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Developing a new product is always a challenge, but much more so when samples and prototypes are manufactured on the other side of the planet. This is one, of many reasons, why the product development process is a true minefield, riddled with potential disasters, and the top time killer for small businesses, outsourcing production to China, and other Asian countries.
In this article, we explain how Chinese manufacturers operate, and how this has a direct impact on how the product development process must be managed. We also explain why you should never rely on your OEM manufacturer to manage the product development procedure for you. Keep reading, and learn how to avoid some of the most common, and disastrous, mistakes made by importers during the most critical phase of the whole importing procedure.
1: Making a Supplier Selection Without Prior Qualification
In a perfect world, suppliers can be divided into two categories: ‘The good’, and ‘The bad’. But in reality, it’s not all that simple. Instead, I see suppliers as divided into three categories: ‘The good’, ‘the bad’ – and suppliers which are ‘good’, yet not technically qualified to take on the project. The latter category is the one I’ll shed some light on here.
What makes a ‘good manufacturer’? They are, at least able to deliver on time, and of course manufacturing according to the buyers technical specifications. That said, a manufacturer can be great at what they do, but just not able to manufacture an item according to your product specification. To a varying degree, manufacturers are always specialized.
As such, a manufacturer that is really good at making cheap polyester shirts, may not be a wise choice when what you need is organic Oxford cotton. I keep saying it, but product development always begins with a clearly defined list of technical specifications. Without it, you cannot decide on the factors of which a supplier is to be judged as qualified, or unqualified. Indeed, compliance with applicable regulations (e.g. FCC and CPSIA) in the target market is another factors of which the supplier selection shall be made – perhaps the most important of them all.
2: Relying On the Supplier to Fill in the Specification Gaps
There are many things that really bugs me in this industry. Being far away from old friends and family for large durations of the year is one thing I put on that list. But if I have to choose one thing that frustrates me the most, then it’s clients expecting us, and the supplier, to magically turn their vague visions into a physical product.
Chinese manufacturers don’t employ psychics – they just can’t read the buyer’s mind. Yet, so many purchasers drop a PDF file with a few images and bullet points, expecting the supplier to somehow ‘sort out of the rest’. In other words, develop the product for them. This is not the way things work. Chinese manufacturers are, as it may sound, manufacturers, not product development agencies.
It’s not their responsibility to put in the time and money required to turn your concept into something that can be sent down to the men and women down on the production lines. That responsibility is yours.
Chinese manufacturers are entirely accustomed to manufacturing products according to the buyer’s specifications. So, what is needed to produce an item? Take clothing, for example, the following is needed:
Design drafts (including dimensions per size, parts, labels, print areas)
Materials (e.g. 100% Oxford fabric)
Components (e.g. YKK zippers)
Graphical file (e.g. washing labels, embroideries)
Oh, so you didn’t bother to specify that the washing label should be 20 x 42 mm, folded and centered in the neck? This happens all too often. No, the supplier is not ‘supposed to understand’. It’s entirely up to you, as the importer, to properly specify everything that defines the products design and quality. Leave something out, and you essentially force the supplier to make a qualified guess. Based on my own experience, this is the biggest reason why small to medium sized businesses run into severe quality issues in China.
What if a Chinese supplier took on extensive product development work from anyone who sent them an inquiry? First, it would force them to hire a whole team of product developers, which is all but free. As a result, they would be forced to increase their prices. The buyer, now supplied with a finished product design, starts wondering why this supplier is a dollar or two more expensive than their competition, and takes the design to the next best supplier. The one not burdened by offering free product design services. It doesn’t make much sense at all, does it?
So, is this saying that Chinese suppliers are entirely operating like robots? No, most are more than willing to answer the questions you need answered in order to complete your product specifications. Many are also able to add their “final touch” to your designs (e.g., revise dimensions on a CAD file), but they will never make the design for you. Supplying incomplete, or vague, specifications are the safest way to shoot down any project. Yet, I see this happening on an almost weekly basis, by businesses of all sizes.
3: Basing a Design on Specifications the Supplier Can’t Reach
As important as a comprehensive specification is, it may be worthless if it’s not based on what the supplier can actually comply with. As such, you must be somewhat flexible in terms of design, dimensions, components and materials. Take a fabric for example. What you really wanted was 96% cotton, 4% lycra. However, the supplier is only able to deliver a fabric made of 98% cotton, 2% lycra. Minor difference, one might think.
That said, before you send a specification that goes into production, you need to get clear confirmation from the supplier, on whether they are able to comply with all of them. If not, which are the exceptions? What can they offer instead?