Manufacturing at Prism
No one's trying to be evasive here,
guys, but I hope you appreciate that we're working crazy hours
right now in production to get to the point where we can ship
the number of kites you're hollering for.
Somebody wanted to know which of our kites are "Made
in China." Some of the posts on this forum sound as if
manufacturing outside the USA 1) means poor quality or 2)
reflects questionable business practices on our part.
I'd like to address both of those issues here because I'm
confident that if you understand a bit more about our business
you will support my decisions about these issues as doing
good for the company, our customers, and the sport as a whole.
It's a long story, but if you have some time to read I think
you'll learn a few things.
QUALITY is a big deal, and if you've heard anything about
Prism's place in the industry you know that an obsession with
quality is at the core of our company and our reputation.
To me, quality is a gigantic concept, a top-level term that
speaks to an attitude about what you do and how you live.
If you're the kind of person who can't in good conscience
ship a kite with a single skipped stitch, chances are you
care equally much about the exact materials it's made from,
the minute details in its packaging, its precise balance in
a fade. You also care about the quality of your business;
do people respect your company in the same way they respect
the products you create? Do your employees thrive and take
pride in what they do? Does your work do some good in the
world? Are we always striving to grow, improve and realize
Ultimate quality is an impossible goal, because with a big
enough microscope you'll always find imperfection. But to
me it's the pursuit of perfection that gives meaning to the
term. Even though you never really get there, it's a compass
heading that gives purpose and direction and some sort of
meaning in a chaotic world.
Quality isn't an attitude that guarantees you'll get it right
every time. We're just humans and we make mistakes every day
of the year. As much as we try for perfection, some unlucky
soul will probably open up her new Prism this season to find
a bridle on backwards, or some such snafu. The more important
thing is that an obsession with quality in everything we do
leads to work that is simply BETTER, and sets a standard for
everyone else. Setting the standards and leading the way is
the biggest satisfaction in what I do, and it is WHY I go
to work every day.
So let's talk about the details. How do we go about making
products that define quality, how do we make them utterly
consistent, how do we make them halfway affordable, and how
do we make enough of them that you can get one without waiting
six months for it to be custom built?
Well, first we need a great design. That's the fun part of
my job and I design every Prism product. I love R&D because
I can indulge my obsessive side and create things EXACTLY
the way I want them. I can spend days at Kite Hill tweaking
bridles two millimeters at a time until I'm positive I can't
make it any better, and there's no boss to tell me I'm being
too much of a perfectionist. Quality in the initial design
is THE best way to ensure quality down the road.
Next, we need some amazing materials. For the performance
you want, run-of-the-mill materials just don't cut it. I spend
a huge amount of time searching for the RIGHT cloth, the RIGHT
carbon, the RIGHT braid of string for the job. Most of the
time, there are one or perhaps two suppliers in the world
that produce the exact thing that we need. All ripstop polyester,
for example, is made in only two factories, both in Japan,
because their history of silk weaving has let them build looms
precise enough to weave the ultra-fine fibers. The titanium
impregnated fabric in our kite sleeves is custom woven for
us in a factory in Taiwan that developed the technology to
make it. Other components come from 32 states and 13 countries.
Often the things we need, like our APA connector fittings
and Hotrods spars, simply don't exist. Then we have to design
them ourselves and search far and wide for people with the
skills and technology to produce them for us to our quality
Over the years we've invested tens of thousands into specialized
parts for our kites, and we work side by side with a diverse
team of talented specialists ranging from one-man operations
to gigantic aerospace companies. The hundreds of parts in
our kites, the spars, the fittings, the fabrics, the lines,
aren't "Made in Seattle" or "Made in China,"
they're "Made on the planet Earth" because quality
for us means working with the people who are the very best
at what they do, regardless of where they live.
With hundreds of different components in place, the assembly
work can begin. A surprising number of folks think that ready-to-fly
kites are somehow extruded from some high-tech machine. If
such a miracle could be built your kites would cost $14.99
and I'd be a wealthy man. The reality is that real humans
do all the work, with their own real hands. When Scobie I
started the company, we personally built every one of our
kites in our basement workshop. I haven't stopped to count
how many years of my life I've spent in front of a sewing
machine, but thankfully I still enjoy it when I have the opportunity.
In the process we became intimately familiar with every step,
and our obsession with quality was not only for the finished
kites but on the building process itself. Because our own
time was at stake, we examined every step looking for ways
to build more efficiently and more consistently. In the end
we pioneered a whole new approach to kite construction using
vacuum tables and lapped seams, one that you'll see "borrowed"
on 90% of the kites on the market today.
Building every kite was fun, but after a few years the 90-hour
weeks started to wear us down. Problem was, everybody wanted
our kites and at full bore the two of us could only produce
about 30 a week (and that's with no social life!). We also
had a company to run, which in those days mostly amounted
to listening on the phone while dealer after dealer chewed
us out for not having enough kites to ship their orders quickly.
It was time to hire.
Unfortunately, it's not easy to work for people who are obsessed
with perfection in every detail. It took us years to learn
how to hire and train our Seattle production staff. It's surprising
how few people are trained to work accurately and quickly
with their hands, and we had to devise elaborate tests to
weed out the few who could. We found that most people considered
production work "manual labor" and a job of last
resort, and finding the few stars who could also afford to
live on a kite maker's wages was a constant challenge.
Meanwhile, the demand continued to grow as we developed new
designs. The phone calls were always the same: "love
your stuff, but where are the $%&^!! kites I ordered a
month ago?" Problem is, most folks only fly kites in
the spring and summer. So unless you're sitting on a pile
of cash from a fairy godmother, you can't afford to keep a
full summer production staff sitting around for seven winter
months, doing nothing. You also can't afford to buy truckloads
of carbon and materials to keep them working on kites you
won't sell for another half year. The kite business just isn't
big enough to generate that kind of cash. So we'd need to
hire 25 people in the spring, spend three months training
them to our quality standards, work hard for two months, then
let them go on Labor Day when kiting stops dead in its tracks.
Not a great way to treat your people and pretty bad for the
bottom line, given that in this business you have to make
enough in four months to get through the entire rest of the
That was six years ago, and thankfully the phone kept ringing.
If we'd had the production capacity, we could have sold twice
the kites and made a lot more people happy. But ramping up
to 50 people in our small workshop and then letting them all
go would have been chaos. So we set up production shops outside
our own, first right in Seattle and then farther afield around
the state. We made duplicates of all the tools and templates,
and built training and operations manuals to keep things consistent.
The idea was to spread the seasonal impact across a larger
network, smooth out the curve, and add capacity without affecting
It didn't work, and quality slipped in one short-lived disaster
after another. The problem kites seldom made it all the way
into customers hands, but it sure was expensive to throw
away ripstop. Without physically being there, we simply couldn't
communicate our need for precision and supervise the result.
We also couldn't find and nurture enough people who were exceptionally
good with their hands in production. Remote communication
was tough, and our dream of getting more people into the sport
faded because we couldn't figure out how to fill orders from
the customers we already had.
Limited capacity is why for a long time we only made kites
at the very highest end of the market. The demand for even
our $100 kites was more than we could ever produce, and that
just made for pissed-off customers who couldn't get product.
Frustrating, when the dream from the beginning was to make
awesome kites that would get a lot more people into our sport.
I'd been working on the Stylus 1.8 design for some time and
knew it could be a hit, but I also knew there was no way we'd
be able to produce it because it's a labor-intensive design
with a ton of sewing and a lot of string work. There was no
way I could hire then lay off enough in-house staff to build
it, so it had been sitting on the shelf along with many other
Then we got lucky. Through my sailing background I'd known
a friend who had recently set up a small production shop in
China to build high-end windsurfing sails and paragliders.
He loved sport kites (all of us wind junkies do) and thought
he had the right tools and talent to build our kites. I had
never even considered manufacturing offshore because 1) all
our outsourcing so far had been a disaster, 2) like everybody
else I assumed if it was "made in China" the quality
would be crap, 3) Like many Americans I had visions of children
chained to sewing machines in oppressive working conditions.
But on a whim I took a trip over to see the shop and I was
totally impressed. It was cleaner, brighter, and better organized
than our own, the staff was vibrant, cheerful and meticulous,
and the quality and detail in the products they were building
was astonishing, far beyond anything were were doing in Seattle.
In this part of China there is a lot of high-tech manufacturing
for the West, and wages are an order of magnitude higher than
anywhere else. Jobs here are extremely desirable and very
hard to get. Yes, labor was cheaper than the US, but in this
operation that savings allowed them to spend more time on
quality and precision without pushing prices through the roof.
I could tell I was watching people who were seriously happy
about their work, and it showed in everything they made.
The Stylus was an obvious choice for an experiment, and I
flew over with patterns in hand to set up a test production.
It was a joy to work with the staff and incredible how easily
they took to all the little tasks that require accuracy and
coordination. These people are master builders as a profession,
and it was astonishing how meticulously they worked.
The Stylus was a big success. We specified the wrong bridle
lengths in a couple of early batches (oops!), but the consistency
they produced was actually better than we'd been able to hold
Over the years since then we have slowly grown our partnership
in China to combine their capacity with our short-run capabilities
to best serve our customers. Some of our models, such as the
Legacy, Flashback, Fanatic, FlashLight, and E2, are built
in both shops to give us the most capacity and flexibility
to meet demand. The highest volume kites such as the Adrenaline,
Micron, and Styluses, are assembled in China because the number
of people we'd need to build them here wouldn't fit in our
building. Many of our kite sleeves are made in the China shop
because they have specialized sewing machines that let us
build cool details into them. Our most specialized kites,
the 3-D, Ozone, Elixir, Illusion, Prophecy and Vapor, are
assembled in Seattle so that we can build them in small batches
and save the cost of inventory for their very expensive materials.
Many people think that companies manufacture offshore just
to exploit cheap labor and lower costs. Costs can indeed be
a lot lower when volumes get high enough to ship containerloads
of product. But interestingly, our costs to manufacture in
China are about the same as in our own shop because 1) our
volumes are low because the kite industry is tiny 2) our shop
there is small and pays their workers well to build high-end
products, not commodities or cheap toys, and 3) shipping,
duties, and cost of inventory add significant costs.
As I explained above, the big advantage to us and to you is
production capacity. That means we can build not only the
coolest high-end stuff, but also some great kites that offer
so much value that thousands of people want them. If we offer
these kites but can't supply them, we're digging our own grave.
Every year, some people get hooked on kites and some move
on to other hobbies. It is critical for our survival that
new people get into kiting every year, and we've always believed
that producing some top-quality kites at competitive prices
is the best way to make sure this happens. How many of you
got hooked with an Adrenaline, a Fanatic, or a Flashback?
We're thankful you did, because there aren't enough folks
with 20 kites in their bag (much as we love you!) to pay the
rent and keep the lights on.
So what about BUSINESS ETHICS? Are we taking jobs from hard-working
Americans and sending them offshore? Not in our case. For
us, adding to our production capacity in this way has let
us grow the company without going bankrupt, hire more people
in Seattle, and pay them more competitive wages with better
benefits. Are we exploiting workers with poor wages in lousy
working conditions? Absolutely not, though I know well that
there are terrible things going on in many countries including
our own. Are we sacrificing quality to make a buck? If you
don't understand how much we care about quality by now I don't
think I can help you. And if making a buck was the prime agenda
I can assure you I have the skills to make a lot more money
doing something else.
One of the biggest joys of our industry is that it is such
a small community. I love the fact that I've been able to
meet and spend personal time with hundreds of you over the
years. It's a privilege that so many of you know me personally
well enough that when questions of business and personal integrity
come up I seldom have to be on the defensive. You know me,
you know what I believe in, and you see and affirm the values
at the foundation of my company. But I also understand that
some of you are newer to the sport and perhaps don't know
much about us. For you, I hope this rather long-winded commentary
will give you a better picture of what we're up to. And I
look forward to meeting you on the field!
Prism Designs Inc.
Seattle, Feb. 2003