After 33 years of product design and manufacture, Stephen Collis gave retirement a go. It lasted about 18 months. “I was sitting on my yacht one day thinking ‘is this all there is to it?’” says Stephen. After answering with an emphatic “no”, he was back in business.

Process over product

Stephen had no difficulty in coming up with ideas for new products. The problem was deciding which ideas to pursue. “Once you’ve decided on the product to develop, you’re committing yourself to investing two or three years of your time in it, so it’s an important decision to get right,” says Stephen. Describing himself as a “quiet greenie”, he also recommends choosing a product that aligns with one’s personal beliefs and interests. In Stephen’s case this lead to products with environmental benefits. Modtank  is a modular rainwater tank system. It allows water to be captured and stored in tight spaces that won’t take a conventional tank. Stephen’s latest product is Wallgarden, a system for growing vertical gardens. As well as providing food and colour, it helps to shade and insulate walls.

Product selected, Stephen’s next step was to develop a complete process of product delivery that optimised every step: research, design, prototype, test, redesign, intellectual property protection, production, marketing and distribution.

IP versus efficiency

The result is a process that aims to deliver product to customers at a lower cost than anyone else can achieve. “I’ve been granted 34 patents,” says Stephen. “I’ve had to defend seven of them, not always successfully. Having a reputation of actively responding to patent infringement is one way to protect a product, but being more efficient than anyone else creates a further barrier to competitors.”

Efficiencies include minimising handling and reducing freight costs by consciously designing products to fit standard packing units. For example, Modtanks were designed around the dimensions of a standard pallet. Wallgarden troughs fit the most economical parcel post package. Larger quantities are supplied to retailers as ready-to-display pallet-sized loads.

Automated ordering

Stephen selects stockists carefully. In the case of Modtank he chooses retailers who can provide proper advice about and support for the product.  Stockists login to the Modtank website to place orders directly with the manufacturer who then arranges shipping. This makes for the shortest supply chain and cuts out any need for warehousing. Gardeners will be able to buy Wallgarden directly from the manufacturer via the website.

Moving manufacturing to Australia

We’re always hearing about the shift of manufacturing from Australia to cheaper countries, usually China. Stephen has taken the reverse approach. Although the injection mold for Wallgarden was made in China, as was the first container load of plant troughs, the tool is on its way to Australia to allow manufacturing to be done here. This is possible because production requires little in the way of manual handling and the cost of raw materials is the same around the world.

Water tanks are mostly empty space, which is expensive to ship, so Modtank has always been manufactured locally.

To market, to market…

With manufacturing and distribution taken care of, Stephen is free to concentrate on marketing his stable of products. This includes Ecobuoy, a sonar reflector that helps with the location and recovery of items left on the seabed.

Each product has its own website, and Stephen concentrates on generating traffic to the sites. This may be through trade shows, sending out media releases, securing product editorials and entering design awards. The websites direct visitors to local stockists. Individual retailers also promote the products, aided by the incentive of the higher margin that Stephen is able to pass on as a result of his efficiencies.

More to come

An Australia-wide wet summer for 2010-2011 saw demand for residential water tanks fall by over 90%. Operating in its own niche Modtank fared better, though sales were still 70% down on the previous year. “The long term forecast is for average conditions, and with summer coming on people will start thinking about tanks again,” says Stephen. “The water tank industry is going through rationalisation, but there’ll always be a place for Modtank.”

As for Wallgarden, once fully launched on the Australian scene, Stephen will investigate the viability of entering the US market.

Beyond that, Stephen’s head is full of ideas. He isn’t offering any hints as to what they may be, so it’s anyone’s guess as to the product that will next be subjected to Stephen’s well-refined development process.

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