You’ve got a stellar design for a product and now want to take it to the next level and produce it in volume. Many people assume that this means you should find a manufacturing partner in China and start cranking out your widget. There are many reasons to choose China as your manufacturing region. China is the center of the universe when it comes to high volume production. The prices in China are incredibly cheap and there always seems to be a factory ready to make whatever you want – be it electronics, plastics, or machined metal parts. It is hard to find the level of manufacturing support that you can get in China anywhere else in the world.
With so much infrastructure and such low prices in China why would anyone ever choose to manufacture their product elsewhere? While China certainly makes sense for some products it is definitely not a perfect fit for every product. We were faced with this decision during the development of our product, the Aeroscope wireless oscilloscope probe. Aeroscope has just launched its crowdfunding campaign on Crowd Supply, but we had to decide how to handle this question prior to our launch. Here are some of the lessons we have learned throughout our careers that helped inform our decision.
Chinese manufacturing is best for very high volume production or simple products. It makes less and less sense as production volume decreases, especially if your product has any complex testing or assembly requirements. Lower production volume means it is harder to find factories willing to make your widget and those that are willing will likely not give you the attention that you would like. Factories will often agree to manufacture your low volume product but will try and squeeze the manufacturing in during down times between their larger volume clients. This means that you do not know exactly when the build will take place and it will be harder to support any problems that may arise.
Unless you are in China, getting parts from there will take much longer than locally. In order to compete with prices from China, many domestic firms have focused on speed. For example, many plastic injection mold shops in the US can make you a mold out of aluminum and get you plastic parts in six days for the same price as a steel mold that takes six weeks to make in China.
Surprisingly, some electronic parts are hard to source in China. You may have to redesign your product or ship parts in from overseas, incurring customs delays and additional costs. On top of this, factor in expensive overseas flights, language barriers, dramatic time zone differences, and long over ocean shipping times and China’s luster begins to fade.
One way to take advantage of the benefits of Chinese manufacturing, even with low volumes, is to use China for portions of your design while keeping the majority of manufacturing local. Simple parts such as bare PCBs and PCB assemblies, custom machined parts, or plastic molds can be outsourced with little risk and no need to be present during production builds. You then take all of these foreign-sourced parts and assemble them together at a local factory. With this approach, you can have much more control over the final assembly steps while still keeping costs down. This is the strategy we use here at Aeroscope Labs.
Let’s say you have decided to take the leap and produce some or all of your product in China. How can you ensure that your production is successful? First you need to find a reputable factory. How do you do that? The first thing that usually comes to mind for the maker crowd is Alibaba. This can work but don’t just go with the first place you find. You should get quotes and samples from multiple sources. Be sure to budget enough time. It can take weeks or months to properly vet a factory if you are not living in China.
Once you have found the factory of your dreams, what are the next steps? It is always a good idea to visit the factory, but this can be quite expensive if you are not local. We strongly recommend that you visit the factory any time you have significant amounts of money on the line. For us at Aeroscope Labs, this is $15k – $20k. This serves several purposes. First, even though you have vetted them by ordering samples, it is almost impossible to tell what quality control systems they have in place without visiting. A robust quality control system ensures that each part they give you will be just as good as your beautiful sample. Second, it lets them know you are a serious customer. Finally, establishing a personal connection by attaching a face to a name can help resolve any disputes that arise.
One way to shortcut the factory selection process, short of going to China for an extended period, is to use a service that vets factories for you. There are different types of these companies that offer different levels of service. On the low end, these companies just help you source parts. You give them your design and they get you quotes from factories they know. High touch services like Dragon Innovations and others will help you find factories and have their production engineers on the factory floor during the build. This can make sense if you have a really high volume or complex product and are willing to spend the money.
Anytime you do volume manufacturing, either domestically or internationally, you need to be as detailed as possible with your part specifications. Anything left unsaid can be open to interpretation by the factory and lead to your disappointment. A good factory will ask for clarification, but many will just do whatever is easiest and cheapest for them. To avoid this, be specific about part tolerances, finishes, PCB stackups, assembly instructions, and test procedures.
Makers used to domestic 3D printing and CNC services may be shocked when asked for a drawing of their mechanical part. You can do a lot of mechanical prototyping domestically with just an STL or STEP file, but most Chinese factories will want to see a mechanical drawing to give you a quote. In this age of ubiquitous smartphones and computers it is easy to forget that not everything is made with computerized machines. One connector manufacturer we contacted to produce our probe tip didn’t even have the ability to view 3D CAD files. They used automated analog machining equipment called screw machines. 3D files are great for describing the part shape and how assemblies fit together, but an old fashioned mechanical drawing is still the norm for denoting part tolerances. You did figure out your part tolerances, right?
Manufacturing in China has a lot of advantages, but it is not for everyone. By carefully considering the benefits and pitfalls, you can make smarter decisions about what is best for your product. Going from a single prototype to production quantities can be a long, daunting affair. However, in this of age of globalization and with the ease of access that the internet provides, it has never been easier to take a product to market.