The following is a post to the GWTW Forum by Mark Reed of Prism Designs Inc. which is arguably the leading manufacturer of sport kites in the world today.

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 our potential?

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 standards.

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 year.

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 quality.

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 cool ideas.

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 in Seattle.

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!

-Mark Reed
Prism Designs Inc.
Seattle, Feb. 2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

all photos copyright Prism Designs, Inc. used with permission