Category Archives: Manufacturing

Innovative Leather

As an accessories designer, I do frequently come across leather, but have always seen it as a commodity rather than the true form of art it can be. As a guy who tends to stay away from meat, I’m also conflicted when I realize that leather can also be viewed as a way to minimize the waste of our animal consumption. But when in Bangkok I met with Nauvarat Songsawaddichai, President of the Thailand Leather Association. She asked me about fish leather…fish leather?


Then I was asked if I had seen chicken shin leather…really? It’s also known as poulard.


But my imagination really took off when I was shown stingray leather. In fact I had to buy a wallet made out of it. The white eye shape is where the bony tail emerges from the top of the animal. It’s so tough you could sand wood with it.

Now I am determined to find out more about all of these resources and wrestle with the concepts of sustainability in harvesting and tanning the skins of these animals. Perhaps there really is a place for innovative and sustainable leather in our coming product line of shoes. Needless to say, the more I learn the less I know!



Thailand’s Vision on R&D

Just outside of Bangkok, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Pramote Dechaumphai, Deputy Executive Director of Thailand’s National Metal and Materials Technology Center (MTEC) along with U-sarat Bunnag, the Senior Division Director of the Thailand Science Park (TSP), both of which are under the National Science and Technology Development Agency NSTDA. These two people were able to relate some of the most interesting aspects of research & development happening on the scientific frontier of Thailand.

Thailand’s Science Park is a huge complex that includes more than  sixty companiesfour research institutesthree universities, one medical school and two nearby universities. The facility supports 2500 full-time researchers, of which around 1000 are Ph.D. scientists. This facility is really ground-zero for Thailand’s R&D efforts. When you hear the deal they offer, it quickly becomes apparent why.

If you join the TSP, you enjoy the following incredible benefits from the Thailand Board of Investment:
• Import tax exemption for machinery
• Corporate income tax exemption for 8 Years
• 50% Corp. income tax reduction for 5 more years after tax exemption period ends (a total of 13 years of tax breaks)
• Work permit and visa facilitation for foreign specialists and researchers

The Thailand Revenue Department further sweetens the deal by offering:
• Accelerated depreciation rate for R&D machinery and equipment
• 200% tax deduction for R&D expense

The 320,000 sqft facility is modern, well-outfitted and includes:
• Wet Laboratories
• Dry Laboratories
• Pilot Plant
• Retailing Area for projects
• Land for special-build premises
• Seminar rooms
• Auditorium with 380 seats
• Outdoor meeting spaces
• Food courts, restaurants and retail shopping

One of the aspects I really enjoyed was an R&D Gallery which showed off successfully commercialized projects. One of the examples was how sludge from water treatment is now pelletized and turned into filler aggregate for construction concrete which reduces costs and eliminates a significant waste product.

In fact as you walk into the facility you are greeted with a touchscreen presentation that not only gives the visitor a view of what is there, but actually promotes the local network, knowledge and capital resources available.

I was also interested in a project that Dr. Dechaumphai had spearheaded for the Small Medium Enterprise (SME) market. His group identified a transportation need for small trucks in rural Thailand. Beyond this need, they focused on being able to make the truck with local resources and to run on local fuel. The result is a small biodiesel truck that works for passengers or freight. It features:
• being able to run on locally-produced palm oil biodiesel
• chassis, steering, braking, suspension and powertrain all made in Thailand
• only the engine is imported due to significant missing infrastructure

They then created 10 vehicles and sent them to villages around Thailand to study how they are used, and what improvements will be needed. Not only does this have merit in meeting needs, but developing the precursor to a domestic car industry.

Certainly the Computer Hard Drive industry in Thailand dominates the global scene. In fact, a recent flood in Thailand affected worldwide computer supply. What was shocking was that when I asked how the rest of R&D was going in Thailand, I was given a mediocre response. Despite all of this financial support and intra-agency efforts, they are not yet happy with the state of R&D in Thailand and think it has a long way to go. But if I look at the incentives and structure of their offering, I don’t think this situation will last very long.

In fact U-sarat’s marketing background is a great asset for the TSP, not only to fill it with great tenants and talent, but then to assist colleagues in rolling our multiple versions of the TSP all over Thailand. That’s when I realized, this was not a cool concept, but a massive federal commitment.

Lessons from the visit:
1. It has become increasingly apparent that R&D has been identified as a key sector for many developing economies.
2. R&D is part of the global marketplace, and world-class facilities with tantalizing incentives are becoming the ante to play.
3. However facilities and incentives are not enough. As we’ve learned at home, the key to success is developing a vibrant community, and this gets into thinking about the bigger ecosystem of complementary factors surrounding R&D, and why workers prefer to work at one place versus another. Frequently this gets into cultural influences like the arts, independent business and inclusivity.
4. Too often, our R&D efforts in the USA are so locked up in proprietary secrecy, that we fail to share our achievements with the greater community. NSP’s exhibits and information sharing was an inspiration on connecting R&D to the community.
5. I was inspired by MTEC’s desire to connect community needs to community resources with a special focus on SME development. This was a dominant theme expressed in Thailand, and consistently neglected in the USA.
6. And from U-sarat: try the mango with sticky rice!

Special thanks to Dr. Chadamas Thuvasethakul, Executive Vice President of NSTDA, for arranging this visit – and for ultimately helping me take U-sarat’s advice!

Fusing Heritage with Modern Design

La Spina Collections exemplifies many of the things I am encouraged about in Indonesia – all coming together into a line of shoes.

Here’s my reasoning:
1. The shoes are beautiful and inventive.
2. The collection embraces Indonesian heritage.
3. The products uses batik fabrics from villages to promote and help its artisans (mostly in Java).
4. The shoes also use wood carving as we saw in Bali.
5. The business is a pure start-up, starting from a group of three highly skilled shoemakers.
6. La Spina received entrepreneurial coaching and international exposure by the Femina Group.
7. The collection is now growing rapidly with exposure at Tokyo Fashion Week and previews in Europe.
8. Established local companies who embrace the heritage batiks are now contracting La Spina for some special collections.

All of this is the product of the efforts by design entrepreneur, Lianna Gunawan. Lianna was gracious enough to give me a full tour of her operations – from back office and retail store in Jakarta to her factory in Bandung. Her operations are growing and her staff will need to expand to keep up. It was refreshing to see in Bandung how shoemaking really starts and the craft involved to make beautiful shoes. It will be an interesting challenge to see how Lianna can keep up with growing demand and maintain her vision to use heritage fabrics and techniques and fuse them with her flair for contemporary style. If anyone is up for it, it’s Lianna, and I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of her as an icon of new Indonesian fashion design.

Design for Community Advancement

Within 10 minutes of having arrived at Singgih Kartono’s studio in Desa Kandangan, I turned to Beth and said “This alone was worth the whole trip.” She responded, “this feels like you.”

Designers create their works for different agendas: to win awards, to innovate, to make money, etc. But Singgih designs to empower his village in Temanggung and thereby sustainably advance Indonesia. His plan is really that big, and he plans on doing it with some simple and small items, starting with the Wooden Radio. These products are sold in fine design establishments around the world.

Singgih originally conceived the idea while in design school in Bandung. After some refinement and mentorship for the acclaimed concept he decided to not only bring his design to market, but to create the factory that would make it in his hometown. So starting from very meager beginnings (he rented a desk in a neighbor’s apartment), he began the enterprise with stunning focus.

Now when you come into his compound you are greeted with two well designed modern structures – his house and his factory. His factory is a split level structure filled with open space and glass walls to the outside. “People spend a lot of time in here, and I wanted it to feel like home to them.”

Likewise his house doubles as an office and his living room a conference room with moving glass walls that brings the outside in. When fully opened up he can have large gatherings there – whether for design workshops or celebrations.

The wooden radio is of course not 100% wooden. It uses electronics from abroad to make the sound. These are simply assembled into the beautiful wooden cases. Singgih explains that he always prefers the back of his designs than the front. A tour of his delightfully lit and airy split-level factory gives the air of people doing projects rather than a factory. It felt like a factory i wanted to work in.

The heart of Singgih’s method is “New Craft,” a system that mentor Surya Pernawa encouraged him to develop. But this name is misleading. The goal is to transform design from a tool for commerce into a means for empowering a village. New Craft combines the benefits of skilled workmanship of traditional craft industries in rural villages with the modern perspective that results from a design and manufacturing process. Social responsibility and sustainability can then become key differentiators.

Outside of Singgih’s multipurpose room is a hydroponic system growing vegetables which circulates through a fish pond. But this is just a clue to his efforts. Behind the workshop he has a courtyard filled with composts and saplings. He explained “we pay employees but we never think to pay nature.” He went on to explain that Magno could make products because someone planted trees years ago. “So we have to pay nature back too.” His website adds “The amount of wood replanted and selected is based on our yearly wood consumption, suitable age for wood to be grown and cut, and the requirement of land per tree.”
This plan for sustainable design goes much further. In addition to planting to replace the trees he uses, he also has an organic farm in the works that further synergizes fish, fruit trees and vegetables. He was not planning to do this but when the new tract of land was being opened up to housing he decided to buy it to preserve it and do something more sustainable. This farm now produces income that provides jobs and sustains expansion. Ultimately he hopes to re-inspire a new generation of agricultural workers in his village who have been fleeing farming for years. Now Singgih is turning his attention to moving his factory closer to the new farm. That would allow his existing factory to become a community center.
What results from all of this is perhaps the best living example of “think global, act local.”  He has drawn a circle around his community and used design as a path to address the needs of that community. The many layers of happiness and beauty that has resulted is unmistakable. But Singgih’s work is not done. Exciting new products are forthcoming, and he is also thinking a lot about education.
As if on cue, neighborhood children came to say hi while we took our parting photo with he and his wife.