Why manufacturing in Asia can be disastrous without access to broad expertise

If you want to build your product in Asia, you need to know the manufacturing process inside out. And, if you lack this knowledge, you need a partner who ensures that you are never without the information you require.

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.

The early stages of design present a product development company with exciting problems to solve. The danger we have observed is that when progressing from concept to detailed design, companies often tackle the many decisions they face (features, marketing strategy, aesthetics, user interaction) without realizing that their choices at this early stage may lead to locked-in costs and major headaches later.

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.

And a failure to closely consider manufacturing options until after a product’s design is defined in detail almost always leads to unpleasant aesthetic compromises, unexpected costs, and delays in getting your product on the market. One other benefit of having a production-knowledgeable design team is you will be able to negotiate a better price with your CM during the formal quotation process, as the parts and assembly will be configured in a way that is clear and straightforward to manufacture.

It is essential that your design team is aware of production constraints if your product development process is to remain predictable.

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.

when-to-build-a-prototype
Prototypes are important—and costly. They allow you to verify that your product performs to the required standards, can be operated intuitively by target users, and can cope with the working conditions in which it will be used. They are also physical models which allow a contract manufacturer (CM) to more completely review and quote your order. They generally add recommendations to adjust features for cheaper, faster and more reliable assembly.

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.

A ‘bench model’ (BM) prototype, which is designed to test specific functions or aesthetic/ergonomic features of a product, is a much more effective use of money. A BM must be identified, devised, and created early on in the design process to provide a truly effective investment.

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.

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A bench model of an electronics design (breadboard) is also a very effective way to assess risk and fine-tune features early on. Each ‘bench model’ should be planned, designed, and built to assess an area of risk the design team feels they need to get right before finishing the overall design and ordering a more expensive full production-intent ‘alpha’ prototype.

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.

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Your product will only be as good as what your manufacturer can build, and they will need very specific information if they are to analyze your design effectively and provide accurate costing. It is therefore important to walk into CM negotiations with a Product File that contains all the details they will need to review and quote.

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.

You need to be aware of all the information CMs may need to efficiently process a product proposal: part and material specifications, Bills of Material (BOM), CAD part and assembly drawings, custom tooling expectations, performance specifications, QA test definition and other manufacturing process information. You also need to be capable of analyzing and critiquing changes to part specifications that a CM suggests, as they have a deep understanding of their specific equipment and processes that may be right for your product.

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Through technical dialogue, a design engineering team and CM can find opportunities to improve performance and reduce cost as a product is prepared for change-controlled serial production.

4. Understand the impact of order size.

understanding-order-size
The anticipated ramp-up speed of sales of your product will affect the design of your product, the selection of stock components, the selection of manufacturing processes, the design of tooling, and contract manufacturer selection. Good marketing strategy and execution is essential to align the design with the production processes.

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You also need to appreciate the impact of order size on the level of commitment from your CM to process management, staff training, quality control, and costs reduction.

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.

What’s more, a lack of familiarity with the component pricing thresholds for a CM can easily lead to poor design decisions, as factory quotes may not detail the precise ‘break points’ at which changes in production cost-price occur. A company could order 200,000 units instead of 100,000 to benefit from a lower per unit price, without realizing that the per unit price for 200,000 units was the same as for 120,000! Knowing what to ask for each process is essential.

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.

audit-your-custom-tooling-order
The next landmark in the production process comes after contract manufacturer selection. There are many stages between deciding on a CM and cutting steel, but the step at which mistakes can prove most costly is actually the one you will take first.

Ordering custom tooling offers very little margin for error if you are on a tight budget, and it is important that you thoroughly review the order with your technical team and your CM before they dedicate hundreds of hours to designing and preparing complex custom machines (tools) for production.

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.

asian-manufacturing-order-document

6. Carefully manage the transfer of information.

production-line-chinese-manufacturing-factory"
Managing your relationship with your contract manufacturer extends far beyond remaining organized and responsive. A large amount of information will be transferred between your design engineering team and your CM, and it needs to be set-up properly and closely monitored.

Failure to do so will lead to an array of problems. Inadequate contracts can lead to litigation; inadequate research into your CM’s other clients can lead to the leaking of your innovations to market competitors.

And if contract manufacturers suggest changes to your product, you need to consider the possible implications regarding ownership of intellectual property.

You need select a CM carefully, with thorough research into their publically available history and their other clients. You also need to effectively manage the suggestions that move back and forth between your company and the CM, watching closely for suggestions which might lead to a claim that they have contributed to patentable elements of your product. One way to avoid problems is by carefully managing product software.

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.

Conclusion

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.

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