You be the judge

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I was visiting a factory in China last year and saw a very distinctive element from a product that I designed on a competitor’s prototype (it was not a bike related product for the record). As if it wasn’t blatant enough, my product was sitting on the workbench right next to the competitor’s design. The factory owner assured me that it was an “accident” and he had some of his employees destroy the prototype. Accident or not, that type of “design inspiration” is common when many companies in an industry share the same overseas suppliers. I mentioned just one example, but I have on numerous occasions seen competitors come out with designs that are very similar to mine. The vast majority of the time I later learn that those products “just happened” to come from the same factory in China. Anytime several competing companies share the same supplier, the temptation is there to see what the competition is doing. So who is to blame for this problem, Chinese factory owners or American business executives who press them for a sneak peak at their competitor’s future product offerings? Okay, you don’t have to answer that. I am starting to get off on a tangent, so lets get back to the discussion about bikes.

Slippyfish posted on the Core77 message board about his bicycle designs, which he feels were copied by a competitor. He posted images of two different bikes that he designed for Kestrel and compared them to products from Orbea. The bikes are not exactly the same, but I agree with him that certain elements, like the polished metal integrated seatpost collars shown here, are too similar to just be coincidence. Personally, I like the design of the Orca frame a lot, so I was disappointed to see that maybe certain elements were “borrowed” from the Kestrel design. Take a look for yourself and let me know what you think. I would especially love to hear from someone at Orbea. Any comments?

Credits: Photo from the Core77 blog. Thanks to Jan, Richard, and Olivier who all wrote to point me to this post and discussion thread. Keep the tips coming; I appreciate them.

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10 Comments

  1. Olivier Blanchard June 19, 2007 at 1:33 pm -  Reply

    As long as unscrupulous Western companies are willing to either insist on “taking a peek” or outright paying for stolen designs, the Chinese will keep indulging them. So… I’m not sure I blame them for the problem. If American companies frowned at these practices and threatened to stop doing business with them on principle for pulling this sort of stuff, this practice would stop immediately.

    All the Chinese care about is pleasing the client. They’ll do whatever they have to do to achieve that goal. If we ask them to cheat, they’ll play along because that’s just how they think we want to do business.

    There’s definitely a double-standard in corporate America (and Europe): Many business executives who would never dream of cheating in their own countries seem to have no trouble turning into industrial thieves as soon as they set foot in China. Shame on them.

  2. Ed W June 19, 2007 at 4:33 pm -  Reply

    If I recall right, China does not honor other country’s patents. When I worked in electronic fabrication, the Chinese bought the best machinery , then shamelessly copied it. So long as American consumers shop for the lowest priced goods, this will continue.

  3. Bubba June 19, 2007 at 9:13 pm -  Reply

    Communism’s need to steal technology stains modern China’s reputation in international trade, but they get no proper respect for their intelligent contributions, since they cannot afford the lawyer teams necessary to secure patents. When the American and European patent bureacracies reach out to the real innovators, when they prosecute those who patent ideas that belong to others, perhaps on such a level playing field, Chinese true integrity can shine among the constellations of world nations. Our system isn’t even fair to us, why should China play along?

  4. Edu&Nano June 21, 2007 at 8:16 am -  Reply

    James and Slippyfish,

    I have tons of comments about Orbea and Chinese suppliers.

    I´m Spanish Engineer. I´ve known Orbea since I was a child.

    First a fact: Orbea has 250 employees, and 200,000 units sold per year. They cannot spend much time in design and enginneering their next year models.

    It´s easier go to fair and see what´s going on and copying it, and if they can get some views, photos and whatever from their suppliers, before production is and advantage.

    Unfortunately there are not culture on R&D in Spain, (I was looking for an R&D job during two years), we think is easier to get the others desing and make it faster, but we forgot the most important part of it, the designs has an object and they are create with an intended aim in mind. Copies cannot copy that.

    China autorithies are not interested in fight aganist industrial piracy, all the companies that manufacture there should take this in account. Maybe the actual dependancy of chinese factories will be expensive in the future.

    Kestrell has not to shown anything on design advanced bikes, they´re pionners since the beginning of the brand.

    Orbea is having many problems with their Scandium frames(Lanza and Scale) (cracks,failures) I think related with an unapropiate welding procedure. They are not a model brand in quality, reliability and engineeering. They are good making bussiness, of course I think they could press their chinese suppliers to get advantage over the competitors.

    I have made a post on my blog with this in the past, unfortunately it´s in Spanish

    http://freedomandspeed.blogspot.com/2007/06/trek-vs-orbea.html

    I can give the sources for all this points of view.

    James, believe me the “accident” was that you have seen the other prototype. Take in mind for the future, maybe the right way is the Colnago´s way. Design, prototypes, matrix, test and forms “home-made” and in Asia, production, just-production. Nothing of technology transferency.

    Edu

  5. Edu&Nano June 22, 2007 at 2:01 am -  Reply

    When two rival brands share the same factory are exposed to this kind of “coincidences”. It´s like share bed with your enemy.

    The brand who paid or spend resources for the new models design has to be carefully to keep this invesment, and let it become to be a market advantage.

    Industrial property laws in Europe and America aren´t the same for Eastern manufacturers(not all), the companies as a propietaries of their designs and being these it´s main patrimony, should guard them for this kind of piracy.

    Maybe the people at the financial department, should put this piracy cost on their balances, when they are thinking on made at some countries. Lower salaries is not everything.

    Edu

  6. Anonymous June 22, 2007 at 6:52 am -  Reply

    I followed this Orbea-Kestrel discussion for a few days. And I do not understand where the problem is. Is all the excitement about a seat clamp, which looks similar?
    Slippyfish himself says, that the Kestrel seat clamp is a different solution. So what? Is it different or is it identical? To my opinion the two clamps are different. Perhaps the Orbea solution got inspired by the Kestrel clamp. I don’t know.
    But in the field of design you allways get inspired by forms. You see something and it influences your work. There are good reasons that you can’t protect forms by law. If this would be possible, no one since Euklid would be allowed to draw a circle.
    At last, there is no danger of mistaking the two frames. The Orbea frame is product of it’s own.

  7. James June 22, 2007 at 12:16 pm -  Reply

    Thanks for the great comments everyone. You all got me thinking (scary, huh?)

    Olivier and Bubba, good points. I don’t want this post to be misconstrued as blaming the people of China for the current intellectual property situation. As a culture, they have contributed greatly to civilization during the course of their long history. I know some very smart and talented people in China and I certainly don’t want to imply that innovation does not exist there.

    Ed W, Utility patents are a separate issue, but I used to work for a company that got US and Chinese design patents on every aesthetic design. I don’t recall them ever trying to enforce any of those foreign patents, so I am not sure how that would have gone.

    Edu, thanks for sharing your perspective as a Spanish engineer. I tried to translate your post with Bablefish, but it didn’t translate very well.

    Anon, I do think those two seatclamps look pretty similar, but also distinctive from what else is on the market. Still, I can’t tell for sure whether or not one was copied from the other. That is why I am interested in hearing opinions from readers. I agree with your general comment about the value of building on the work of others. In some ways, innovation is overrated in our modern Western society. There is certainly something to be said for building on the ideas of others and making slight improvements along the way. One person’s idea can spark a better idea from someone else and society wins when a good concept evolves into a great one. In some ways, I think the Western focus on always trying to reinvent the wheel is a cultural difference that does cause some friction in our current world of global business.

  8. Fritz June 24, 2007 at 12:46 am -  Reply

    “destroyed the prototype” — hah hah, more like destroyed the evidence.

    “cannot afford the lawyer teams” — hah hah hah! The United States has a $240 BILLION/annum trade deficit with China. The Chinese have so much American cash on hand they literally don’t know what to do with it. They’re buying up American stocks and bonds as fast as they can and they still have huge piles of American greenbacks sitting in vaults. Trust me, they have plenty of cash to burn on lawyers and lobbyists.

    Rampant copying of design ideas is indeed a problem across all of the industries that outsource manufacturing to China. Thanks for sharing your experiences with this.

  9. Edu&Nano June 25, 2007 at 8:05 am -  Reply

    Fritz, I believe china will have a great social crisis, in the next 10 or 20 years, the people hasn´t rights there.

    James, If you need help with tranlations, let me know, with a comment in the post. I´ll try to do ASAP. Even if you are interested in other post of the blog.

    Edu

  10. Orbea USA June 26, 2007 at 4:05 pm -  Reply

    Official comment from Orbea and Kestrel:

    An Open Letter to the Bicycle Community
    June 21, 2007

    In recent weeks, parties external to both of our companies have inaccurately claimed that Orbea copied several aspects of Kestrel bicycle frame designs. Through this letter, we would like our customer, dealers, suppliers, and the global bicycle industry to know that neither of our firms believes this to be the case.

    Kestrel Bicycles has North American based design resources while Orbea S. Coop’s design teams are located in the north of Spain. We do not share design support firms and neither of us has ever hired a previous employee. While our two firms do share some manufacturing resources, both of our design efforts remain rigorously separate.

    At Interbike 2006, we both noticed a similarity of the seat binder on the Orbea ORCA and the Kestrel RT700. On October the 2nd, after comparing design timelines and locations, we jointly determined that while the designs were similar, our overlap was coincidental. We feel that anyone looking objectively at the two designs would conclude that there are more differences than similarities.

    Both of our firms appreciate and share the passion for artful, high-performance bicycle design. We both work very hard to create unique and groundbreaking bicycles reflective of our companies’ individual design DNA and history; copying from others is simply contrary to this basic principle. Rest assured that you will see many incredible designs from both of our firms in the years to come as we continue to push the boundaries of bicycle design and advance the evolution of the bicycle.

    Sincerely,

    Miguel Ocana
    MD, Orbea S. Coop Ltda.

    Kevin Kenney
    CEO, Kestrel USA

    Go here to view the original document:
    http://www.orbea-usa.com/download/Kestral_orbea_letter.pdf

    Please address inquiries to info@orbea-usa.com

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