17 June 2004
Golden Oldies(HKTDC Electronics, Vol 03,2004)
Vol 3, 2004
Small Ideas Big Results
Ten Forward Ltd
Ten Forward Ltd has capitalised on old technology, producing portable dynamo and solar-powered radios that double as lights, sirens and charging stations for other low voltage devices such as mobile phones
Manually generated electricity dates back to World War I, but a forward-thinking Hong Kong company has brought the environmentally friendly technology right up to date.
Ten Forward Ltd has commercialised old-tech by producing portable wind-up and solar-powered radios, which also double as lanterns, torches, sirens and charging stations for other low voltage devices such as mobile phones.
Established in 1988, Ten Forward began operations as a trading company selling radios before an opportunity arose that changed the company overnight into an OEM/ODM manufacturer.
"A client asked me to make a wind-up radio in 1991," recalls director and general manager Kenneth Lee, who sought help from his engineer friends for the design.
The prototype was well-received and Ten Forward began designing its flagship product, a series of solar and dynamo rechargeable radios that carried the company's own Fortron brand.
Lee explains that there were other companies selling similar products at the time but they were a lot more expensive, which gave Ten Forward a vital competitive edge.
"They were using an expensive technology, similar to a spring-winder in a clock, while our products use gearboxes and motors," he reveals. "The power generated by hand-winding and sunshine also has an added advantage in that it can be stored in batteries inside the devices."
Lee claims a three-minute hand-wind allows Ten Forward's rechargeable radios to provide 20 minutes of radio or 30 minutes of ultra-bright LED light, which proved invaluable selling points during the Y2K crisis at the millennium when consumers worldwide were worried about electricity failures.
Power cuts and natural disasters are not an everyday type of occurrence but they are still a concern and householders worldwide are wise to take precautions.
"We foresee both these areas as potential market niches," he insists. "We also encourage people to participate more in sports such as camping and boating, where our products are invaluable."
As a result, Ten Forward now produces more than 10 products under the Fortron brand, mostly for the outdoor sports and premiums markets, at prices ranging from US$5-12 FOB Hong Kong per piece.
These are mainly sold to the US and Japan, although Lee thinks Europe, the Middle East and less-developed countries also offer potential.
"Europeans are big on environmental protection, while the Middle East has good sunshine," he observes. "Underdeveloped countries also need these products as they save money in the long term."
Lee describes his products as "non-mainstream and non-necessities", so he continues to offer variety and stylish designs to keep up demand for orders that usually run to a few thousand units.
Every year Ten Forward develops approximately 5-8 new models with refined designs and, whenever possible, better technology. For example, Lee opts for top quality Siemens solar cells for the solar panel to provide stability and durability.
He has also started to use ultra-bright light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to replace less efficient strip lights. "We will use more LEDs in our products," Lee maintains. "They are more expensive but a lot more efficient, as three minutes of winding will provide half an hour of brightness but strip lights only last three minutes."
Whatever the future holds, Ten Forward will continue to manufacture at the 70,000-square-foot joint-venture factory Lee established in Guangdong Province on the Chinese mainland, which employs some 500 workers.
He will also to continue to rely on the engineering team he assembled in 1991, which initially dealt with quality control but now has 15 engineers responsible for all aspects of Ten Forward's production.
"We want to stay innovative and try to source new ideas and technology, and might come up with a completely different category of products soon," Lee declares.
WRITTEN BY CAM CHEUNG
Ten Forward Ltd
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