If you have been designing a new product and you plan to have it manufactured in China or another Asian country, when and how should you contact a manufacturer, and what should you do first?
- If you contact them too early, the scope of work all the way to production is quite fuzzy, and there is a high chance they give up on the project when a lot of obstacles appear.
- However, if you take into account the realities of manufacturing too late, you might have to take a few very painful steps back, making product design changes, when you thought you were so close to production.
First, make sure your product design is mature enough
A manufacturer’s business model is to… manufacture. The dominant model is to make batches of what is called “mass production”. Product design is not their main focus and usually isn’t what they are best at.
That’s why I suggest you try to make some progress first without involving a manufacturer:
- Get in touch with an industrial designer
- Hire an engineer if needed, or work with an engineering firm
- As you make some progress and you start to put prototypes together, try to get a “Design for China Manufacturing” review done by a company that is familiar with manufacturing processes.
I wrote more about this in Don’t Send Immature Product Designs To A Chinese Manufacturer:
The basic information any manufacturer will need [for an electronic product] is:
- A detailed description of features
- List of components, with specifications
- Product architecture (how components are connected together)
- PCB schematic
- A look-alike and work-alike prototype
- Testing stations
- A timeline and volume projections
Some companies think in terms of technology readiness levels. Before TRL 7, it is probably too early to involve a manufacturer.
Make sure you have a plan for the necessary steps all the way to mass production
Do you plan to “just get a prototype, and then go into production”?
That may be fine if the product is very similar to what that factory is already making. You want a new shade of blue, they make a prototype in the right color, you approve it, and they can keep using their usual approach.
If the product you are developing is new, though, it’s very likely that the manufacturing and testing processes need to be adjusted and validated before you authorize the factory to go into production.
For electro-mechanical goods in general, here is what the 6 phases (which we call specifications, feasibility study, prototyping/EVT, tooling/DVT, pre-production/PVT, and mass production) typically include.
I wrote about this in these articles:
- Going from 1 Prototype to Mass Production directly is Dangerous
- New Product: How Many Builds before Mass Production?
- Planning for Quality & Compliance at the Product Design Stage
Do not give all your design files away without a few precautions
When the time comes, prepare a product design package that includes the information the manufacturer will need to know.
However, you should not send that package to 10 or 20 suppliers that you found on Alibaba.
- First, screen them. Get down to 1 or 2 suppliers that you are comfortable with.
- Second, get them to sign an NNN agreement that is enforceable in their country. That’s a basic precaution, don’t skip it.
(I’d add that, if you contact Chinese manufacturers, most of them, unfortunately, don’t care about the NNN agreements they have signed, and there are all kinds of leakages of information. Hence the need to qualify them carefully first, before sharing design files.)
- Third, don’t get too fixated on the RFQ and the price — a bad manufacturer that has a price 10% lower might cost you 3 times more, all things considered…
Starting to engage a manufacturer in a country like China, India, or Vietnam, before your product design is firmed up, is dangerous. Good manufacturers will not be interested, since they know the scope is not clear and it will take a lot of management time. Bad manufacturers might attempt to steal your design work and make your product without engaging you…remember these two points before you contact them.
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