One thing you can say about MyGolfSpy readers: you guys don’t miss much. Often, when a new club is released, we see comments claiming said new club is just a copy of so-and-so. In virtually every case, however, there’s a big difference between similar to and copy of. Sometimes cynicism is warranted, often it isn’t.
Back in March, we wrote of the return of Lynx Golf to the U.S. market, and several of you pointed to a strong resemblance between the new Lynx Prowler CB iron and a now-retired offering from Hireko Golf, the Dynacraft Prophet MB. Another reader found similarities between the Lynx Tour Blade and an iron from Diamond Tour Golf called the Henry Hatton MB-70.
In the case of the Prowler CB and Prophet MB, similar is, in fact, the same.
Hireko Golf asserts - and Lynx does not dispute - that the Prowler CB and the Prophet MB are the exact same forged 1025 carbon steel head. Based on what we've learned, it's clear Lynx didn't "copy" the club or do anything shady or untoward. But when you look behind the curtain, it does open up a ton of questions about Chinese manufacturing, intellectual property and, most importantly, just who is doing golf's innovating.
Prowler Vs. Prophet
“We designed that iron in March of 2014,” Jeff Summit, Hireko’s Technical Director, tells MyGolfSpy. “We sold that iron until the end of last year.”
Summit says Hireko wasn’t particularly pleased when they saw the Lynx version at the PGA Show in January.
“We called up the foundry that made it for us – they vehemently said they didn’t give up that design because they knew it was exclusive to us. So we don’t know how they (Lynx) got it"
"Chances are it wasn't through a subcontractor because I doubt they would know who those subcontractors are. They maybe went to a showroom at a foundry and saw a particular model and said 'that's pretty cool, can we have our name on it?', not knowing it was something active in our line. Who knows?" - Jeff Summit, Hireko Golf
From what Lynx CEO Steve Elford tells MyGolfSpy, it's a fair bet that's exactly what happened, as Elford says his R&D person sourced it from a factory in China, and they have in writing that it’s an open model.
“We’re not claiming we designed this model,” says Elford. “It’s open, so someone else could use it if they wanted to. We just wanted to do a forged CB style without spending thousands on tooling, because it’s obviously not something we’re going to sell loads of at this stage. So is it, when you're fairly new to a market, worth spending $30- to $40,000 on tooling to do a tweak that 95% of golfers wouldn't notice?"
Elford adds that while the new hollow-bodied Lynx VT iron is a patented design, the Lynx Tour Blade, which has been in their lineup for about five years, is also an open model. Jason Hilland of Diamond Tour Golf isn't certain it's the same as the Henry Hatton blade, but it wouldn't surprise him.
"It's at least ten years old and is definitely an open model. We shared it with Alpha Golf at the time. It's a damn good blade - I still play it today."
The Mystery of China
So how does one company's discontinued intellectual property become another company's open model new iron for 2018? Welcome to manufacturing in China.
“Sometimes…a factory or design team will spot a fledgling new product on the internet, figure out how it’s made, and start churning out near-identical products,” says journalist Josh Horwitz on Quartz.com. “Other times, a Chinese partner factory will produce extra units of a product they agreed to make for another company, and sell the surplus items themselves online or to other vendors.”
Horwitz says the shenzhai phenomenon, named after the Shenzhen manufacturing region of China, is a generally accepted Chinese manufacturing modus operandi - factories share information and know-how while skirting existing, and often unenforced, intellectual property laws. Several factories making - and selling - virtually the same thing isn't out of the ordinary.
“Much like how programmers will freely share code for others to improve upon,” he writes, “Shenzhen manufacturers now see hardware and product design as something that can be borrowed freely and altered.” A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies says it's common practice for a Chinese manufacturer who makes a product according to an importer's design to try to sell the same thing to other Chinese manufacturers. Samples and drawings will find their way into other showrooms.
The path from Prophet to Prowler is becoming a little clearer.
The Open Model Question
Michael Vrska, former Global Director of Innovation for Wilson Staff and Director of Product Development for Adams Golf, says true open models are designed by Chinese head manufacturers and can be sold to anyone with a checkbook and an email address.
"Some of the head manufacturers have literally dozens and dozens of open models that they've designed," he tells MyGolfSpy. "There were days in the past - and I do believe it is in the past for the reputable manufacturers and big OEMs - where a design would get stolen, for lack of a better term. There'd be a CAD model that was proprietary and, if you worked with a slightly less scrupulous head vendor, they'd tell people it was an open model, and you'd see it wind up somewhere else."
It's important to note, in this case, we're not talking about counterfeit clubs. Counterfeiting still exists, but OEMs have worked together to minimize the impact.
"The big guys - Callaway, TaylorMade, Titleist, PING, Cobra - their manufacturers have metal detectors. When workers come in and out, they have to take their phones out of their pockets. The days of stealing heads and walking it down the street and selling it to have a knockoff out before the original? I guess it's still possible but we haven't seen it in a while. The manufacturers realize how important it is to take care of the big OEMs." - Michael Vrksa
The major OEMs have their own buildings in China, and security is pretty tight. If you work for TaylorMade, for example, you can't go into the Callaway building. "But when you go to some of the low-end club head suppliers," says Vrska, "those are the ones where you get on the fringe because they're trying to earn every penny."
While it’s pure conjecture on our part, it’s easy to envision a design from a relatively small outfit, such as Hireko, finding its way to another factory. Often, in the case of a product in its second or third year of product life, the original foundry may outsource 100% of the production to a second foundry due to capacity issues or to save costs. Once you get to a second or third tier supplier, all bets are off. In China, when they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they really mean it.
“We never told the foundry we were discontinuing the product, we just didn't place any more orders for it," says Summit of the Prophet iron. "There’s enough documentation that shows it’s a Dynacraft product.” And despite the disappointment of seeing his product with someone else’s name on his iron, Summit says Hireko isn’t going to do anything about it.
“It’d probably cost us more money than we’d ever make off it.”
If you want a chuckle or two, Google Chinese Copycat Brands. You'll find some funny stuff, like Johnnie Worker Red Labial scotch, Sunbucks Coffee, Borio Cookies, Aberkrombie & Fetch jackets and footwear from Sdidsa, odidoss, adadis or daiads - all in the adidas font and with three stripes. There was even a chain of 22 fake Apple stores that were so perfect, the employees themselves thought they were working for Apple.
Perhaps the most egregious case was an entire parallel enterprise to Japanese electronics giant NEC - a total carbon copy, complete with business cards, R&D, factories, and warranties all bearing the NEC trademark. The organization had over 50 factories in China and Taiwan and was in every way NEC's twin, to the point where some of its products were sold side by side with legit NEC stuff.
Closer to home, a decade ago Adams Golf learned that virtual copies of its product were being sold in China, and Adams wasn't the only one it happened to.
Yes, copying - or if you want a nicer word, sharing - is business as usual in China. But while researching this article, we came across sources - anonymous for obvious reasons - who hinted that maybe, just maybe, Chinese R&D was playing a bigger role in what OEMs are producing than OEMs would like you to believe, with one source calling OEM R&D largely a "sham."
Further investigation shows that claim to be not entirely true, but not entirely false, either.
The R&D Rodeo
In a perfect world, the OEM does all its own research, development and equipment design work, and then has an overseas manufacturer turn those CAD files into golf clubs or, in today's world, sump pumps, razors or damn near anything else you use on a daily basis. But it's not a perfect world, and it's not uncommon for any company to take advantage of as much outsourced expertise as possible.
"Take golf clubs out of it," says Vrska. "Anyone who's paying somebody else to do something, you want to use as much of their services as you can, right? This isn't any different."
"You're paying for the golf club heads on a per-piece basis, and you expect a certain amount of engineering support. So you push that. And sad to say, it's one or two or ten less engineers you need to have here in the U.S. That engineering support is kind of a built-in cost to the heads already." - Michael Vrska
That said, Vrska, Summit, and others do not believe the majority of the R&D is being done by the Chinese.
"The M in OEM no longer stands for manufacturing, it stands for marketing, in most cases," says Summit. "They're designing, but it's all through CAD, so it's all zeroes and ones, and then it's sent to the foundry where they can take the CAD file and go directly to tooling."
"OEMs spend millions of dollars on R&D for a reason," says Jeff Brunski, R&D Director for Srixon/Cleveland/XXIO. "If we could just outsource it, we would happily save that money."
"Our manufacturing partners are, in some instances, more knowledgeable than us about certain processes. Casting extremely thin titanium requires a lot of know-how. However, it's not accurate to suggest their know-how extends to the point where they are meaningfully contributing to performance improvements or innovation." - Jeff Brunski, Srixon/Cleveland/XXIO
"I would not say they're doing most of the engineering," says Vrska. "Are the Chinese bringing ideas to the table? Are U.S. engineers working with Chinese engineers to make it easier to manufacture, to make it more efficient to manufacture and more cost-effective? Unquestionably. Are there ideas that originate in China that U.S. manufacturers have taken credit for? Also unquestionably."
Lynx's Elford says it can work both ways. “Our guy has offices in China, and he’ll see what they’re doing,” he says. “Quite often he’ll see ideas and will say ‘that’s quite good, but here’s how I can improve it.’ So we’ll work together with them. I would say that’s very standard.”
"Companies with volume production (the major OEMs) have employees that live in Asia and are in the factories every day," says Cobra R&D chief Tom Olsavsky. "These employees run the gamut from Innovation Engineers, Development Engineers, Quality Engineers and Sourcing and Planning types. It's a fairly good mix of US-born employees living in Asia and Asian-born employees. These are all paid for by the OEMs, not the vendors, and are all managed from U.S. headquarters."
In international manufacturing, a common scenario has a domestic company developing a full CAD model and sending it to China to be reviewed by their engineers, who'll come back with a variety of suggestions. For golf clubs, for example, they might suggest a change in chamfer here or a draft angle there or suggest a manufacturing process that could make the face thinner.
"Do they bring ideas? Do they improve products? Do they make it easier to finish? Yes to everything," says Vrska. "But I don't consider that designing the golf club by any stretch."
On the other hand, it's also common for Chinese foundries to bring prototypes of their own design to an OEM for a look-see. "Manufacturing partners will show us ideas or concepts from time to time," says Brunski. "But that very rarely ever leads to something you'll see in a production club."
The bigger OEMs usually get to see these prototypes first, and if they say no thanks, it goes down the line to smaller OEMs.
"It's both plausible and for sure has happened that a bigger OEM says 'wow, we like it, we're gonna tweak it and call it our own,'" says Vrska. "More often than not it's the smaller OEM who doesn't have as many creative people and doesn't have as many resources to do advanced development work. They're going to use the available resources the best way they can."
Sham/Not A Sham?
So, is the idea of the OEMs being big R&D machines really a sham? As with anything involving global manufacturing in an increasingly smaller world, the answer is: it depends.
OEMs do spend significant money on R&D, and it's obviously in their best interests from a branding standpoint for you to believe they do all of their own innovation in-house. But it's clear many, if not all, get significant input from their Chinese partners. It would be naive to think there's no collaboration, and the smaller the OEM, there's likely a greater level of collaboration. It's also clear that in some cases, major OEMs have sold open models as their own premium equipment and have used ideas brought to them by their partners and called them their own.
However, those do seem to be the exception as opposed to the rule. In reality, the lines are a bit blurry, but it's clear there's plenty of collaborative expertise, and right now, the greatest expertise China offers is in manufacturing.
"Since the first time I went over to China, 18 years ago now, everything has changed," says Vrska. "The infrastructure has changed, the quality of engineers, everything has improved. They're world-class manufacturers."
"Over time they'll change course and become designers," says Hireko's Summit. "Right now, they're manufacturers. They'll make anything."