Title: Never leave well enough alone
Pages: 28 - 35
Author: Bernard Stern
Text: Never leave well enough alone
by Bernard Stern
If you look through British industry searching for a success story, Rotaflexis a striking example. In just 13 years, it has established itself as one of Britain's leading lighting fitting makers. Its products enjoy a high reputation in both domestic and architectural fields, and it has been adept at breaking into overseas markets. How did it all happen? Bernard Stern, its managing director (he has been called 'the man who is Rotaflex'), offers a personal explanation.
1The decorative lighting section of Rotaflex's new showroom illustrates the starting point of the company's success, based on a fundamental belief in the value of good design. Today, two thirds of the company's output is devoted to commercial and architectural lighting.
Rotaflex was formed in 1953 at a time when most stores sold lighting fittings in the ironmongery and turnery departments. The development of its design philosophy probably drew its initial strength from the struggle we had to create markets for designs in which we believed.
"Never leave well enough alone" has played a significant part in the growth of our organisation.
In my experience, there can be no really effective design policy that does not also take into account production and marketing methods, and I have always been quite unable to dissociate the aesthetic and functional parts of design from the problems of production and marketing. Obviously, if you can produce a functional product of great aesthetic value at a low enough cost in sufficient quantities for a large enough market, you cannot go wrong.
During the first few years, in the field of home lighting we were forced into much more than merely designing the kind of lighting we felt was right - for we also had to go through the process of creating a consumer demand through thousands of retailers, whose disbelief in the reality of a market for our products was quite a thing to contend with. Essentially, the belief I have that lighting is an enormously important part of every day living has always easily enabled me to convince others of this. The first Design Centre Award given to a lighting fitting, for one of our earliest designs, did a great deal to help make the retailers' attitude much more constructive.
In most fields, and particularly in the field of lighting, aesthetic design for its own sake is usually an unsatisfactory answer: a new design must be the result of a problem solved. To be successful in our own field, it must be the result of the solution of a lighting problem. A few major mistakes were made, but we grew up with an increasing ability to recognise hidden markets of significant importance long before these crystallised into sufficient 'facts' to enable any kind of conventional market research to provide concrete answers. The whole romance of the growth was a series of adventures which eventually shaped our design philosophy basically, I suppose, on instinct proved right. Later, this instinctive ability became a little more scientific since one precedent led to another, but it has never lost its sense of adventure - exploration is still one of our most important activities.
Towards late 1959, we were ready to start investigating the very large field, then virtually unexplored, of incandescent lighting for commercial buildings. With the lighting devices then available, there was little that the architect or lighting designer could do to express the needs of a building. Atmosphere in important architecture is an integral part of the setting, and we thought that we ought to be able to create, by designing the appropriate fittings, a series of devices through which an architect or lighting engineer could express with light the needs of any particular interior. The quickest way of accumulating the necessary knowledge was to enter into an arrangement with a leading United States company,
Never leave well enough alone
2 and 3 Downlighting technique demands a wide range of specialised fittings, and a range of over 70 Down I i g hter fittings covers accent and general lighting, illumination of vertical surfaces and spotlighting. The Downlighter section of the showroom, 2, demonstrates the range's functional characteristics. Although these fittings give an appearance of great simpilcity, 3 shows their complex design and thus the heavy toollog investment required.
and we proceeded to sign a long term agreement with Lightolier Inc. whose considerable 'know-how' in the field of architectural incandescent lighting then became available to us.
At that time, most of our competitors were heavily concentrating on fluorescent lighting, and in Britain and Europe there was no visible indication that our thinking would meet with ready acceptance. Nevertheless, regular meetings with a number of architects convinced me that we we'd thinking straight.
In 1961, we made our entry into the field of commercial lighting with recessed incandescent fittings. We met with instant acceptance. Our concern was to provide light without visible lighting equipment, and to permit this method to be used in the most flexible possible manner. In a short space of time, this first move became a major step in seeking out quite new answers and in creating an increasing interest in what was then a fairly revolutionary technique in the art of lighting (at any rate in Europe).
An open market
Clearly, architecture was rapidly going into an 'international' phase, and for this reason it was evident that the answers provided by us for British architects could also give us a market expanded tenfold if we could develop export opportunities. Traditionally, exports from Britain of incandescent lighting equipment had hardly existed - and this seemed as good a reason as any for us to embark on overseas markets. Meanwhile, we had also become very interested in another field of
lighting (which naturally evolved from the first), and this was the basis for a market which has since proved to be of considerable importance - spotlighting. In the latter part of 1959 we introduced ourfirstspotlightequipment,theUniversa/spotlight,whichin1961 received a Design Centre Award, and subsequently a gold medal in the United States. This series became the most ubiquitous lighting fittings of their type. They also became the most plagiarised and the most copied lighting fittings in recent history.
Within 12 months, the Universal spotlight was sold by us in a number of European markets as well as in the Commonwealth. The fittings are still in our best selling range of spotlights. They are now manufactured under licence in the United States by Lightolier Inc under a reciprocal agreement.
Alongside these developments, we were exploring all the possibilities open to us in European markets, the size of which is comparable with, if not greater than, the American market. Our initial research had shown clearly that, unless we could tap markets of this size, we could not afford to design, develop and tool economically, in order to sell at a reasonable price the kind of equipment we wanted to meet our design targets. The days of exporting labour are over; and no matter how great the quality, we were very conscious that our basic philosophy dictated that we could only make the best product provided we could distribute it widely. In this context, the eventual cost price of the product was of prime importance.
Equally, quality must not be dictated by cost, and there the only possible answer lies in the strictest economy in the use of labour, not
We were able to work at an extremely fast pace because the designers : were Liven a crystal clear brief
only in the manufacture of the product but also in subsequent installation and maintenance - two problems which form an integral part of our initial design thinking. After all, the cost of installing a lighting fitting can be as great as, if not more than, the cost of the actual product, and surely, therefore, it is logical that one should take this into account.
In attempting to paint a broad backcloth of our thinking at the time, it is important to remember that we had to face a number of serious practical difficulties. Overcoming these to open up such large markets seemed very worth while, since it was only upon the opening of these markets that we could afford the designing and engineering to provide long term answers. Some of these problems can be summarised as follows: (a) Virtually every European country has separate electrical authority regulations, very few of which are common to more than one or two countries; (b) Some basic lamp sizes vary considerably from Britain to Europe, and even in Europe itself there are variations from country to country in some cases; (c) Building techniques and installation costs vary widely; and (d) EEC markets have rising duty rates.
We were also very conscious that there was highly competent, fierce competition in Europe and that, in order to create products capable of meeting this competition (assuming we overcame the technical difficulties), we would have not only to design advanced products but also to create a new kind of marketing association which would be capable of selling our product from scratch. This could not be done if the competition was to be based on price alone. We would have to give thought to much more than the product and our methods of manufacturing. Packaging, literature, instruction leaflets, sales training - all would have to be created with a view to common acceptance in widely varying situations.
The management set-up
To make design management on this scale profitable, the design team needed to be capable of looking simultaneously into the research on lighting problems, product design to solve these problems, tooling design, materials, production assembly methods and distribution. The company's own design and technical team needed to be supplemented by outside consultants.
Two consultants were selected: Derek Phillips and Associates, whose main object was the development of incandescent downlighting; and Robert Heritage and Partners, whose concern was in the development of spot and flood lighting equipment and specialised fluorescent fittings. The programme was divided into three basic groups, and the evolution of this quite vast range of products was the work of a very large number of people, mostly specialists in separate fields. Experience in the early days had clearly shown me that design committees lack drive and inspiration, and tend very much to delay most decisions of principle. Therefore, the whole series of projects was run on simple brain-storming sessions, with myself able to take the final decision quickly when necessary. Work was coordinated by means of
Never leave well enough alone
4 The Quartet Major spotlights were developed to fulfil the need for a powerful lighting source. The range now includes six light sources; and the picture shows how well the different units are co-ordinated.
5 The main components of the Silverline fittings are an example of radical re-thinking of production techniques for fluorescent lighting, and include the use of extruded aluminium and precision diecasting.
individual meetings with a minimum number of the team, and this usually resulted in very short sessions.
The designers are encouraged at every stage to seek the ultimate - but, since at times this leads to an unending perfectionist adventure, the decision on where to stop has to be one person's responsibility. A by-product of this 'adventurous' method is the creation of a background for new products ideas to follow immediately on those settled on. Since one problem leads inevitably to another, the cycle expands continuously.
Programming the products
The services of a leading lighting engineering consultant in Germany were retained to ensure that most European electrical regulations were lined up properly. I believe that the reason why we were able to work at an extremely fast pace was because the designers were given a crystal clear brief on matters of policy right from the start. Each member of the two design teams was very conscious that each product had to meet the conditions outlined earlier in this article, and it is a compliment to all of them that the finished series of products, marketed two years after the original brief, have turned out to meet all these conditions while still being quite far ahead of competitive products at home and on the Continent.
Lytespan, a lighting track capable of distributing up to 40 amps, enabling fittings to be clipped on and off by unskilled labour, was the key to a design programme covering a wide range of spotlighting equipment. The basic brief here was that the designers had to produce equipment capable of accepting within identically shaped bodies a series of widely varying lightsources, 9-12 The Quartet Major, basically designed to accept a new 300W pressed glass lamp, was the result of our awareness that in a large number of cases designers were beginning to use spotlighting equipment in such quantities that it was difficult to tell whether stores were selling spotlighting equipment or merchandise. We felt very strongly that there was a powerful need for a much more potent light source, with a consider ably longer life for the lamp on such a fitting, capable of doing the 3, work of six conventional 100W internally silvered lamps. This would mean less clutter, far less lamp replacement and maintenance, and a much higher and more flexible illumination level.
The Quartet Major body accepts, with no modification to its design, the following lightsources: 300W PAR56 with narrow spot, medium and wide beam filaments; 100W crown silvered lamp with parabolic reflector; 50W 12V crown silvered lamp; 50W 12V high intensity long
6 A view showing part of the flourescent section of the showroom containing the Silverline directional fittings (on the rear wall), and the new Lightframe and the prismatic fittings (on the ceiling)
7 Each Down lighter fitting has an installation sheet printed in three languages. Instructions re given mainly in drawings, and photographs and words are kept to a minimum.
8 A new approach to the company's printed material is being developed to reflect more strongly the quality of the products. These examples were designed by Hewatt, Walters and Swift..
range car headlamp ;50W 12V long range quartz iodine lamp; and 500W pressed glass quartz iodine lamp (shortly to be released). Illustration indicates clearly the excellent co-ordination of the design of these units and the way in which they can be used, if needs be in a row, without causing the tremendous clutter which previous fittings using such light sources would have done.
The second part of this programme covered a range of incandescent recessed lighting fittings. Here it was necessary to provide a very high photometric performance (higher if possible than any currently in the field), an installation system which would permit larger economies in installation labour and subsequently in maintenance labour, a foolproof focal adjustment within the reflectors for lamp filaments (so that varying continental lamp sizes could be used), a minimum of variations of physical appearance in the fittings themselves, and a very wide range of ways in which this equipment could be used for different lighting tasks,
It is particularly interesting to note here that, in earlier versions of one or two of these fittings made by us by conventional manufacturing methods, as many as 65 different manufacturing operations were involved, most of them dealing with fabrication. The new Downlighter series, 2 and 3, is produced in a fraction of the time, admittedly at a tremendous investment in tooling, but in considerably larger quantities, and is far superior in performance, appearance and quality.
The third part of our programme was concerned with the design of new fluorescent equipment (principally to be used in libraries, art galleries, museums, etc), and here again a quite unconventional approach to manufacture was considered, the only answer to a very high level of productivity with a very small number of workers.
The Concord Silverline is a directional fluorescent fitting consisting mainly of diecastings and extrusions, into which the electrical equipment is completely recessed. Further developments in this range are to be introduced shortly. The Concord Lightframe is a range of fluorescent fittings for hospitals, offices, libraries, etc. again approached in an unconventional manner and once more keyed to the lowest possible labour cost, with the emphasis on tooling and materials. Both these ranges are shown in 6.
Breaking into Europe
Because of the extremely substantial investment in time, design, development and tooling contained in our new products, we were convinced that the best way to approach marketing was to link with a leading lighting fitting manufacturer in each European country, and to enable each of these manufacturers to put on the market each of our new range of products alongside their own. This would mean that each would expand its sales considerably without going through
Facts about Rotaflex
Rotaflex regards investment in design as vital to productivity and profits.
Percentage design costs Of the total cost of design
25 percent goes on creative industrial design;
25 per cent on engineering design and photometric testing;
30 per cent on methods study, value and cost analysis, materials and flow planning, pre-production testing and running tests;
20 per cent on prototypes, application engineering, sales training and marketing methods study.
Since January 1 1965, productivity per employee has increased by 80 per cent. (Increase in labour force was 10 per cent over the same period.) Planned productivity increase over the next year is a further 75 per cent.
Profits before tax at end of 1964 (the first year as a public company) were over £200,000 - an increase of 100 per cent over the previous year. Current share prices are approximately 16s 6d per.2s ordinary share, making the market price of the company in the region of £2 million.
the time consuming effort we had just undergone.
My initial visits developed very quickly into friendly relationships, and our technical director frequently travelled overseas to give lectures, indoctrinate local sales staff, attend local lighting exhibitions and also, initially, visit actual clients to instruct them in product application problems raised by the use of new lighting equipment. To simplify language difficulties, we designed illustrated instruction leaflets, and multi-language packaging, and we provided art work, photographs, blocks and so on for each distributor to create his own catalogue keyed to the requirements of his particular market. The results of this co-operation between other manufacturers and ourselves in the marketing of our product came astonishingly fast. The new range of products illustrated in this article is now being sold in almost every European country, and at the moment just over 60 per cent of these fittings are being exported, with the trend of exports still rising quite dramatically.
We anticipate that our volume of exports will at least double again during1966, and we believe also that this increase will be even further improved on during 1967, when new design projects currently at the final tooling stage become available for general release. We have had the good fortune to be responsible, through local distributors, for the lighting of many new theatres, cultural centres, municipal buildings, exhibitions, hotels and commercial buildings in a number of European countries.
9-12 Lytespan track shown surface mounted on the ceiling, ., and recessed, 10-11 shows Lytespan ceiling system. Acoustic tiles slot into the track to give a flush finish, the track itself forming a structural framework. 12 is a section through a fluorescent fitting fixed to a Lytespan ceiling. Lytespan track provides a continuous electrical outlet, allowing both incandescent and fluorescent fittings to be swiftly and safely fixed and connected by unskilled labour. Light electrical appliances such as typewriters and calculating machines can also be plugged into the track.
13 Part of the spotlighting section of the showroom. The illustration shows Lytespan track used vertically on the wall. A new version of the track is designed to be used as free standing columns to which shelving, light weight partitions, lighting fittings and appliances can be attached.
...design committees lack drive and inspiration, and tend very much to delay most decisions of principle