A rather abrupt comment appeared from an anonymous poster on one of our YouTube videos recently. It raised an important issue; that of the human rights implications of manufacturing in China. I do not take this issue lightly, so this is a welcome opportunity to discuss the reasons behind our choice to manufacture the orbis® in China and the standards at the facility there. This post is fairly serious, so if you’ve just dropped by to check out some cool photo tips, you might want to take a look at some other posts on the blog here at enlightphoto.flywheelsites.com.
When we began to research manufacturing the orbis® like many responsible citizens we decided to keep as much of the work as local as we could. Our designers are local, many of our prototypers are local, our testing facilities are local. There are many excellent plastic manufacturing companies around the world, and our neck-of-the-woods is no exception. But we failed to locally source anyone (eg. in the country, and the countries nearby) that had any capability to create the highly reflective interior surfaces so important to the orbis™ ring flash.
We began to research manufacturing in China where chroming technology is among the best in the world. Taking advice from local companies with experience in manufacturing in China, we began to build a list of potential manufacturing partners. One dropped out because of communication difficulties; their project staff turnover was so high that I found myself talking over our designs with a different person every few weeks. Another company was just way too large for us, handling manufacturing for Dell, Fujitsu, Apple and other massive companies. A product like the orbis™ was going to be way too specialised for a big hitter like that. We finally settled on a smaller company; although only established for a few years it meant we were able to talk as equals, one young company to another. Their management team were, and still are, extremely professional, experienced and most importantly, they are proudly ISO9001 accredited. This alone doesn’t guarantee the quality of the orbis, but did give me a very strong indication that they take their procedures very seriously.
Before agreeing to have them manufacture the orbis, I took references from other companies in the US who they manufacture for, all strong brands, and received glowing recommendations. I travelled to visit them to assure myself that they were bona fide. Even in today’s world of free video conferencing, you can tell very little about a company until you have walked through its doors.
Needless to say, the thousands of orbis photographers out there happy with the orbis ringflashes attest to the outstanding quality of our chosen manufacturing partner.
But, I hear you ask, you still haven’t mentioned anything about how the orbis is made. And more importantly who it is made by. We’ve all heard stories of workers around the world exploited for their labour, underpaid, overworked… sometimes underaged.
I visited our manufacturing line late last year and could not at first believe the quality of the setup. It is quite simply the most well-presented plastics factory that I have ever visited anywhere. But of course, a couple of hours on a production line isn’t enough to quell the cynicism of years of reading about “show factories”. There was a tiny doubt in the back of my mind that I wasn’t on the real production line. The employees looked far to healthy, happy and hardworking to be the real-deal in my mind, so influenced by all I’d read about sweatshops and exploitation of workers.
Then I began to think about it. I was the only visitor in a factory full of thousands of employees working across multiple production lines and quality control inspection bays. Even pretending that none of them were being paid, this would have been an incredibly expensive show for the benefit of a single visitor.
Then I was asked if, thanks to my photography skills, I would mind spending a day in the factory photographing for the company’s new marketing brochure. “Of course,” I quickly agreed.
The next day was clear and bright and I spent an enjoyable six hours with a free reign throughout the entire facility. I had of course long before realised that there was no “show” for my benefit, but had I been incredibly thick-skinned and cynical, spending the entire day there would have totally quashed any doubts that it was exactly what it looked like; a plastics manufacturing plant of impeccably high standards, staffed by a diverse group of men and women as content with their work as anyone. After all the things we read about manufacturing ‘off-shore’ by people who’ve never actually stood on a distant production line for a few hours, I feel incredibly privileged to have had such great access.
And it leaves me completely secure in the knowledge that the orbis is not brought to you by “brothers working for 50c a day”, as the comment on YouTube suggested.
So although I was shocked when I first read the challenge to openly discuss some of the details behind the manufacture of the orbis™, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity.
It is a discredit to China to view it only through the Western stereotype as a source of cheap labour and throw-away products. Although I will always be a proponent of supporting my local economy, it is important to recognise that China is a world leader in technology and manufacturing.