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Outsourcing Renderings to China and India

I first brought up outsourcing (or sometimes referred to as “offshoring”) many years ago, long before President Obama was elected to his first time. Architectural renderers, 3D artists, architects, engineers, manufacturers and software developers were getting bombarded by spam originating from other countries which offered to perform similar services at much lower costs. Unless you were on the front line of this wave of spam, you might have been oblivious as to how frequent companies and people such as myself were being approached with these lower-cost services and opportunities. For many corporations, outsourcing their production costs to other countries such as China and India made great financial sense to the higher-ups and CEOs – they could cut out American workers and try to get a similar product at only pennies on the US dollar. These same companies would be able to provide inexpensive goods to the public which made for great short-term profitability. It’s only fitting that just prior to the recent re-election of President Obama, that job outsourcing became one of the main hot-topic attacks the Obama camp levied against Mitt Romney. Mitt after all was an executive at Bain Capital – a company known to “trim the proverbial fat” in corporations in order to make them highly profitable, often at times through outsourcing.

Politics aside, outsourcing has taken a huge toll on myself and my company LunarStudio, fellow artists, and others within related fields. Many of us have been forced to lower our prices in this economic recession in order to just stay afloat. I have had numerous clients call up and say to me, “well, I can get this architectural rendering done in China for $500.” Others have said, “having the best quality isn’t as important as simply communicating the basic idea.” In other words, they don’t care about the quality of the end product as long as they can save a few hundred dollars. Yet still, I’ve had numerous others come back and say, “I had someone create renderings for cheap in China, but it’s not worth all the aggravation and back and forth – it ends up being cheaper for me to hire someone locally.”

Initially, I based a lot of my conclusions based upon my thoughts and what others had said, but hadn’t actually put outsourcing to the test for myself. The thought was that I could try having another company or individual model a scene overseas, then I could take the model, implement changes, light, and texture the scenes myself. In many ways, it would be similar to having someone in-house perform the modeling grunt work (and in case one has a problem with this concept, you might be surprised to know that Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and authors such as Alexander Dumas had people doing their more menial tasks as well.) In other cases, I’ve had larger architectural firms and developers provide me with models but I always ended up putting together the finishing touches. So I waited for an opportune moment, time-frame, budget, and quality to present itself from another country. Eventually, it came.

The first time I outsourced the modeling portion, it was to another person was in Mumbai. The quality was pretty good overall. The language barrier is almost non-existent depending on the person you are working with. The turn-around times are satisfactory – it’s definitely a lot faster and more accurate to have someone model your scene locally but at slightly higher costs. To be fair, I think accuracy really depends on who you are working with in this situation. The more experience (and motivation) someone has, the faster the process will go. However, the prices are much higher than China. In cities such as Mumbai, I’ve been told fees in the range of $10-$15/hour is not unreasonable. On the other hand, it will come to less than double if a modeling service is performed here in the United States, especially factoring in time zone differences. As for the final images themselves, I have yet to find another firm in India that meets my standards of image quality, so I’ve always ended up working on the final images myself. The savings in this country are definitely not where it was five or even ten years ago. The wage gap for skilled professionals is getting closer.

Another time, I tried outsourcing the modeling process to China. Plans were sent to one of the biggest architectural rendering firms (and spammers) with a request for pricing. The price was half of what people in India were charging and they were willing to put in more effort on complicated plans. However, I discovered that this came at a huge cost of time. Modeling took much longer, and even further out depending on their current scheduling. On top of this, each time they made a mistake or oversight (for which there was plenty), I would sometimes spend hours of my own time marking up images to sending them back then I’d have to wait overnight due to the timezone differences. In some cases, they still got those changes wrong so I would have to wait an additional evening for things to get back to me. Once, the same issue transpired over the course of five different days for a single problem. On one occasion, they made changes but insisted on charging me extra after they had already made them. I told them that it was only fair to have approached me with additional costs beforehand, but I ended up paying because it was nominal in the larger scheme of things, plus I had an obligation to my client to fulfill. Last but not least, they don’t work weekends which is a foreign concept to myself and other artists I’ve talked with here in the United States. It’s a luxury that we often don’t have.

My conclusions after several experiences of outsourcing follows:

I don’t think it’s worth outsourcing to India as the cost-savings are not that significant. The only time I have found that it’s worth it is if I have an over-abundance of work and my time is best spent on less menial tasks. I have developed a relationship with some of these subcontractors, so I probably get a more timely and higher-quality results than most people who outsource occasionally. Plus I know what I am getting because I’m familiar with the process myself. Not having a huge language barrier is very nice compared to the alternative. From an economic standpoint, I’d still much rather do the modeling work here myself or hire somebody else in the US to perform these tasks. It’s not that much of a difference financially when factoring in their extended time. If you factor them in for finishing the finals, the price is almost comparative (depending on the company or individual) and quality can vary drastically.

As for China, unless you have a large project that’s going to go through dozens of revisions and you have weeks to months to spare, a project can turn into a nightmare. I’m very fortunate that I know the process myself and understand how much work is involved, so subcontractors are often unable to “pull the proverbial wool” over my eyes without me catching it. Even so, the wait can be unbearable. I get a lot of clients that call up with extremely short deadlines of a week or so. Using a Chinese firm on a short deadline would not be practical unless you’re satisfied with few changes and lower quality. On the other hand, if you have weeks or even months to spare, then it might be somewhat cost-effective. The people I hired did seem to have a lot of patience when it came to making changes. However, one needs to keep in mind that the person delegating the renderings ends up having to micromanage all of the communications and hours of markups, so it ends up costing time and wages locally. Last but not least, the prices in China are steadily increasing. At one point, I saw animations priced out at $50/second but recently I’ve seen offerings for $150/second. I only think this is going to increase as their economy grows (or they’re called out on currency manipulation), at which point it doesn’t even make it worthwhile.

I’m not being racist by any means – I’m half Asian myself but grew up here. I’m just merely stating what my own personal experience has been. It seems completely in-line with the other stories I’ve heard.

And to be completely fair, I’ve also had negative experiences with subcontractors here in the US as well. I’ve had clients banging on my door and a subcontractor who “disappeared” in the middle of it. He was also significantly late to implement changes. The model itself took months to complete (in part due to the client consistently making changes) and the final renderings ended up being mediocre. During one conversation, the subcontractor had a slip-of-the-tongue and told me that the job I provided him was “lower priority.” I sort of understand where he was coming from, but I would never dare say something like that to any of my clients. Regardless of the difference in job prices and timing, if I accept a job, I’m going to try to put my best foot forward for every job equally otherwise I don’t accept it. Needless to say, he never received any additional work from me.

In all, I think it’s best to try to keep work in the architectural rendering field as well as other similar professions here in the United States. There’s times where outsourcing is the only practical solution given a very tight budget and if they have a long time-frame to work with (which is a rarity in of itself.) I feel that if you want something done right, you often need to do it yourself. And that’s pretty much where I’m at these days.