The Treasure Fleet

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I'm sure it hasn't escaped your attention that a great deal of our product is now sourced from China. With labor rates being approximately 1/20th of those in the United States, changes in import duties, impressive strides in manufacturing capabilities, and huge shipping capacities have resulted in a rapid shift in product sourcing.

If you travel to any one of the major West Coast harbors, you will see stacks upon stacks of shipping containers being readied for subsequent rail or trucking. If there is any significant glitch in the unloading process, the ships back up in the harbor within days. There is great treasure in those ships. A quick look at their waterlines verifies that not much is going back in the opposite direction.

When you think of great naval explorers, people like Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan come to mind. Yet a century before these Europeans unleashed their sails and rode the waves, China was exploring in the same fashion herself on a vastly grander scale.

Those huge container ships in America's harbors represent China's second great Treasure Fleet. The honor for the first goes back 600 years and is generally attributed to Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He) (1371-1433). Long before Columbus and Magellan (with three and five ships in their respective first fleets with crews totaling in the hundreds), Cheng's 7th fleet was crewed by 27,000 seamen.

Led by a rags-to-riches character, China conducted seven major "Treasure Fleets" totaling 62 ships to bring her lifestyle, ideas and wealth to surrounding nations. The fleets traveled to present day Vietnam, Java, Sri Lanka, India and the Horn of Africa. Cheng's last was to Malacca and Siam, comprising 100 ships and 27,000 men. He died sometime during this voyage. He remains a hero in China today. It's no coincidence that the most famous of Chinese dynasties (the Ming) oversaw the construction of the treasure fleet. The fleet exposed Chinese wares to the world and acted as one giant publicity machine.

Quoting the history books, "Almost 30 countries sent envoys back to China to give homage to the emperor, and all of the countries eagerly welcomed Cheng and traded for Chinese goods. He set up diplomatic relations in all the countries he visited and received tribute from most rulers that he met. When in Ceylon, Cheng helped restore the legitimate ruler to the throne. In Indonesia, the fleet defeated a powerful Chinese pirate who was later brought back to China for execution. Cheng's voyages not only established Chinese trade routes throughout Asia and Africa, but also established China as the dominant power in the known world. China was far more technologically advanced than any other culture on the planet, even those in Europe."

Like other industries, the question really boils down to this: How do we as an industry most effectively deal with this massive shift in technological and manufacturing transfer during our careers? It appears that many of the manufacturers that made the transition relatively early in the cycle have prospered. Those that did not often seem to have ended up in financial peril. Clearly there has been a massive shift in America's balance of trade payments as part of this process, currently something along the lines of a net $10 to $15 billion per month.

One might conclude that this would result in massive improvements in China's domestic infrastructure, resulting in high-profile projects requiring your firm's services. Clearly, the 2008 Olympic program represents a small portion of the total effort. Clearly, this represents a huge opportunity for our domestic manufacturers currently outsourcing produce to get involved in the local market.

Perhaps most importantly, the shift puts an emphasis on better using your current resources. Product costs are considerably lower than they would be assuming domestic manufacture (at least in the short term), which begs the question what is the best way to exploit this opportunity locally.

Venues that have not used audio and video to reinforce their activities in the past may be prime candidates. Your efforts can bring both information and entertainment to presently unserved locales. Our systems have the ability to subtly alter an environment from cold and harsh to warm and inviting. In effect, you're offering to improve your client's hospitality.

Ultimately, this is a challenge to our own creativity as designers and installers of high-performance mass media communication systems. More importantly, it is an opportunity to expand our reach and improve our overall performance level within a fixed set of parameters (budget, schedule and quality). That opportunity doesn't come along too often and should be both properly feared as well as savored.