What follows are the areas where the companies we work with most frequently require help in Asia. As you will see, contract manufacturing risks begin in the earliest stages of design, and extend to the management of contract manufacturer (CM) relationships even after your product is on the market.
1. Consider manufacturing from the earliest stages of design.
No company can rely on their contract manufacturer to make fundamental problems disappear when they are locked in by the design team decisions. The challenge is to think about the manufacturing feasibility, options, and risks while the early product configuration is still taking place.
Your design and engineering team needs to be up to this challenge, as you typically have to wait until you have already designed your parts before a factory will begin to relay their own special knowledge and advice.
You need expertise in what is possible with most materials, different forms of molding, and specific requirements for custom tooling. You need to be able to design manufacture-ready custom sheet-metal assemblies and composite fabrications, and you also need to be familiar with the uses and limitations of the mechanical and electronic stock-order parts that are readily available to integrate into any product’s design.
In short, if you adequately consider the manufacturing process without reliance on contract manufacturer reviews, you will reduce the cost of development, eliminate unnecessary iteration and restarts, and speed your time to market.
2. Know when (and when not) to build prototypes.
The difficulty we have seen companies encounter is knowing when to build prototypes and what sort of prototype to build. A fully-functional production-intent lookalike prototype can take 8 weeks to build due to the time it takes to construct quick tools, finish and fine-tune moving parts. It is also hugely expensive. The company that builds your prototype will not be your production CM, and you will be paying them to train their employees and manufacture custom tools for low volume manufacturing! In some cases where the product solution requires validation this is a necessary step before moving to production tools.
An early bench model could be a 3D CAD simulation followed by a hand built model to confirm temperature rise or airflow. A bench model could also test the size, strength, ergonomics or light visibility of a product.
Companies often need help in alpha prototyping as it requires very particular knowledge in why and what to build and how to evaluate it. When testing aesthetics, they need information on the ways that surface-finishing techniques differ when working with prototype materials. When performing low-volume rapid prototyping, there are many choices of materials, suppliers and finish expectations.
A great deal of money can be spent if you do not understand the benefits and drawbacks of numerous fast fabrication technologies: 3D printing (SLA, SLS, FDM, and other), RTV silicone molding, fast-cut aluminum tooling, sheet metal fabrication, rubber parts, composites, etc.. Teams also need information on the tests that can be performed on different prototypes, or they may end up with a prototype which is not suited to the tests for which it was built. Not all approval tests can be done on prototypes. A strong knowledge of safety and regulatory compliance is essential to the design team.
You must also be familiar with those situations in which prototype parts suppliers can become production suppliers, as this will allow you to transition with changing anything. It eliminates the cost of having to create and debug prototype parts with your prototype part suppliers, and then do it all over again with your production part suppliers. Not all types of custom parts have this luxury.
Prototyping mistakes can cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Deep knowledge of prototyping can guide you to the right set of prototypes, without incurring unnecessary wasteful costs.
3. Know the product specification details that manufacturers require.
A prototype they can take apart is also an invaluable asset when a CM is reviewing and quoting the design as they can perform better assembly assessment.
At Design 1st, we have worked with companies who were simply unaware of the many types of information that CMs require. Failure to provide this information is problematic, as it results in unreliable and uncomparable quotes between CMs. This leads to miscommunication, quote adjustments, design adjustments, and lost time, all of which contribute to delays and in some cases choosing the wrong CM.
If a factory isn’t completely clear on what you want them to build, they are clearly more likely to make mistakes, and when they do it will not be their fault—it will be yours.
4. Understand the impact of order size.
If your production batch sizes are not large or frequent enough for your chosen CM, the risk of errors, cost increases, and product quality problems rises dramatically without experienced oversight of the design decisions and the supplier process set-up.
Experience managing contract manufacturers can help you choose the CM best suited to your anticipated order volume and help you navigate production planning negotiations more successfully. Our company offers mentor-advisor services to assist you during planning and execution.
5. Thoroughly audit your custom tooling order.
Even minor changes to parts after tooling has been ordered will incur unwelcome costs—not reviewing the order with your CM can cost you tens of thousands of dollars.
6. Carefully manage the transfer of information.
And if contract manufacturers suggest changes to your product, you need to consider the possible implications regarding ownership of intellectual property.
Maintain control over the writing of software and send it to factories under a strict contract for non-disclosure, so that you retain complete control of the software structure and updates. Another way is to have the microchips formatted in another factory and consigned to the CM. In this way, you never relinquish ownership of intellectual property unless doing so would improve your chance of success.
You are now acquainted with many of the pitfalls involved in Asian manufacturing, but you should also have a better idea of how to avoid making decisions you will regret. You simply need the appropriate expertise, and, if you don’t have it, you need a trustworthy partner who can provide it, ensuring that the choices you make will always be thoroughly informed.