One of the things that I am taking much more seriously in my new ecommerce company is the need to differentiate your products in some way. The old private label model of buying the same products as everyone else from China and slapping your bar code on them is a dying business model. You need to make your products different in some way (even if it's a very small way).
For one of the new products that I am developing, my initial thought was to have the product first manufactured in China. But then it occurred to me that I have a friend who works at a metal factory in Canada that could make the product for me. So rather than have the product first made in China, I decided to have it made in Canada first and get a real understanding of the entire manufacturing process without the language and cultural barriers involved with manufacturing in China.
With this article I hope to give you an overview of the manufacturing process along with some of the differences and similarities between Chinese and Western factories I experienced.
What I Am Manufacturing and the Different Types of Products You Can Make
The part I am trying to have customized and manufactured is two pieces of aluminum. The two pieces are connected with a bolt and nut. I am customizing the size, shape, and the functionality of these items. These parts, without my customization, cost about $25 on Amazon. I'm not going to share with you my exact product at this point of course, but for visualization purposes you can pretend it looks something like below.
In my experience, the factories and suppliers most relevant to private labelers more or less focus on one of the product types below:
- Products made of metal with machines (i.e. a picture frame made of metal and my part)
- Products made of plastic with machines (i.e. a garbage can made of plastic)
- Products made of textiles/fabrics and made with people/sewing machines (i.e. a piece of fabric for luggage)
- Products made of other materials and constructed largely manually (i.e. a desk made of wood)
The chances are good that if you're looking to import a product from China, your supplier will specialize in making one of those goods.
The Process – How to Get Something Made
For the part I am having made the process involved the steps below. This is the same process I've experienced when dealing with Chinese factories and for all different types of products.
- Talk to a sales rep and explain what you want made
- The product idea is then transformed into something that can be understood by a machine – a mold, a CAD file, etc.
- The product is produced using an expensive machine
- A quality control person (hopefully) inspects items for defects
- The items are arranged to be packaged/assembled/etc.
Below I'll explain each of these steps of the process in further detail and also explain some of the differences I encountered between Canadian and Chinese factories.
Dealing With a Sales Rep – Where Problems Start to Occur in Chinese Manufacturing
The first step in getting my product made was speaking to a ‘project manager' (basically a sales rep) at my friend's Canadian factory.
I gave the sales rep a rough idea of what I was trying to make and he gave me a quote of $500 for 50 pieces which was for the part and assembly but no packaging. I realized then the first big difference between dealing with a local factory rather than one in China – there's no discussion of shipment terms like FOB or EXW. It was just assumed I was going to drive down to their factory near Vancouver and pick up the items (which would be EXW shipment terms). Life is so much harder for factories dealing with international clients who have to arrange to have items shipped to the ports, arrange export documentation, etc.
The sales rep offered to create the CAD drawing for me of the part I was trying to create. A CAD (Computer-aided design) drawing is basically a 2D drawing of an object that can be read by a machine and then cut. If you're having anything manufactured, you will likely run into CAD. As my goal of this project was to learn as much as possible about manufacturing a product, I actually had a friend who's a CAD expert design the part for me with me hovering over his shoulder the entire time asking a bunch of annoying questions. I was surprised how easy it was to actually create a CAD drawing that could then be read by a machine–I felt empowered to create more challenging products in the future! Once the CAD drawing was complete, I simply emailed it over to my sales rep.
I realized that this first step, speaking to a sales rep, is really where problems start to occur when dealing with Chinese factories. First, when speaking with a Canadian sales rep there is zero language barrier. Second, the sales rep is normally highly trained/educated and understands the manufacturing process inside and out. Explaining something like an off-roading vehicle part is a lot easier to do with a Western person. This is in sharp contrast with the sales reps you encounter when dealing with a factory that you meet on Alibaba. There is a huge language barrier and on top of this, this person is almost certainly a recent graduate from university. They also lack a lot of ‘real world' experience, they don't really ‘get' manufacturing, and they definitely don't ‘get' strange Western products like off-roading products.
Actually Manufacturing the Product? Besides the Toilets, Canadian and Chinese Are Roughly the Same
After I spoke with the sales rep through email/phone, I visited the factory.
When it came to visiting the factory and actually seeing how stuff was made there were few differences between my friend's Canadian factory and the numerous factories I've visited in China. If there was one main difference with the Canadian factory it's that it was definitely much more organized and clean, specifically the toilets. If you've ever had the chance to visit a washroom at a factory in China you know that visiting an ISIS controlled city in Syria is less terrifying than seeing a Chinese factory toilet. The Canadian factory was spotless.
At the end of the day though, no matter whether you're in China, Canada, or Cambodia, the basic work processes are all the same. Factories mostly use machines to produce products, not people. A person's job is simply to get the instructions to the machine. However, just like any time I've visited a factory in China, my guide for the Canadian factory was very eager to tell me about all the different types of expensive machinery they had. I'm sure the Canadian machinery was more advanced than in China but for me I didn't really care. As the saying goes, “Nobody wants to buy a 1/4″ drill bit. They just want a 1/4″ hole”.
There was one significant difference I noticed as I toured the Canadian factory though – quality control.
Quality Control – Where the Final Problems Occur
Poor quality products is the stigma of made in China products and unfortunately touring the Canadian factory definitely re-enforced this stereotype.
All throughout my tour of the Canadian factory, quality control was paramount. And it was more than simple lip service. I witnessed one worker forming metal who would visually inspect each piece of metal and toss any pieces with even minor defects into a ‘reject pile'. I walked by a large piece of stainless steel with what looked like an exploding snowman engraved on it. When I asked why, I was told because the stainless steel had a small scratch on it and they wanted to make sure it wasn't accidentally used in production. Finally, I was told by my friend about the factory's ambitious warranty claim targets – more impressive than the targets was the fact they had warranties they actually honor (have you ever tried to do a warranty claim with a Chinese factory? Didn't think so).
On top of all of the above though, each time after production the sales rep will inspect EACH item. I have never heard of this happening in China. Often the sales reps are in an entirely different location than the factory and not to mention they are normally young and have no technical expertise. It occurred to me how critical having a sales rep involved in quality control is in order to avoid quality problems. The sales rep is normally the only person with direct communication with the client so he is the best judge to ensure the products will meet the client's expectations.
What I Learned About Manufacturing in China from Canada
The entire process of building a product in Canada taught me quite a few things about manufacturing in general but also about manufacturing in China specifically.
- Assume your sales rep in China is completely incompetent
- Drawing prototypes in CAD is easy and you can have the drawing done locally while having the product manufactured in China
- Inspect EVERYTHING in China and assume there will be defects
- Do not leave packaging and marketing to your factory
It sounds bad, but I never realized how incompetent the sales reps I deal with for most Chinese factories are until I dealt with Canadian reps. A Chinese sales rep's primary expertise is speaking English. Unless you're fortunate to be dealing with a factory owner/manager or someone with a lot of experience, the chances are good that your Chinese sales rep will have little production knowledge.
Second, on future products, even if I have them manufactured in China first, I will have the CAD drawings done locally. It's easier to explain to someone who's an English speaker and avoid any communication breakdowns.
Third, I learned that there is indeed a huge gap of quality expectations between Chinese and Western factories. Chinese factories allow defects to slip through that Western factories would not. If you can't tolerate some of these defects getting through, the only way to deal with it is to check every product (see our tutorial on how to do a Third Party Chinese Inspection).
Finally, the Canadian factory wanted nothing to do with packaging – even putting something in a poly bag was a huge ask. Chinese factories will normally oblige to any packaging requests but visiting the Canadian factory reaffirmed that all factories are experts in manufacturing, not packaging. Packaging requests need to be explained clearly to factories and nothing should be left to assumption (and never ever let them package items at their discretion!).
Visiting a factory in Canada was incredibly beneficial – it allowed me a more transparent view and better understanding of how products are manufactured. Best of all, I was able to tour the factory in an hour unlike a visit to a Chinese factory which normally takes an entire day and is complete with dinner, drinking, and karaoke!
Have you ever had a product manufactured from scratch? If so, did you have it manufactured in China or somewhere else? If you haven't ever had a product manufactured but have any questions, feel free to comment below.