How to Send Good Design Files to Chinese Manufacturers

In the past I explained how to structure a product specification sheet to ensure the supplier knows what is expected regarding the finished product.

However, proper communication with Chinese manufacturers should start much earlier. If you have designed your own product and you want it to be made in China, make sure you follow some best practices when sending the technical design files to the supplier.

We guess that 50% of the issues related to China manufacturing come from unclear requirements up front. In other words, poor quality design files.

Below is an outline of what we include in a design file when we help a client in this exercise.

1. Product Description

The product description is a high level overview of what the product is intended to be. It also allows anyone who studies it to obtain an understanding of what is involved in order to make that product. The product description should include the following elements:

  • Why is it needed?
  • What is it made of?
  • What will it look like?
  • How long should it take to create?
  • What are the acceptance criteria?
  • How will those criteria be met?

One common issue is the color description — even a white might have variation! It is better to use Pantone reference in China and leave no margin for error.

2. Product Functionality

The product functionality is a description of how the product should function in operation as well as including the limitations of the functionality.

If you are referring to an individual component that is manufactured in China, you still need to describe the functionality of that individual part. An example of this could be a drive shaft. The functionality is to have a specific fit into a bearing and a gear — the gear will be driven via a key located in the shaft and must be able to exceed a specific amount of torque. The specific information would be added to the technical drawing, which is discussed later in this article.

3. 3D CAD Files

The majority of hard goods being designed today are designed using 3D design software such as CATIA, Pro/ENGINEER, and SolidWorks just to name a few popular ones. When creating your design file that is intended to be sent to your sub-contract manufacturer in China, it is important that you understand the formats your supplier can use and what they require.

Different file formats are also required for different processes. For example, if you need a prototype produced using Stereolithography (SLS) then you will need to send the supplier the STL file format. If you require a machined component that will be generated on a computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine, you would need to send the IGS file format. The IGS file format is based on the IGES (Initial Graphics Exchange Specification) standard. This standard is used by a variety of CAD (Computer-Aided Drawing) applications.

The key point here is: understand what format your supplier needs.

4. 2D Technical Drawings

The 2D technical drawings are an important inclusion to the design file. These documents communicate the finite details of how each component is manufactured. The technical drawing communicates all the needed information from the engineer who designed the part to the supplier who will produce it.

A technical drawing is actually a legal document because it communicates the needed information about what the buyer wants to the supplier who will provide it. In conjunction with the purchase order and any other documentation (e.g. change order notices), buyers are advised to make it part of the contract.

Getting the right information included on a technical drawing is paramount to the success of producing your product.

There are five basic elements that need to be included on all technical drawings:

a. Title Block information

This is where the key information is provided about the product

  • Company that owns the design (legal owner)
  • Designer’s Name (at least initials)
  • Drawing checked by name (at least initials)
  • Identification number (or “part number”)
  • Product name (or “part name”)
  • Date of release
  • Revision level (important for change control)

b. Product drawing

This is the drawing of the product itself and should show a number of different views from different projections or viewpoints. It is also required to show sectional views that provide more detailed information where required.

c. Dimensions

A dimension controls the feature-of-size which might consist of two parallel surfaces, a cylindrical surface, or a spherical surface, in each case defined with a linear size. The limits-of-size controls only the actual local sizes (two-point measurements) of a feature-of-size, and not its deviations of form, for example the flatness, the roundness or the straightness of the feature.

d. Tolerances

A tolerance that is applied to a dimension shows an upper and a lower limit for that dimension. The accuracy of the dimension is determined by the number of decimal places. A dimension that has a tolerance applied shows a specific requirement for that feature-of-size and can look something like this:

25.4 +/-0.01 which shows an upper limit of 25.41 and a lower limit of 25.39,

e. Critical to Quality (CTQ) Information

This can either be in the form of geometric tolerancing or CTQ notes. Geometric tolerancing adds a layer of tolerance on top of the standard limits-of-size dimension and adds that tolerance to the form.

Geometric tolerancing specifies the tolerance of geometric characteristics. It uses a universal language of symbols which allows a design engineer to precisely and logically describe part features in a way they can be accurately manufactured and inspected, including Straightness, Perpendicularity, Flatness, Angularity, Roundness, Concentricity, Cylindricity, Runout, Profile, True position, and Parallelism.

CTQ notes should include surface finish, color, heat treatment, and any other specific attribute that is critical to quality that is not associated with a dimension.

The important point about CTQ information is that it is highlighted in some way on the technical drawing. With a dimension, this can have a circle around it, for notes, they can have a symbol attached to them. Whatever identification system you use, make sure you include a key on the drawing that shows the system which highlights all CTQ information.

5. Test Requirements

It is important to understand what testing is required not just after the product has been finished, but potentially there could be the need to test sub-assemblies or at semi-finished stages throughout the production process. Whatever testing your product requires, it needs to be specified accurately and clearly.

Pre-build, in-process test, end-of-line test

An example of pre-build testing could include checking that LEDs function and that they are the correct color, or checking the functionality of a sub-assembly including printed circuit board assemblies or mechanical sub-assembly operations.

In-process testing consists of testing a product that is partially built to check functionality at critical stages in the assembly process. The idea here is to ensure the product functions correctly before adding more value to the product by additional assembly and the cost associated with that assembly process. If errors are found, the partially finished product can be removed from the line for analysis, rework or scrap, depending upon the cause of the failure.

End of line testing is there to test the completed product as the last stage of assembly or production. This test will determine if the product passed the acceptance criteria and therefore is often used as the final quality check before the product is packaged and shipped.

Every manufacturing operation adds value to the part. Waiting until the end of the line to check whether these operations were done properly means wasted cycle time and materials if there are defects. Also take into consideration that rework of fully assembled parts takes more effort than correcting the flaw right away, at the point where it was introduced.

The earlier you catch issues, the cheaper it is:

Catch problems early

6. Certification requirements

If you have a product that requires certification to show it has met the relevant country or product regulations, you need to ensure you understand what these requirements are so that you can plan for product testing at the appropriate time.

7. Inspection pass criteria

Whatever your product is, it is vitally important to document all the specific pass criteria for each of the tests you have identified to be carried out. If you find it difficult to describe something, add a photo or an image showing the desired criteria.

Remember, all your instructions should be clear and easy to understand. Simply said, the criteria should be what will allow you to judge good quality products when you receive them in hands.

Conclusion

When generating your design files, do not take shortcuts. Make sure all the information required to produce your product is included within the design file. Include additional notes to help explain key areas of importance and critical-to-quality aspects. Do not be shy to ask and ask again to ensure your supplier understands each and every detail.

If you have a complete and comprehensive design file, you make the job easier for the manufacturer to produce you product right the first time round.

Maybe some readers have other good tips?

Do You Have a Full Business Model when Sourcing from China?

Many companies have decided to transfer production to China based on a difference in unit product price. But they haven’t thought of a full business model.

In this article we go over the basics of what should be included in the business model if you are thinking of outsourcing manufacturing to China. This is not a definitive list and we have not touched on the legal aspects such as manufacturing agreements and contracts — these are topics for a separate article.

1. What are the main reasons for outsourcing manufacturing to China?

1.1 Labor Costs

As part of your outsourcing decision making process you should be looking at the internal cost of labor. One of the biggest costs in any manufacturing company is the cost of labor. This is not just the cost of paying the workers’ salaries — it also includes their additional costs of health care benefits. And, if serious engineering work is required for new product developments, it also includes the engineers’ salaries.

1.2 Material Costs

Some commodities such as oil or aluminum are traded at roughly the same price anywhere in the world. But significant savings can be made if certain materials, such as synthetic fabric rolls, are purchased in China.

1.3 Overhead Costs

The reduction in overheads from running an operation between Western companies and Chinese companies includes the benefits of cheaper utilities such as gas, electricity and water as well the overall running cost of an operation.

1.4 Flexibility

Outsourcing manufacturing to a contract manufacturer often means being able to take advantage of increased capability over what a company has in-house. A contract manufacturer in China would have a more diverse set of machinery and equipment as they would have to cater for manufacturing different products in a variety of industry niches.

1.5 Overall Product Cost Reduction

The culmination of all the above benefits results in products being manufactured for less than what is achievable in most Western manufacturing operations. This alone may be a reason to outsource manufacturing to China. However, before any business decisions are made to outsource, there should be a full business model structure in place that takes into consideration all the elements required to manage outsourced manufacturing.

2. Quality

ISO 9001 as quality system in China does not carry the same weight as it does in the West. If a Chinese factory states it is ISO 9001 certified, this could literally mean that they have purchased a set of documents, paid an auditor to come and have tea, and in the end they have a certificate that it hangs on the wall for everyone to see.

The better approach when outsourcing manufacturing to China is to set up your own quality system for the contract manufacturer to follow. That does not mean set up your ISO style system, but rather having a clear set of quality criteria and instructions that the manufacturer has to follow (ensuring clear work instructions are in place, providing them with a ‘master sample’ and samples that are ‘not acceptable’, etc.)

Whatever system you have in place, one of the key actions has to be checking goods before they leave the factory. As you do not have the ability to walk down the production line any time you like due to the fact you have now transferred production to China, you should make provisions for the next best thing. Contracting an independent inspection company can be your eyes in China while you are not there, they can inspect products during the production phase, they can carry out the final random inspection once all the goods have been completed and provide you with full detailed reports of the actual situation. More info about this here.

3. Transport

One element to take into consideration when constructing your outsourcing business model is transportation. This may sound obvious but there are often hidden or forgotten costs associated with transportation of goods from the factory in China to the desired location of your distribution point, wherever that may be.

You need to understand at which point you take responsibility for the transportation of your goods. Is it once the product leaves the factory, known as Ex-Works (EXW), or is it at the point where the product is classed as Free on Board (FOB), meaning the seller delivers the goods on board the vessel nominated by you at the named port of shipment? I strongly advise to buy FOB.

The sometimes forgotten costs or fees come from the clearance documentation required to clear customs in China, the import duty and tax due upon arrival in your country and then potentially the biggest forgotten cost is the land transportation to your distribution point from the port of arrival.

Note that a CIF arrangement is often a way for a supplier to make extra money at the importer’s expense… as described here.

Make sure you have a clear understanding of these elements within your manufacturing outsourcing business model. Different types of shipping methods from China should also be modelled (do you ship a certain quantity by air, what is the door to door delivery time when switching between air express and economy air, what are the logical quantities for your product when it comes to air shipment…?).

Maybe your product is just too large or too heavy and just wouldn’t make sense to send via air unless the timescales demanded it and the benefits of an early delivery outweigh the cost of air shipments. When considering sea freight, plan delivery schedules and look at the product demand to ensure you do not run out of inventory while product is being manufactured and shipped (shipping times can be up to 6 weeks depending on where you get products shipped to).

4. Fulfilment (distribution network)

Whatever your fulfillment method or distribution channel network, you need to ensure product is available when it is required. This will tie directly into your schedule planning and the transportation and logistics element of the business model.

You also need to plan with your contract manufacturer in China the packaging methods and labeling as different point of sale requirements may be apply to different distributors. For example, Amazon would impose certain labeling requirements and would be less strict regarding the way a product is packaged, whereas some of the leading brick & mortar retailers may be more focused on how the products can be stored and presented within their stores and point of sale racking systems.

5. Customer Support

Having a customer support team in place is important with every product and every company so that all questions, issues that customers have, and warranty claims can be addressed promptly and personally. Being able to interact with your customers once they have made a purchase inevitably has a positive impact on business, from the auto responder emails series that you send out once a product is purchased (this is more appropriate for products sold from ecommerce sales platforms) to being able to discuss customer complaints and resolve problems they may have, and generally just being able to help them out when needed.

6. Production follow up

Having your products manufactured in China just means that you need to keep on top of any production changes that are implemented just as you would if you were still making products in your local plant. The location may have changed but the process is the same. And generally it takes much more time to do the daily follow up on production issues with a Chinese supplier. Best practice is to apply a project management approach.

Just make sure your customer service team is kept up to date on all communications and are well educated and informed about all products regardless of where they are produced geographically.

7. Marketing Budget

The marketing budget is naturally part of all business models and should not be affected by the production location. Marketing affects most areas within your business.

8. Conclusion

The allure of low cost production in China is very appealing to many companies but as we have seen, it is not just the cost of the product that needs to be taken into consideration when planning to outsource manufacturing to China.

Constructing a carefully thought-out business model that takes into account all the additional costs associated with each of the elements above will allow individual organizations to calculate the true benefit of transferring or outsourcing manufacturing to China.

The important point here is to make sure you get a full business model in place and that each of the basic elements are understood before pulling the trigger on ‘going to China’.

Engaging a Consultant to Prepare a Factory Audit

When obtaining serious business depends on the result of an audit, Chinese factories often engage a consultant. Unfortunately, in 99% of cases the focus is on “making paperwork look good” rather than improving systems and processes. I am going to describe each approach.

1. Consultants that make paperwork look good

As an auditing agency, we see consultants, or evidence of their work, quite often. I was curious about the way it works so I asked a friend of mine who knows this business intimately.

Those consultants promise a result: “you will get the certification/pass the audit, and then keep passing it in the following years”. Without this promise, few Chinese factory owners would pay them.

Those consultant bring a manual to the factory, rather than writing something customized for their activity and looking for areas of improvement. This manual is always the same, so naturally it doesn’t help the manufacturer improve over time… And all manuals end up looking the same!

Let’s take the example of a certification by a third-party registrar. Here is what a consultant typically sells to a factory:

  1. One day to explain how to use the quality manual and what to tell the third-party auditor
  2. One day to do an internal audit + provide proof of training of internal auditors (at same time)
  3. One or two days to be present when the third party auditor(s) are on site, helping respond to questions, and so on

And then, for the re-certification, here is what the on-going engagement looks like:

  1. Preparation of the re-certification (generally once a year)
  2. One day to do an internal audit + provide proof of training of internal auditors (at same time)
  3. One day to be present when the third party auditor(s) are on site, helping respond to questions, and so on

What is happening here?

  • The manufacturer doesn’t take its quality system seriously. I think this is a deep cultural problem in China.
  • The consultant makes good money for an easy, cookie-cutter type of service.
  • Auditors see evidence of paperwork that is in order, know they can defend a passed result to their management in case of an investigation, and can “relax” (or get bribed) more easily.

My point is, this approach fosters serious integrity problems — not only in China but also in Hong Kong or Taiwan, and this issue is more obvious in smaller industries (where consultants and third party auditors often run into each other and become friends).

So, if one of your suppliers says they engaged a consultant, don’t expect improvements in quality or lead times…

2. Consultants that improve processes

This topic is particularly interesting to me since I see it from both sides… As an auditor but also as a consultant. We were engaged several times by factories that needed to pass an important audit from a large customer — usually after they failed a first audit and were wondering how to pass the re-audit.

We explain to them that a factory that does a good job of improving its processes will enjoy lower costs and higher quality… AND will pass audits much more easily.

Let’s take a simple example. The act of tracking quality defects, attacking the root causes of the most frequent ones, following up on data, and repeating that cycle, is very helpful to any factory. It decreases their quality issues but also rework, scrap, and customer complaints. And, at the same time, it makes auditors happy since a good continual improvement process is in place and has proven its effectiveness.

Let’s take another example related to social compliance. Instead of preparing fake payroll records and briefing the staff on how to lie to the auditor,  why not make changes in processes to increase efficiency? This way, the factory can truly respect the law and keep working hours below the limit. It usually does not require investment for higher automation.

A lot of the work we do in most Chinese factories (which have immature systems) is putting in place prevention. They often need preventive maintenance, a quality system, changes in purchasing and planning to lead to lower inventory levels, daily production meetings based on data, etc.

All of these elements take an effort on the factory’s side, but pay themselves back many times… AND they help get better scores on audit checklists.

I wish more Chinese factories were tempted to choose the “high road” of process improvement, rather than the “low road” of superficial fixes.

What do you think?

Setting a System in Place when Buying from a China Factory

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a client who buys from a China factory. We were discussing how Chinese people are generally not good “system thinkers”.

The problem is, the satisfactory completion of an order usually depends on a few key people, such as:

  • The old guy who does the setups but doesn’t document them
  • The salesperson who remembers what is important for the customer and repeats it every time to production people
  • The owner’s wife who keeps an eye on production quality

The problem is, what happens when these key people switch jobs, retire, or get busy on something else? The same thing as when the chef of a good restaurant walks away (See this good article on China Law Blog on this exact topic).

Many small/midsize buyers are working with a factory that has a poor system BUT whose boss has a relatively good attitude. The buyer doesn’t have the weight to push the factory to put the right systems in place.

In that case, the question is: can the customer do something to put a system in place through their ordering process?

Yes, absolutely. This is the topic of most articles I have written on this blog! Here are a few examples:

  • Detailed specification sheet, prepared by the buyer
  • Classification of potential defects in terms of severity, prepared by the buyer
  • Clear communication to the factory’s key people
  • Documentation of key setup parameters, requested by the buyer (who often needs to be on site for this)
  • Making sure final payment is sent after a passed final inspection

I touch on this, and other key points, on the articles listed in this page, as well as in the e-book I wrote a few years ago.

What do you think? What do you think is the most important in such a case?

Preventing Unnecessary Delays in your China Supply Chain

Best Quality & Sourcing Articles

As usual, I kept a list of interesting articles to share with my readers. Here is the list for April and May.

Urgent Delivery Time Checklist

Jacob Yount wrote a list of questions that will guide an importer desiring to avoid unnecessary delays. For example, what are the steps to follow until production can start, what components/processes will be handled by third parties, how to keep some pressure on timing, etc.

7 Ways to Prevent Quality Issues & Scams When Buying from China

Fredrik Grönkvist summed up nicely what small buyers need to know as they import products from China. He insists on working with the right type of supplier, using samples to communicate about expected quality level, signing a formal agreement, inspecting quality and only after that paying the supplier in full, performing lab tests, and using the proper packaging.

Managing your sourcing in the Age of China’s Shrinking Factories

Over the past few years I noticed that a number of large factories, which used to employ 1,000+ workers and were supplying large big-box retailers, have lost significant business and only employ 100-200 people. I guess they grew too fast and couldn’t control their costs and quality, and in the end they simply couldn’t keep losing money on large contracts.

This article describes and discusses this micro-trend, and points to the risks it represents for importers.

A tightening grip

The Economist argues that “rising Chinese wages will only strengthen Asia’s hold on manufacturing”. The article discusses China moving up the value chain, progressively automating its factories, and unfavorable demographic trends. It forecasts a transfer of production to Southeast Asia, rather a “reshoring” movement back to Europe and North America.

Is the Reshoring of U.S. Manufacturing a Myth?

Over the past two years, journalists have been prompt to point to examples of re-shoring (production being brought back in North America or Europe, generally from China) and to predict a vast trend. New research shows this is not the case, and mentions other trends.

(On the same topic, you can read Onshoring Creates New Textile Jobs, but What About Apparel? — more centered on textile production.)

Getting Counterfeit Products Off China Websites: It’s Possible

Have you found your own product designs posted without your consent on alibaba.com, taobao.com, or other websites? Most of them have procedures to request those designs to be taken down. Dan Harris explains how lawyers can be involved if necessary.

How to protect shipments from moisture damage

This infographic explains how to reduce the risk of “container rain” or “cargo sweat” during seafreight.