Todd Stuart is a new member with extensive experience working with foundries and fabricators in China and the Middle East. His approach is different to our accustomed way of working and this article should provide food for thought and discussion.
I know from my own perspective dealing internationally has made it possible to successfully market my own personal works & survive doing so through the gallery system. I am sure that many of you being sculptors &; having access to the internet have had some form of spam coming to you from different Chinese sculpture foundries asking you to give them a go, promising you cheaper costs & good quality! You
|Step one: Todd working on the clay model|
While many people are set in their belief that products made in China are fraught with poor quality & no return policy or guarantee, with the right processes & management it is very possible to trade successfully with Chinese companies &; achieve the quality results & gain the cost efficiencies that the most stringent projects require. Staying on top & competitive today is a real aspect of the times that we need to embrace if we are to remain in business within developed countries such as Australia.
My experience is that often specific talents of foundry artisans from countries like China can be under estimated & can at times far exceed that of developed Western countries. How could that be? Where a process is very labor intensive in a country that the cost of labor is extremely high, the market demand to utilise that process naturally becomes less & less over time. With that becomes a diminishing number of artisans to service a dwindling requirement & hence valuable tradition & knowledge of a trade slip away even to the point of being completely lost over time.
In the last 8 years I have been on production missions more than x45 times & visited 100’s of factory facilities to pre-qualify only a few to entrust with projects. The following points are only a few key points that may be of interest, regarding selection of the appropriate foundry facility & managing the process should you be interested in taking a similar journey
◊ Researching for the ‘Right’ Foundry - An internet search can be overwhelming, finding hundreds of companies claiming to be foundries in places like China that you could potentially use to found your creations. When you really do understand the system you will find that there are probably about 5% of the advertised foundries are actually foundries & the rest are simply enterprising individuals or companies that act as trade agents or even represent themselves as the manufacturer when they are not. Why would this matter? An obvious point is that any quoted pricing you will receive will be marked up, but more importantly your quality & control of the process will be at great risk. In foreign countries communicating & being understood especially when it comes to important specifics such as engineering, design or finishing details are hard enough to explain without doing this through a third party. Often a trade agent specialty will be that they have studied English & can offer you the means to communicate, but have not the in-depth experience in the trade which they are making business and may often miss crucial points that are necessary to convey back to their foundry. If you are seen as a Westerner & as a one off opportunity you could potentially find pricing highly inflated, but if a trade agent values a potential ongoing relationship there margins maybe as little as 5% to 10% on top of the foundry pricing. Just this fact will make it difficult to differentiate between who is a direct foundry contact & who is simply a trade agent. A common occurrence with a trade agent is something in the process will be mis-understood, manufactured wrongly & need to be reproduced to gain your satisfaction. In this situation you as the client will be making the demand that they take responsibility to rectify their mistake. As a trade agent their thinking is – you will pay to have the mistake rectified & they will offer their 5% or 10% margin as a sign of good will (As it is simply not possible for them to afford this cost out right, they will never pay this)! As a Westerner this is simply an insult to honest dealings & will cause a lot of frustration as you come to the realization that if you want to finish your project on time & with the expected qualities that you will need to not hesitate in paying & pressing forward with the process.
◊ To find the right foundry & get direct contact with them you will need to spend a good amount of time physically on the ground researching foundry facilities, understanding the culture & the way they think & at the same time keeping a streetwise sense to recognize things for what they are. I remember when I embarked on this mission there were many companies I found that had simply pirated an artist’s website & used their images as examples of sculptures they had apparently produced & it is very easy to be baffled by this until you find the same images on another Chinese sculpture website also! It was funny that when I finally discovered the foundry that I wanted to utilize, that I was taken to this same foundry x3 different times by x3 different trade agencies all claiming to be “The Factory!!”. The foundry had cleverly disguise itself by not displaying its business name, so that its marketing efforts could rely on the numerous trade agents pretending to be the foundry owners. Usually once a trade agent has introduced a client to the core foundry there will be no way for a client to get a direct relationship. It’s like a hidden agreement or code of practice where the foundry knows that they rely on the trade agents customers as a main source of business, so will always support the agent first. I was lucky enough to work out what was going on & present myself directly to establish our current relationship.
◊ Pre-Qualifying the ‘Right’ Foundry - What are some of the questions to be answered & signs of the “Right” foundry?
|It looks the same but this clay is 250cm tall|
◊ How many years have they been trading?
◊ What is their capacity; how many skilled artisans do they employ? What are the largest pieces they have up-scaled & commonly known examples of these projects?
◊ How busy is their facility?
◊ What processes do they have in-house & what are contracted to related companies? Do the contracted parties pre-qualify with your requirements?
◊ Do they respect artist copyright? Some foundries would not even blink an eye lid to copy another’s works, where the foundries commonly known by international artists usually have good reputation in protecting their works. You will never see one of their artist’s works on their website nor when you first meet them will they let you take photographs of other works being developed in their foundry!
◊ Do they have in-house translator who has good command of the English language & understanding of the specifics for the trade they are representing?
◊ Do you sense their team will implement your quality specifications, or do you feel there will be a struggle? If a foundry is more in the game of cutting corners for cost efficiencies than upholding quality then you will find it nearly impossible to re-educate them to follow your direction & specification of quality.
◊ Are they supplying the market pricing?
the work in situ
◊ Getting the ‘Right’ Price - Even if you really want to establish a relationship with your chosen foundry you would never let a foundry believe that they are the only ones that can produce your works. We have an exceptional foundry, but when I first met them I politely sat down with them & discussed our knowledge of their competitors & the market benchmarks for pricing. If you don’t do this from the onset you will waste too much time trying to get quotations from other foundries on every project to make sure that you keep the foundry you want to work with honest. Having them understand this four years ago, I communicated to them that we wanted to build an honest ongoing supportive relationship and that any project they quote to us will never be negotiated. This means that neither party wastes time discussing price. I know that we have the best quality foundry supplying at market prices & I never negotiate to squeeze their margins. Many people make the mistake of pushing for the meanest pricing not realizing that, YES they will produce the item but they will save costs by reducing the quality of the specifications you think you will get. Saving a few cents on the quality on materials or the construction in areas that are not openly visible by the client will inevitably cost you $1000’s & your reputation in the future.
Getting the ‘Right’ Results from your Foundry -
◊ Initially when you are getting to know the foundry you will need to take samples of materials they have utilised to an independent laboratory where you can confirm the grade of materials matches your specified requirements. For some materials you can get solution testers that can give you immediate feedback on site, changing color to indicate the exact material specification.
◊ Communicating in a way that can be universally understood even when language differences prove to be a barrier. This may be a combination of sketching, Cad drawings, Clay modeling & hand signals.
◊ Make an effort to learn some basic words in Chinese, it will go a long way in building a strong relationship & understanding
◊ Ensure items quoted are based on the exact quality specifications of materials, construction methods & finishes that are required in the end
◊ Visit & direct the foundry at all of the crucial stages to manage the process. May include part or all of:
◊ Briefing requirements, supply of scale Marquette’s, Checking proportioning of up-scaled models, checking internal frameworks, finishing & final packaging ready for safe transportation
◊ You direct & manage the process with the foundry. If you leave it up to them to dictate the result you will most certainly get a different one to what you anticipated.
◊ Above all don’t start a project until you have sourced & pre-qualify the appropriate direct facility. This will make life much easier from the onset.
◊ Gain the respect of the foundry & their people will work to achieve the end result you require.
Another look at the finished stainless steel work in situ
◊ Ethics of Utilizing a China Foundry - Some people say “don’t you think it is exploitation to use underpaid people from China working in a sweat shop?”. I have travelled & traded within numerous countries for the past 8 years & lived outside of Australia for 5 of those. On returning to Australia it was a true reality check as I was really shocked by the level of unhealthy inflation & unbalanced ratio between what Australian companies are paying for imports and the excessive amount of margin they need to put on products to pay their overinflated expenses – cost of fuel, rent, labor etc. In the Middle East (where I was residing) I never paid more than $0.35 per liter for fuel (so the real cost of fuel lays in government taxes & company profits & not at all relative to what it really costs!). Obviously costs of labor are much cheaper in China, but for the average worker, their main costs such as electricity, food & rent are also relatively in proportion. Sure they don’t live the same standard of life style as Western developed countries, but they are catching up very quickly & with the interest from Western economies, this is helping them succeed in this mission. The point I would make is that it is all relative & far from exploitation. To talk specifically about the foundry I use, the workers are not simply numerous unskilled laborers brought in from some remote region off a farm paddock to work in a factory & paid bare minimum. In fact it is the opposite! Workers with the specific artisan skill sets are in high demand & rare to come by. They command more than double the average wage & need to be treated with respect with good & flexible working conditions otherwise they will be snapped up elsewhere.
Todd is undertaking to handle work for other sculptors at the foundry where he has his work done.
You can see his contact details in the ad beside this article.