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A Model of Success

by Glen Emerson Morris
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No matter how long an industry has been around there's always the possibility that someone may come up with a completely fresh idea that will revolutionize the industry. A good example of this happening is the case of the plastic model industry and Hong Kong based Dragon Models.

Whether or not you're interested in plastic models, there are some very interesting aspects to this story that you might be able to adapt to your business. And, since Dragon Models is essentially a Chinese company, for a change this is a chance to rip off Chinese ideas instead of watching the Chinese rip off our ideas. But first a bit of history to put this story into context.

The model industry as we've known it began after World War II when advances in plastic injection molding technology allowed model manufacturers to meet the growing demand kids had for model WWII battleships. Previously the demand had been for model aircraft, which were easily manufactured in wood. Battleships had dozens of gun turrets that couldn't be manufactured economically in wood, but injected plastic molding proved perfect for the job. Within a decade, plastic models from companies named Revell, Monogram and Aurora could be found in nearly every hobby shop and drugstore in the country. Things went largely unchanged for a couple of decades, only changing slightly when the Japanese entered the market with models frequently of higher quality, but also a higher cost.

Then, slowly a new industry evolved dedicated to making detail sets designed to improve the detail of conventional off-the-shelf models. A similar market had been around for decades to support model train hobbyists, but it didn't begin to take off for ship, armor and aircraft models until the 1980s when new manufacturing technologies allowed the profitable production of very limited run items. It's not surprising that the computer was behind many of these new technologies.

One of the most successful technologies has been brass photo etching. This uses a computer to create an image of the desired parts, which is then printed on thin sheet of brass treated with photochemical reactants. The brass is then soaked in acid to leave only the desired parts remaining. This technique is ideal for things like ship railing, tank grills and aircraft flaps.

Another technology uses soft rubber molds and cast resin to create parts, or even complete kits, that would not be economically feasible given the small demand for them. This technique is labor intensive, but very economical, and has spawned cottage industries, particularly in Eastern Europe.

In the mid-1990s a company called Accurate Miniatures shook up the hobby industry by releasing a series of model aircraft of unprecedented detail and complexity, both outside and on the inside.

Then a company called Dragon Models from Hong Kong started a revolution of its own. Dragon Models pioneered creating models with a relatively new technology called slide molding (invented in Japan), which used three molds instead of the usual two to produce parts of unprecedented detail. The new molding technology made three-dimensional parts possible that simply could not have been produced previously.

Dragon also increased the number of parts to the point that a tank model eight or 9 inches long might have over a thousand parts. Even when you deduct the number of parts for the tank treads, or about 200 individual links, it still adds up to a lot of parts. In contrast, a complex model from the 60s and 70s might have a hundred parts, and many models had far less.

Dragon Models also revolutionized advertising and marketing for model products, both in terms of packaging and the content of its Website. Dragon Models packaging featured dozens of close-up shots of parts of the model that Dragon claimed were the most highly detailed parts of their type ever made, and few doubted Dragon's claims. Dragon also produced the first of what is now known as the super kit. These are kits that include many common aftermarket detail parts, as well as uncommon parts, including a turned aluminum tank barrel, turned brass shells, brass fenders, and five sheets of photo etched brass parts (with one sheet just for the metal decorations for an officer's figure). In all, the cost of the detail items alone, if purchased separately, added up to about twice what the complete kit cost.

Dragon's Website was also revolutionary in the way it promoted its products. Most of the major model companies have had Websites for years, but details about each kit were minimal at best. Dragon gave many models their own section, and each section showed all the parts spread out, and had a pop-up window that showed an enlarged photo of any area that the user chose. Dragon also featured reviews of its models which also showed detailed what was in the kit, and how to assemble it.

Dragon Models also rethought what a model could be. A couple of years ago Dragon Models released an aircraft carrier that had a fully detailed hangar deck, probably for the first time a carrier model ever had this detail. The model also had an optional clear plastic flight deck to show off the hangar deck. This could have been done 30 years ago, but no one evidently thought to do it.

Dragon is a special case because they not only came up with a new way to improve the quality of their products, they also came up with a new way to market their products. They managed to see their products in a new light, and they also managed to make consumers see their products in a new light.

In a highly cynical world people become overly familiar with their products and fail to understand they may have very valid selling points. Advertising isn't always hype, and product quality isn't always the lowest the public will tolerate. Companies that go above and beyond the usual standard can become stars in the eyes of consumers.

You might find it worthwhile to take a look at Dragon Models Website (, and imagine what your business would be like if you adopted Dragon's innovative approach for both its products and its Website. It would be hard to find a better model of success.

Glen Emerson Morris is currently a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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