MAKE it in China: How to Spot a Good Factory

We hear a lot of horror stories about factories in China. How do you avoid them? Certainly not by dwelling on failure. Failure happens when you’re manufacturing in China or anywhere— even if you have made the best plans.

However, when it comes to choosing a factory, there are strong signals of quality you can identify by just walking around. We’ve compiled the list below with lots of help from experts Larry Tsai of D2M Asia and Bob Jordan of Asian Ops. These are preliminary evaluations and if a factory is missing any of these key conditions, don’t give them your business.

1. Happy workers.

A good factory has a diverse mix of genders and ages in clean uniforms. Workers’ stations must be clean and well lit. Good ventilation must be provided for workers handling projects with noxious fumes like minor hand soldering. Workers should get breaks, but this is hard to validate other than by checking to see if anyone is relaxing on the sidelines.

2. Clear documentation and procedures.

You should see up-to-date work instructions on the line in English and Chinese. There should be visible documentation or signage about pass/failed units after the units have been tested on the assembly line.

At the beginning of each line or section of production, there should be a picture of the person managing the work. You should be able to identify the person in the picture as somebody on the line. There should also be a generous amount of training plaques on the wall. Find out what year employees were certified and if those employees still work there.

In the best factories, you can tell at a glance how each part is assembled and what the flow of materials is. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about where things came from or are going.

3. Stringent labeling of raw materials.

A factory that properly labels and stores its raw materials and components is a factory that will not misplace the raw materials for your project. It also shows they have a tight grasp of quality processes,  inventory, and material management controls.

Along the assembly line, bins should be labeled with part numbers and vendor information. There should be separate bins for finished goods and clearly marked bins for rejected goods.

4. Enforced safety standards.

There should be clear safety signs and workers following them. For example, once we went to tour a factory with Bob we saw people working without masks in an area labeled that workers must be wearing them. We didn’t pick that factory.

Other examples include ear plugs when operating around loud machinery or safety goggles when working with grinding machines.

5. The more automation, the better.

Lower quality factories tend to utilize cheap labor in activities that are easily suited for automation. This is inefficient if you’re making electronics or complex products. There can be significant savings using automation because a robot can do things much faster and better than even the most skilled line worker. You know you’ve hit the holy grail of factories when they have an AOI (automated optical inspection) machine for their PCBs. We’ve visited factories where they have a robot arm that just presses one button! You may not be able to afford a factory that has all of these innovations, but there should be signs of robot life.

6. Testing, testing, testing.

Many factories will tell you that quality is important to them, but you have to “trust and verify,” a term drilled into our brains by Larry. You really have to see if there are clear processes, procedures, and documentation that follow a factory’s routine quality practices.

Quality is also an attribute that should be evident throughout the entire manufacturing process. It’s not just an end result— it’s a process in of itself. Quality happens in the mindset and approach a factory uses in building products. It starts from Incoming Quality Control (IQC) where the factory checks incoming raw materials all the way through Outgoing Quality Control (OQC) where testing happens at the end of the line.

A good factory will have a dedicated area where they just try to kill your electronic device. There must be a “shake n’ bake” machine that tosses your product around to mimic traveling overseas and as well as machines that apply high heat and extreme freezing to your device. This is all in addition to the guidelines you give for the specifics of testing your product.

Now that you know what to look for, go on some factory tours! Nomiku went to fifteen factories before we decided on the one.

And don’t worry, there are many ethical and effective factories in China. Don’t give up and don’t settle. And remember, everything is flexible and anything is possible in China— clients can deeply influence factory ethics!

MAKE it in China will explore the manufacturing process in China from the perspective of Nomiku co-founder Lisa Fetterman.


Lisa is a Maker Pro and the CEO of the hardware start-up Nomiku. She's currently manufacturing the first batch of Kickstarter backed WiFi immersion circulators in the Bay Area with her co-founders Abe and Bam.

View more articles by Lisa Q. Fetterman