How Acorn Found the Secret to Effective Asian Program Development


Minxiang Liu

January 28, 2014

When Tim Lau and I set up the first Acorn design center in China back in 2004, manufacturing foreign-designed products in China was growing at a high rate.

Our first location was inside a manufacturer’s campus and our earliest employees were “engineers,” but not by the traditional Western definition. They had worked in factories that supported production lines, or were educated in engineering programs working on products that were already in fabrication. These engineers hadn’t yet worked in the design stage. Here’s why. A culture clash of prototyping vs planningIn the mid-2000s, and even now, the culture of design in China was focused on the manufacturing side, with more focus on development by prototyping than planning out new product innovation. Whiteboarding and brainstorming new ideas or approaches were not encouraged.Furthermore, the management system in China was very results-oriented. Getting to a solution inexpensively and quickly was most important, vs. fostering an environment of experimentation and “it’s OK to fail.” Investment in new, innovative product design and utilizing simulation to achieve a robust, high-quality product was a relatively new idea.Across the Pacific Ocean, technology leaders like Apple had a different philosophy.The U.S. approach was to describe a lofty goal beyond comfortable reach, engineer a product with attention to every detail, and figure out manufacturing in parallel with the design, to push the envelope of what could be done. The daily culture was to challenge everything and everyone. (Venture capitalists called it “disruption,” an idea that was almost repulsive in many Asian cultures.) The goal was to do things that were awesome the first time, even if it meant solving really tough problems and having strenuous intellectual debates.So, how did Acorn blend two very different approaches into the global product development company we now are? It took a lot of big and little things to make this happen. And it took a few years of sticking with it. Where most companies falter, here’s what we do insteadFirst and foremost, Acorn continually keeps our Asian design team involved in the full project for our clients. Many companies think only in terms of using low-cost offshore labor to reduce prices by using that labor on menial tasks. We take a more inclusive, collaborative approach. While the overseas wage rate helps offset the higher salaries of our top U.S. engineers on a project deployment, we know that team efficiency and engineering value have to be part of the Asian contribution.Our engineers in China are involved in: 

The concept phase work in the initial stages of a program to get familiarity with the design. Collaborating on detailed CAD for the prototype while analysis occurs in parallel, which gives them deeper engineering knowledge. Transitioning the design with DFM in mind into a production release CAD/document package, resulting in a detailed understanding of the product and the supply chain. And finally, working on the factory floor with suppliers and contract manufacturers during a new product introduction. All parties benefit from their ability to be a native language transition team.

On each side of the ocean, we are all teachers and learners

Ongoing training is another important factor in Acorn’s success and it is two-sided.

Our Asian engineers travel regularly to work in our California, Texas, and Boston offices with our U.S. engineers. They participate in brainstorming sessions and client meetings, and are expected to contribute to concept development and project planning for a program. They identify a problem with an expectation of congratulations.

Similarly, our American engineers prioritize working hours to communicate effectively and thoroughly to the Asian staff. Our U.S. engineers also travel to China on certain projects to see new manufacturing processes and high volume manufacturing setups.

Having both teams reviewing and questioning repeatedly during the engineering process gives us fast, high-quality evolution of the design. 

A decade later, our Asian team is effective and worldclass 

Over the last 10 years, our Asian team has helped our U.S. team become more knowledgeable about manufacturing concerns. We communicate more effectively with our clients as a result of our internal discussions on technical issues and program challenges.

The staff in China understands their tasks against the context of the whole project, both technically and logistically. That’s what makes them so effective. Our engineers operate at a design and engineering level which — in my opinion, based on observation and collaboration with other Chinese firms — exceeds most companies in Asia doing product development, even those with very large operations.

Our clients confirm these skills to us constantly. And they reconfirm our success in developing great Chinese engineers when they ask us to do a new project, and when they ask us to manage the transition to their Asian production factory/supplier.

About the author

Minxiang Liu leads the engineering team in our China Design Center. He has more than 17 years of product design and development experience and five years of teaching experience at the college level. He holds a MS degree in mechanical engineering from Northern Illinois University and BS degree in mechanical engineering from Shanghai University of Technology.