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As a designer, you know the story well: Designers create something innovative and new to the market; copycats steal whatever is singular about that design and exploit it for their own ends.

In some cases, a knockoff product is put into production before the original even ships. Before an idea has made a single dollar, it's been imitated by someone who contributes nothing to its creation but profits from its appeal. And some of the worst copycats are coming out of Chinese factories.

China will continue to be the world's source for high-tech manufacturing into the foreseeable future. The investment and effort necessary to relocate global supply chains makes any major shift prohibitive. And designers won't be able to keep their products out of the hands of unscrupulous copycats operating in a largely lawless environment. The only solution is to stay one step ahead of the threat.

Beating Out the Imitators

The copycat problem is only going to accelerate. Major marketplaces like Amazon have seen a surge in sales from Chinese vendors. And now that ocean freight services are part of Amazon's offering, the logistics of global distribution are more accessible than ever. Chinese-made goods will continue to flood the market, and many of them will be knockoffs.

Stronger counterfeit controls are essential. But it's naïve to think this will dismantle copycats involved in a highly lucrative enterprise. Until better internal regulations are established, here are three steps designers can take to protect their products:

1. Invest in excellent product design.

IP is exploited in one of two ways. The most pernicious is when a product is reverse-engineered and directly replicated by an imitator. A recent example of this kind of theft at work is Fidget Cube. Before the original product had shipped to its Kickstarter backers, a wave of knockoffs hit the market. The idea was hard to patent and easy to imitate. With ruthless speed and efficiency, Chinese copycats stole both the idea for and the enthusiasm behind Fidget Cube.

The complexity of your design is one of your strongest assets, yet design is often one of the first things sacrificed in the pursuit to save money. This is a short-sighted approach because excellent design is a way to directly differentiate an original from a copycat. Copycats are opportunistic, and few will invest the resources necessary to perfectly replicate a product.

Work with your engineers to design an efficient but not easily replicated manufacturing process. For instance, in the injection molded foam process, you can introduce internal undercuts — unique recessed surfaces. Doing so ensures the design is complex, adds value to the part, and limits competitors' ability to easily replicate your idea.

When my company worked on a sports massage ball, for example, we created a complex, patented design made up of two solid parts. We first devised the outer shell and then inserted the inner solid ball. This process ensured the ball wouldn’t split in half under pressure. Knockoff manufacturers released their own versions of the product, but their massage balls quickly broke in two when used because they did not use the twofold design to manufacture their balls.

As part of the design stage, create an IP strategy, research patent laws both domestically and in China, and enlist a good lawyer. Remember, confidentiality is a great protection. Keeping design details secret succeeds even when patent laws fail.

2. Vet manufacturing partners carefully.

An even more audacious example of IP theft involves Chinese factories directly stealing designs, specs, and even surplus stock. After producing a product run for company A, the factory might then sell leftover inventory or design documents to company B. The factory may be violating an nondisclosure agreement in the process, but it's only breaking loosely defined, poorly enforced laws. Thus, it's paramount to properly vet your manufacturers.

As part of the vetting process, ask for client references, proof of inspection reporting, and samples. The specific skills and strengths of the manufacturer should also align with the requirements of the product. Don't hire a shoe manufacturer to produce your unique ball design, in other words. The manufacturer's previous clients should also be able to tell you whether there were any copycatting issues and whether they found the manufacturer trustworthy.

Before committing, have the manufacturer sign an NNN Agreement. This incorporates a nondisclosure, noncompetition, and noncircumvention agreement into one. Manufacturing and product development agreements provide an additional layer of protection. Unscrupulous manufacturers are barred from subcontracting, switching suppliers, or claiming some rights to the design.

Finally, visit the factory to spot red flags. A tour reveals how clean it is, how committed the staff is, and how much of the workflow follows best practices and procedures.

Communication is another important performance indicator. Manufacturers that are forthcoming and flexible — particularly during the quoting process — are less likely to obscure their true motives. Is the manufacturer responsive, or does it delay the process and skirt around specific breakdowns? Make sure your questions are answered, you receive a quote within a week, and your manufacturer seems excited and passionate about your design.

3. Educate your audience.

In a perfect world, all consumers would evaluate their purchases through a skeptical lens, ensuring that materials are high-quality and that products are original. Unfortunately, that's not always the case, and the differences between an original and copycat product are not always apparent.

When a product is protected by a design patent, rather than a utility patent, it's possible to directly imitate its most obviously appealing features. Consumers believe they're buying something comparable. Just look at the market for fake electronics, which alone nets $100 billion annually. Up to 18 percent of the time, consumers think they're buying something original or authentic.

Distinguish your product by demonstrating commitment to the consumer and the shopping experience. Make sure in-depth information about the authenticity of your product is readily available. Explain, in layman's terms, what separates your product from lower-quality knockoffs.

For instance, if you've designed a toy, consider sending out a newsletter to target consumers (i.e., parents) educating them about copycat products and the harmful risks associated with lower-quality knockoffs.

Highlight the U.S. law that stipulates products made for children must be free of lead, heavy metals, and phthalates. Provide proof that your product meets these requirements, and explain that you cannot guarantee the safety of knockoffs made in China as they often contain low-cost materials, some of which may be toxic.

Whatever medium you use to get the message out, you should project authority and authenticity. Original products must make a concerted effort to stand apart and offer value that the imitators cannot.

Copycats are the direct enemy of product designers everywhere. The best way to stay ahead of them is to constantly explore new features and enhancements that will set your concept apart. By the time your copycats reach critical mass, you should already have moved on to a new design. Although the primary goal is to avoid being undercut by opportunistic manufacturers, you’ll also stay sharp and innovative — a competitive necessity in any market.

Randy Millwood is the national key account manager of PopFoam, the leader in the injection molded EVA closed-cell foam process that specializes in complex geometrics. Randy has more than 17 years of experience working with closed-cell foam materials, foam-molding processes, and specialty materials and applications.

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