29 July 2005
Big Ideas(HKTDC Enterprise, Vol 08,2005)
San-Ban Mfg Co Ltd
The Bubble Watch, in LCD digital or quartz analogue versions, uses a patented process that involves filling a dome-shaped cover over the watch face with an oil-based liquid. Miniature characters placed inside the dome float freely in the liquid, delighting its target market of children aged three years and up.
"We insert the oil through a small hole and then seal it tight," says marketing and sales manager Sammy Lee. "Music and lights are offered as optional extras."
During the Bubble Watch's heyday - 1989 to 1993 - San-Ban turned out more than 10 million pieces a year, mainly for export to the US and Japan.
The Bubble Watch quickly spawned a host of other products, including Bubble Key Chains, Bubble Rings and Bubble Pencil Sharpeners. Today, San-Ban exports about one million Bubble products annually.
From that auspicious start, San-Ban - also known for its stationery and premium gifts - came up with innovation after innovation. For example, its Fresh Digi Watch, launched in 1996 and featuring an IC chip, displays a series of animated pictures at the press of a button.
"We have 16 different models of the Fresh Digi Watch and each displays four or five pictures," says Lee.
Next came several lines of PVC, liquid-filled products used for eye masks, coasters, notebooks and handbags, some of which sported miniature "floaters" inside.
"We've been doing those sorts of products for about five years. They form a big part of our business and sales are quite stable," says Lee. "I estimate that we make about 1-2 million pieces a year."
The company's soft-jelly PVC products, launched with great fanfare at about the same time, were another key development.
"We were the first to take this approach," claims Lee. "Before, PVC was hard and rigid but we developed a process to make it soft and filled it with sorbitol jelly."
The inspiration for the product came from a cosmetics item that Lee had seen. "We then used the same ingredient contained in the cosmetic to make the PVC soft. Although it is not that difficult to do, no one had thought of that approach before."
Small plastic beans can be inserted into the soft, transparent PVC articles for a decorative effect. "The beans make the products look pretty and, sometimes, we use glow-in-the-dark fluorescent powder for yet another look," Lee says.
San-Ban finds its greatest challenge is coming up with fresh ideas for new products, and staff at the ISO 9001-certified company frequently attend trade exhibitions to keep up-to-date on product trends and fashions.
San-Ban also maintains a 10-member R&D team that has played an important creative role in the company's growth. About 70% of production is OEM, but Lee says major efforts are being made to increase ODM business from its present 30% share.
One new product slated for launch this summer is a projection watch that can beam the time or a company's logo onto a wall or ceiling. "We are thinking about making projection key chains, pens and clocks too," Lee reveals.
San-Ban's major export markets are the US, Japan and Europe. The company hopes to concentrate on expanding its market in the US because of the country's size and strong appetite for new and novel products.
Lee emphasises that much of the company's success can be attributed to its low price, high quality policy. "One company can have a good idea and sell at a high price, but we would rather sell more so we price our products competitively. Keeping our prices low also helps to deter copycats," he says.
The firm's 800-900 workers, who work in departments such as rotation moulding, injection moulding, paint spraying and modelling at the firm's 15,000-square-metre factory in Huizhou on the Chinese mainland, are experienced at processing high-volume orders.
Among the firm's well-known customers are Walt Disney, Warner Bros, Coca Cola and Pepsi. "We want to stay in premiums and to continue serving big clients," says Lee.
With its well-established reputation, and an assortment of more than 1,000 products for customers to choose from, San-Ban should have no trouble maintaining its status as one of Hong Kong's top gifts and premiums manufacturers.
WRITTEN BY ANDREA PAWLYNA
San-Ban Mfg Co Ltd