real affordable microcar, giving automotive power to more than a million families across the world is the Chery QQ, starting at 2,100 euro.

The second effect of Chery QQ is the snowball effect. They showed the world that anybody can build a car. If they can do it in Wuhu, Anhui, they surely can do it in Chongqing, Dalian, Shenyang and Wulumuqi, right?
There is a lot of prestige in car-factories.
Every governor of a province in China wanted to have his own car factory.
Therefore, starting in 2005, there have been car plants sprouting out of the ground all across China.
The new thing is that all these are fully owned Chinese companies, some private but most are partly owned by the province/municipality.
Today there are 38 Chinese brands of cars, most of which have not yet been signalled outside of China.
The innovation is bursting and new variants of small, medium and large cars appear every month.
There is an enormous overcapacity, which drives the prices to the bottom, so there will be consolidation in the coming years.

The coming ten years will be the Decade of the Chinese Car.

The Red Wine Cooler

Living in China is fantastic. One of the priviliges is to experience the optimism of fearless innovation and exploration of new niches. I often see products that I did not know that were needed, but that perfectly fit someone’s needs. It really opens my thinking.

Last week, one of my Chinese colleagues told me that he had bought a red wine cooler. I thought he had misunderstood the concept, and I told him about the 6 degrees centigrades for Champagne Brut, pretending to be something of a connoisseur. Tactfully, my colleague told me that he already had one of those, but now he had felt a need to keep his Bourdeaux at 18 degrees. Living in a flat with intermittent air-conditioning, where the ambient atmosphere approaches 40 degrees, it is a challenge to serve a ruby red at a delectable temperature.

After learning that this product exists, I could not appreciate the Syrah last night as much as I did before. The warmish fluid got the sourly tones exaggerated and the aroma was overwhelming.
Would I be better off not knowing about the possibility of having the reds at the perfect chill? It is tempting, a 12-bottle holder is only 488 RMB (60 euro) on Taobao.com.

I will be considering for myself whether or not to purchase one, weighing the cost and environmental impact on one hand, and the luxury of knowing that a perfect bottle of Las Moras lies waiting for the next barbeque on the other.

Idea and book review – Cost Innovation

Book cover
Dragons at Your Door - Cost Innovation in China

Ming Zeng and Peter Williamson have researched the phenomenon of Chinese low-cost high-performance products. Twenty years ago, that was a paradox, almost a joke. However, not many are laughing at Maytag Refrigerators when the Chinese Haier delivers superior quality and broader product range to a lower price. The same goes with upcoming world players like Huawei, the world leader sea-container producer CMCI etc. They wrote an intriguing book about it: “Dragons at Your Door”.
The recurring pattern is that these Chinese companies are able to manage products and production in a flexible way to achieve mass-production costs (low cost) with a broad range (low volume per product type). Zeng calls it “Cost Innovation”. Part of the cost advantage is of course the lower salaries and lower taxation in China, but after comprehensive research, the authors conclude that this is of minor importance. More important is that the manufacturing system is designed for flexibility and low capital investment. Furthermore, the product development is fully adapted to the manufacturing capabilities: The standard question is “what variants can we make with no change of machinery?” In a sense, most innovation has been in manufacturing and in organization structure.

[As a contrast, at my company, we are setting up a product development center thousands of kilometers away from the nearest factory. The research center is in a different country far away from any manufacturing site. The interaction between product and production is minimized, which sometimes leads to miscommunication and delays. We have some things to learn from our Chinese competitors! ]

Zeng shows in a convincing way that the Chinese companies have been able to catch up quickly thanks to modularization and standardization of components and technologies. A key question is what happens right now when these companies take the lead in their respective niches? One of the recurring newslights in the last year have been acquisitions of medium sized European technology companies by cash-heavy Chinese competitors, to get access to brands, technologies and market channels. Is this incidental or will it continue to increase? We will see…

Container Innovation at Low Cost
CIMC - Container Innovation at Low Cost

Thanks to the authors unique insights in the researched companies, the book is full of concrete examples how specific problems have been resolved in innovative ways – very inspiring!