I have been in contact with a number of “inventors” over the years. They have an idea for a cool/useful product that currently doesn’t exist. And they want to get it made in China, which has a reputation for getting things done fast.
I can categorize them in three groups, from the free-form designers to the adepts of “design for manufacture”.
1st group: free-form design, and reliance on one random supplier
They go on trade shows, look for the closest product they can find, and ask the supplier to develop the new product. Few documents are passed to the supplier, except maybe a rough drawing.
Advantage: if there is no deal, the supplier will probably not “steal the idea”. The engineering would take too much work.
Drawbacks: sometimes the closest product currently on the market necessitates different production capabilities. Few “inventors” have the experience necessary to estimate that danger accurately. And the supplier qualification phase is often skipped entirely (they have a sample, it can be a good basis for development, and that’s all we need)… Dangerous.
2nd group: focus on specifying every detail in advance
They find a way to get a few perfect prototypes made in their country (for example, by paying a CNC workshop if it’s all metal parts). They have the blueprints with complete specifications and tolerances. Then they share it selectively with a few Chinese manufacturers.
Advantage: the factory understands immediately what the customer wants. They still have some engineering work, but communication is much easier.
Drawbacks: the factory will (very) likely “adapt” the product to their production capabilities and habits… Sometimes without telling the buyer about it. And, if there is no deal, they will make sure to keep the cool sample in their showroom. Don’t overestimate the value of a non-disclosure agreement!
3rd group: a more realistic approach
They find a quick & dirty way of putting a prototype together, only for concept validation purposes. They consult a few experienced engineers to evaluate the major risks. Then they spend time qualifying the right manufacturer and discussing the product concept with them. They are willing to adapt their concept if the Chinese engineers make sensible suggestions (provided the resulting prototypes are approved).
Advantage: they don’t try to skip the most important part of the process: finding the right manufacturer. And they try to make the product both easier and cheaper to produce. When done right, this is by far the best strategy.
Drawback: this won’t be possible if the product is particularly complex. Only large manufacturers would have the right engineering capabilities, and they won’t be interested in a start-up project — unless some really big names have already expressed interest to distribute/purchase the new product.
6 tips for designers who want to manufacture in China
From the above cases, we can draw a few simple lessons.
1. Spend time looking for the right manufacturer
You will face several tradeoffs:
- Big factory with good engineering team, or smaller factory will better pricing and some attention from top management?
- Good factory that currently works for potential competitors in my country, or average factory that does not sell in my country?
- Factory on the coast, close to component suppliers and easy to visit, or cheaper and less experienced factory in the interior?
This won’t be easy. I wrote a few articles that can help in the process.
2. Don’t necessarily look for a manufacturer that can make all the parts in-house
Usually, exporting factories source nearly all the components. Then they do some machining (if they have the right equipment), they do the final assembly, they pack, and they ship.
Don’t count on them to show you their sub-suppliers. That’s considered a business secret in most cases. And don’t try to identify and qualify all the sub-suppliers yourself, unless you have the manpower to do so — and to keep coordinating the whole supply chain once production is under way.
3. Try to use materials that can easily be found on the local market
In some cases, insisting on a certain type of material means the supplier will need to import it, or at least to source it from an untested supplier. It is critical for your product concept?
For example, if you need stainless steel, consider the lower-grade material that is commonly used in China. It is not necessarily unfit for your needs, as long as it respects your market’s safety standards.
4. Complexity is your enemy
Some importers think “this is taking a long time to develop… at least it will be quite hard to copy!” It make sense conceptually, but I see no evidence behind this reasoning. Most of the time, the original manufacturer is the one who sells the “copies” to competitors!
Make sure the product is easy to machine and to assemble. If you insist on keeping a certain feature that makes the process difficult, you will pay for it — with a higher price, but also with shipment delays and/or quality issues.
It is called Design for Manufacture (DFM) and it is not a new concept. As Henry Ford wrote, back in 1922: “As we cut out useless parts and simplify necessary ones, we also cut down the cost of making.”
5. Take the manufacturer’s capabilities and habits into account
For example, if existing molds exist for certain parts, try to use them rather than opening new molds. Not only will you save the cost of the new mold, but you will also keep the switching costs (from one manufacturer to another) low.
I also mention “habits”, in addition to “capabilities”. A factory might be capable of doing a certain operation in a certain way, but the Chinese can be very stubborn in believing that their way is better. Not only do the managers believe it, but the operators will perceive the new way as slower, and may ask for a higher pay per piece. You will have to compose with these obstacles.
Naturally, all this is easier if designers are located close to production.
6. Don’t forget to check production and to give feedback to the supplier
There will be surprises. Maybe not in the first order, but sometime down the road. Make sure you don’t receive a shipment of defective products that you can’t sell.
Note: I know that giant brand names like Apple do not follow some of this tips, and it works very well for them. But, unless you purchase Apple-like volumes, don’t try to follow their example.
Anybody has other tips?