Bikes & Bowls Near the Bay

By May 2, 2006General

Report from AmericaThis blogger was out in California last week and has reported several times about the Cool Products Expo at Stanford University. While the exhibit was held in Palo Alto, the products themselves were from all over. One thing they had in common was that all or nearly all of them had been designed in the USA. Two entrepreuneurs I spoke with that day had a big impact on me. They both do all their design work here, but one plans on making their cool thing in China; the other has opted to manufacture in the USA. I was face to face with globalization.

Heath Ceramics was not an exhibitor at the Expo for some reason. Instead, I heard about them from their co-owner, Robin Petravic, who spoke to us in the morning at the Alliance for Innovative Manufacturing, part of Stanford University. Robin is a recent Stanford grad and in 2003, he and his wife purchased the 58 year old Sausalito company from its founder. They invested their time and resources into rebuilding the company. What was pretty interesting was the values Petravic discussed. As a young entrepreneur, he believes that employing people and providing them with essentials like healthcare are important reason to produce here. He is also implementing what The Manufacturing Institute’s former chairman, Tim Timken, has said over and over–that if you want to improve the environment here, then producing here is one of the best ways to do it because US-based companies are often more environmentally-inclined than in other places around the world and that manufacturing is the place to do it. I thought Robin had a lot of common sense in what he said and their bowls, plates and tiles are truly gorgeous to boot.

At the Expo, I met Errik Anderson, a venture capital consultant who was there to discuss the cool Gyrobike that has a gyroscope built into the front wheel, elminating the need for training wheels. This product is not yet on the market, but if you are a parent who has tried to teach your child how to ride a two-wheeler, you can appreciate the attraction of this training-wheel-less bicycle. It was invented by four undergrads at Dartmouth College in their Intro to Engineering course. That’s cool in and of itself! This is one of those high-end products that ought be able to be produced right here in the USA, but Anderson indicated it was going to be produced in China. (The Gyrobike website says they are looking for someone to produce it, so maybe there is an American-based company that would still like to take them up on this). In any case, many things we use are made in countries around the world and that’s just the globalized world we live in. Still, the Heath Ceramics model is another path. I hope our colleges of design, engineering and finance are urging young people to consider production here as well as overseas and not just telling them nothing is made in America anymore. That advice is not based on the fact and reality of today’s manufacturing.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Ashton Udall says:

    I just returned yesterday from a one month trip in China during which I toured at least 30 factories and sourcing offices in multiple cities. Dealing with environmental and social issues and manufacturers is indeed a daunting challenge. One has to be very discerning about the kind of factory, ownership, and management they are dealing with. In addition, oftentimes it is not management but the workers themselves who refuse to follow the most simple of health or environmental guidelines. However, for many, the cost-effectiveness of manufacturing in China will be too tempting to resist, or even necessary. So for those considering going abroad, the question is, how do we begin doing it in a responsible, positive fashion? Being a consultant for a trade management company for small businesses, I have been looking into this. In my opinion, there are small, simple steps one can take to begin. But real change will take time, commitment, and the perspective of creating mutual benefit, long term partnerships with your Chinese suppliers. Believe me, if the demand for this service comes from the people with the money, it can be done. I am hopeful.