When asked, I jumped at the chance of visiting the Rosenthal and Thomas China factories in Selb Germany. Over the years I have been to the majority of the UK china factories which sadly by and large have now been mothballed with product being out sourced from across Asia.
So this was a great chance to see the developments of China production at first hand again and to also get better acquainted with the Rosenthal Group.
From Munich airport and along with 4 other Internet retailers, we were taken on a circuitous route, avoiding motorway road congestion to our first appointment.
Now Thomas and Rosenthal are all about design and as you arrive at the aptly named Rainbow building you immediately sense something different. Designed by Otto Piene, as the name suggests, a rainbow has been painted on an otherwise austere looking building some how making it look inviting in spite of it’s care worn look.
First up is the design department and although we were a good 2 hours late, the head of design was still up for showing us the thinking behind a key part of the company’s DNA. Without good product and design you cannot manufacture profitably.
Mood boards with images, colours, textures, a kind of mind map starts the process. Ideas are bounced around and then solutions arrived at. Once a wider consensus is agreed models are produced and manufacturing practicalities considered.
In the UK packaging gift ware and tableware sets is very important and if I have an observation on the otherwise great design team, who bear in mind have to cope with the similar challenges to the IMF! – of dealing with the differing tastes and demands of a World wide market- then it would be that the design of packaging should be an integral part of product design.
The next day we visited the Technical department. Now this is an eye opener for the consumer. Everything that the factories produce is checked and vigorously tested. The porcelain is strength, chip, dishwasher and cadmium release tested ensuring that the product not only meets the standard requirements but exceeds them by some distance ensuring that quality of product and along with it the reputation of the Rosenthal and Thomas brands stay in tact.
From the Technical department we went to the print design area. Here they create and print their own lithographs and indeed those for some of their competitors too.
After an al fresco lunch we headed for the Rosenthal museum. Here you get a real sense of the provenance and history of this great china manufacturer. Us Brits tended to be brainwashed into thinking that Stoke-on-Trent was the world capital of quality china manufacture, look were it is now in comparison to what we see before us.
The museum shows man’s ingenuity to engineer and make product using the most extraordinary technical machinery. Clearly the engineers were given a problem and with only their brains and their practical ability came up with a solution.
As well as the willingness to embrace change, what also becomes very clear in the museum is the relationship that Rosenthal developed with designers, both German and International, many of whom had made their mark in totally different fields. It is this ingredient that for me sets the company apart from it’s competitors and will be something that will be the basis for their future prosperity.
The final day gave us the opportunity to look at the Rosenthal, Thomas and Versace showrooms. It is sometime since I have seen the group product in all it’s glory and the merchandising and display was inspiring.
After lunch we set off for a Factory tour at Speichersdorf. This is something I had been really looking forward to. I was not disappointed. The factory is mostly automated and as you would expect well organised.
We saw dust pressing, where plates are created from clay particles that are compressed and then formed on a mould. Robotic casting machines to make the bigger serving pieces. Sponging, fettling, cup handling all done by robots with the guidance and supervision of the odd human. There are a few operations that are still reliant on human skill, mainly in the decorating department were lithographic patterns, metallic and coloured bands are applied and solid colours sprayed. The precision of these skilled workers is only honed after years of practice and training.
What strikes you most is the sheer volume of the daily output. Tens of thousands of items are created, quality checked, rechecked, packed and sent to the vast warehouse in readiness for order fulfillment. As well as the volume, the quantity and variation of lines is unbelievable. Hundreds of different shape and size plates, likewise bowls and cups and saucers and so the list goes on. You cannot help thinking that they are creating their own headache and one wonders who is buying into all these variations and I bet the 80/20 rule applies. I guess that this comes with the territory of being a design led company. So be it!
So from the factory it is back to Munich for our flights home.
I have come home greatly energized and inspired by what I saw in Germany. For some time I have been concerned at the dependence some of our tableware and giftwares suppliers have on the Asian manufacturing market. There is no direct control on anything from, lead times and pricing through to the more important issue of consistent quality control. External issues will also affect supply and demand and in turn the price.
For instance 30 years ago China introduced a 1 child per family edict. You would not want your only child to follow you into a life of factory work.They are now educated and earn, by Chinese standards, reasonable money and they are becoming consumers. So there is an increase in local demand coupled with less people available to make it. Price goes up. I also estimate that with increasing wages and the threat of trading tariffs the cost to the UK consumer of product from China will be greater than for far superior product made in Europe.
How the wheel moves on!
So the trip to the factories was well worth while. The food, drink, hotel and hospitality of our hosts was first class and the opportunity to share information with fellow like minded retailers is always refreshing.
I now know so much more about Rosenthal and Thomas and am very excited about the opportunity to show and sell more of their product with the total confidence of the quality and design of product coupled with the integrity of the brand.
I have seen it at first hand.