Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Espionage or imitation?

There's yet another "wish list" thread over on one of the forums, a reminder that each of you has no shortage of ideas for the airplanes, tanks, ships, or vehicles that you’d like to see produced in kit form, and I'm no exception. (Does anyone care that I'd like to see a 1/32 L-17 Navion?) In fact, a tiny motivation behind my creating this blog and talking about product decisions and trends was a hope that I might one day parlay this experience into a product management position in the industry. It’s a long shot, I know, but the opportunity to actually choose the kits that are brought to the market is an intriguing prospect.

Besides the huge responsibility for the financial investment in a new kit, I'd have to be keenly aware that another manufacturer could release their own kit of the same subject, an occurrence that's become uncomfortably common over the last few years. My long-time readers will remember my biggest surprise of 2013 — three nearly concurrent releases of the obscure Soviet Object 279.

And the trend has continued. For example, we now have two kits each of the T-10 and SCUD-C (not counting the old Dragon offering of the latter), as well as the 9A52 Smerch Multiple Rocket Launcher. Two companies have announced 1/72 kits of the F-106, and we have or will soon have multiple 1/48 scale kits of the Su-33, MiG-31, and Super Etendard.

What's going on among the Asian manufacturers? Is there corporate espionage in the industry, employees within each company feeding information to the others? Or are product details disseminated as soon as designs go from the manufacturer to contracted production facilities?

Even if there’s no outright espionage, there may be an element of imitation that’s common within the Chinese economy. In the technology industry, being first to market doesn’t always offer an advantage, and the same may be true in the hobby market as well. Announcing a new kit is risky. Will it be accepted with enthusiasm by modelers? Is it the right variant? Are the features (think open access panels) desirable? It might be safer to let a competitor announce a new kit, assess the market’s reaction, and then announce your own.

And as this article suggests, Chinese business leaders often make decisions to justify a return on their investments, particularly with an eye to making a quick profit, even if it means copying another company’s product. The author writes about the consumer electronics industry, noting the belief among Chinese corporate leaders that "all products are the same, and it’s all about taking that product, change its color, tweak a few corners and perhaps its shape and resell it." There’s less chance for failure. A colleague who went to college in China told me that it’s common for a new restaurant to open in a neighborhood — one that specializes in, for example, ramen — and when it does well, other entrepreneurs come into the neighborhood and open restaurants with similar menus.

There’s been a history of imitation within the Chinese culture for hundreds of years. Copying is seen as a way to learn, whether you’re memorizing Chinese characters or learning how to paint.
Students, even, will copy articles verbatim. As college professor Austin Williams explains in Global Briefing, "There is nothing wrong with plagiarizing the 'correct answer' from a respected expert, instead of spending time trying to give their interpretation of the answer that could be wrong."

Now that I think about it, I could make the same observation within our hobby, that many of us are openly copying the painting and weathering styles of respected modelers such as Mike Rinaldi and Adam Wilder, made all the easier thanks to their books, which explain their techniques in detail. Maybe imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, even if it results in a bland sameness in the technology we use in the office and at home or the models we see at the hobby shop.

Whatever the reason for these multi-kit releases, it must be incredibly difficult for any one company to corner the market with a model that will be truly unique on the shelves. I’d like to believe this puts a new pressure on the manufactures to produce the best, most accurate kits possible, but experience has told us that there is a market for less-than-perfect kits, but AMK's 1/48 MiG-31 and a new 1/48 MiG-25 may point to brighter days ahead.

Takom announced a new tool AMX-13 series in November. Is anyone placing bets on how long will it will be until another manufacturer announces their own kit?

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