MAKE it in China: How to Spot a Good Factory

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.

44 thoughts on “MAKE it in China: How to Spot a Good Factory

  1. MAKE it in China: How to Spot a Good Factory | My Daily Feeds says:

    […] Read the full article on MAKE […]

  2. lol says:

    Simply exploiting desperate workers for lower global pay is unethical. This is why economies are failing given people only see the immediate impact of their rational self interest.

    Automation creates value for the world economies independent of physical location, but outsourcing labour only temporarily creates profits for a few individuals. Eventually your own currency in trade devalues, and your grand children will be working right beside those low paid workers.

    Workers in China and India will tire of this treatment, and eventually learn that North Americans endured the same treatment during industrialisation.

    Pay them the same wages as local workers, and pray 1.9 Billion people show you mercy when your economy fails again.

    Shame on you Makezine…

    1. Fritoeata says:

      I couldn’t agree more.
      It’s only basic economics that teaches us this… for every imported good, there is an exported dollar.
      As a US skilled tradesman(tool and die with 10+years) I have felt this hit hard, but I also know about automation which lowers my bottom dollar. These same things said above will prove our domestic shop too.
      Outsourcing is a short sighted vision! As I train my competition, they will learn to compete with me!
      … examples? iphone knockoffs, sunglasses knockoffs, apparel knockoffs, etc.

      +1 “Shame on you Makezine…”

      1. Matthew Krawczun says:

        yeah outscourcing and automation are short sighted idea’s.

        take it from a man that loves robots that the more we use them as simply as a work force the closer we come to a big social problem. we need to come to grips with the fact greed is bad and that making sure people have good paying jobs is as if not more important then a company making large profit which only helps a small number of people.

        we are facing down a world wide calamity and no one seems to want to talk about it.

        1. Fritoeata says:

          Oops, my bad. I didn’t mean to knock automation in general (especially here!). I use it every day and I agree with it!
          I was talking about using it in simultaneous to outsourcing. By the time you automate, why outsource!? Are we trying to blow our economy?
          By manufacturing domestically, we keep everything within our own economy. It’s only giving back to the economy that builds you up.

      2. lol says:

        I hire local metal fabricators, and currently gladly pay their individual requests for $54 an hour to build custom parts. The elderly gentlemen makes sure the job is done right, and I know without question his engineering skills can spot defective stainless steel.

        Many emigrants are afraid to stand up for their rights, and some local businesses tend to exploit people who are isolated by language barriers. This artificially suppresses local labour demands, and staffing agencies aggregate desperation to bid-down minimum market wages. This trend suppresses the marginal propensity to spend, as domestic companies must adapt to match competitive markets.

        Fundamentally, even with devalued currency the current interest rates can no longer effectively control inflation due to slaver economics. Tax breaks also exacerbate the problem by providing an economic incentive to maximise investment on the higher individual corporate returns. .

    2. ROFL says:

      Don’t believe the corporate propaganda.

      A country limited to insourcing is a country where only large corporations can succeed and edge out startups. Could you afford the minimum run on a product made in the US, let alone the tooling cost? Of course not. But you can afford to have it made by hand in another country. Offering someone a job is not exploitation, if you care for objectivity look up the cost of living in China. Their economy is still growing because they embraced principles we have long forgotten.

      1. haha says:

        Indeed, the process is good for you and one other person exploiting people for you, but bad for the value of your savings.

        Notably, when everyone does this your community runs up a $1 trillion dollar debt… and you have.

        The argument of whether you are greedy or stupid is not an argument as it does not matter if the outcome is unchanged. You probably don’t even know the definition of “money”.

        1. Debt monger says:

          You’re kidding, right?



          The outstanding public debt for the US is not 1 trillion dollars, it is over sixteen trillion. It sounds like you are confusing the terms “debt” and “deficit”. I’m glad you are so knowledgeable about money! Whoo-ee!

          And what you are saying is absurd, the deficit the US has (around 1 trillion) is due to the fact that they don’t take in as much money as they spend, not due to outsourcing. Outsourcing creates tiny but existential growth according to most economists. Look it up if you care, but it sounds like you’d rather argue.

          1. lol says:

            This is not a long run consumer behavior argument, but rather the aggregate outcome of domestic policy. Most of the “debt” you refer to is held in bonds by resident US citizens as investment. There is no argument to be made, and inferring profit is value growth is naive.

            … of course university economists in America still believe their percentage of GDP is only -3.14% … Note, people like yourself will continue to ignore these problems while they focus on detractors.

    3. greggie says:

      Giving someone a job is exploitation? Is that the case in the US also?

      The numbers suggest that workers in China have more discretionary income as a percentage than workers in the US do.

      1. lol says:

        Your informal fallacy ignores giving someone a universally consistent wage that reduces global inflation, and fixes an opportunity cost of a global work force.

        It is still unethical and unprofitable for a country to have a legal minimum wage bid down in value via trade.

        1. greggie says:

          Wrong again, US resident citizen bondholders do not hold a majority of US public debt, only about a third. Look it up.

          I never said profit equaled value growth. But receiving goods for lower than the US market value for them is in itself value growth.

          And minimum wage does nothing but increase unemployment and cost of living. Please take an economics class before you embarrass yourself further with factless preconceived notions.

  3. Charles Haase says:

    If you see anything resembling this, run away!
    This astounding video speaks to points 1 (happy workers), 4 (safety standards), and 5 (automation).

  4. David Lang (@davidtlang) says:

    This is SO great Lisa. Thanks for posting this.

    On the surface, I can see why many of the comments are jumping to the conclusion that manufacturing in China is unethical. However, as someone who’s actually had to make a lot of something, I know how complex the problems and solutions can be.

    For those who don’t have an extensive background in manufacturing, I suggest starting here: Why Amazon Can’t Make A Kindle in the USA –

    For Lisa and Nomiku, it’s the same issue. They’re not exploiting people. They’re working within the environmental conditions that exist. In fact, they are doing a HUGE service to other makers, by explaining this confusing and intimidating process.

    AND they’re being very transparent about how their products are made. Kudos to them. I’m excited to read more!

    1. I love china says:

      The Chinese are literally dying to make your products, and indeed it is a good deal for you (and maybe 1 factory owner whose father is in “The Party”). However, the above statement about the world’s race to the bottom is correct, and anecdotal propaganda can’t change the facts.

      Just because some people do this to remain a viable business does not make it even remotely ethical. Southern cotton farmers also had myriads of excuses why their businesses needed slaves.

    2. Fritoeata says:

      David, the Forbes article you referenced can be summarized by saying “Amazon can’t be made in the USA, because everything else is made in domestic China already”. While that is currently true, it would be naive to think that that means its the best way 5+yrs from now.

      It will take time and dedication, but US needs to get serious about their economy. Importation for the current reasons is an exploit of foreign economies.
      GE has just decided to reshore their appliance production.
      Google is testing the waters in the domestic market (Nexus 7 and Nexus Q) and it looks good so far. (As you know, the N7 is a huge competitor to the kindle) There are others too…

      I find fault with this article because it’s a short vision. Downsides of China are not listed (IP fraud, timezones, and the fact that prototyping can be a logistical nightmare).

      And, David, I am a “maker”. I design and build tooling for medical and electronics industry using state of the art powdered metals and CAD and CAM. Our products are competitively priced globally. We are a lean, competitive, contract based shop that has been bringing work from Mexico… because it’s just cheaper to automate and make right the first time. I have felt the hit of “China” trying to take my job. I have a problem with people who help.

    3. Merenguele says:

      I agree with David and Lisa, all what is said in the text is about how to help your business (quality and reliance) and the people who work in that factory and who own that factory. As a person involved in laboral health I know that if the owner of the factory doesn’t take care of his workers its production will be of bad quality. If you work with good practice factories it will make the rest to take care of its workers and production.
      (Flame mode on ;-) And to those who talk about “unethical, slaves… in China” remember where was made the keyboard you’re tiping at, the screen you’re looking at, the touch panel, speakers, tablet, mouse, phone… You know what I mean (Peace! :-)

  5. MAKE | Your Comments says:

    […] response to MAKE it in China: How to Spot a Good Factory, David Lang […]

  6. Perry says:

    It’s a moral choice. Simple.

    1. Tara says:

      Finally someone who gets it. God bless you.

  7. Sous Vide Device Co-Inventor Lisa Q. Fetterman Headed to White House Maker Faire | MAKE says:

    […] States and China to start production of Nomiku, and it was from this experience that Lisa learned how to spot a good factory and tips and tricks for a successful trip to manufacturing metropolis Shenzhen. Lisa also gave a […]

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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.

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