Experiences & Suggestions: Manufacturing in China
There Jesse Vincent, a Makerfabs customer, is the CTO of Keyboardio, recently shared some experiences on manufacturing in China at hackaday, include PCBA/ Molding/ Assembly, and also some tips on visiting China. Below some experiences & suggestions for all entrepreneurs:
Q1: Is it too difficult to go to Shenzhen and interview factories for electronic projects of a few hundred items? Like electronics, injection-molding plastic parts, general PCB assembly. What would be your approach in this case? Would you try to arrange meetings via mail before traveling? (I guess you'd miss a lot of options by relying on Google searches.)
A1: For almost six years my partner xxx and I have been designing and manufacturing computer keyboards. We had a pretty successful Kickstarter, followed by a wildly interesting manufacturing adventure. This is the first physical product we've made. At this point, we've shipped thousands of units and are hard at work on a couple of new products. One of the things to learn about is your target factory type's Minimum Order Quantity (MOQ). You need to find a factory that's going to be happy to work with you for what may be a relatively small order. Indeed, Google is not a great way to find a factory in a far-off land.
There are a few ways to get started: Sourcing consultants are often a good option. Another option is to start reaching out to factories via Global Sources or Alibaba. I could write for hours on just this topic.
Q2: Who handles your final quality control and order fulfillment? I am also curious to know what issues you've had with importing larger quantities of goods from China -- especially under the current administration.
A2: We have a third-party QC contractor in Shenzhen who does inspections based on a quality standard I wrote with him. The first time through, I actually sat next to him doing the inspection to train him up. We use a company called xxx for fulfillment directly from Hong Kong. We don't currently fulfill from the US. Luckily for us, Keyboards still have 0 duty when coming from China to the US.
Q3: Is the factory doing everything? PCB, assembly, hardware, box, etc?
A3: The factory we've used to date is what's called a CM or Contract Manufacturer. In China, it's sometimes called an "assembly factory" -- they specialize in keyboards and mice. They have partners who do the injection molding, SMT assembly, soldering, box stamping, metal stamping, etc. They do wave soldering and QC in the house. Some of their partners are in the same building. That's pretty typical for small factories in China.
Q4: Are you concerned about IP theft?
A4: Not really. At an engineering level, there's nothing new under the sun in keyboards. Our particular design is weird enough that most locals don't "get it" -- And we do have a design patent in China, which would let us get Alibaba or Taobao to yank down clones.
Q5: Do the people you deal with speak English?
A5: Every factory we work with has at least somebody who speaks -some- English. Often, the level of English spoken isn't great. But it's dramatically better than my Chinese. Google translate, Baidu translate and pictures are super-useful. On occasion, I've used a professional translator.
Q6: If you were doing something radically new, would you steer clear of Chinese manufacturing?
A6: No. The entire supply chain for what we need is in China. Doing this anywhere else would be dramatically harder. And plenty of things that are 'unique' are made in China. It's always possible that someone will clone your product. And realistically, they're not going to clone it by stealing your schematics. They're going to buy one and tear it open and reverse engineer it.
Q7: Is it worth seeking design/ copyright protection with a Chinese attorney (for Alibaba, etc.) or are infringements impossible to enforce in real-world circumstances?
A7: If you're being copied, it means you have something worthwhile. And even if someone clones the product, they can't clone good customer service and community.
Q8: What are the advantages of visiting china to produce something there?
A8: First up, business in China is very, very relationship-driven. Working with people face to face can result in a much better working relationship and much easier communication. Also, once you see how things are actually being made, you can do a better job as a product designer.
Q9: At what scale does China make sense?
A9: There are definitely places that can be cost and quality competitive at quantity 1, 5, or 10. Sxxxx, along with other small-batch PCB shops will do very short run SMT assembly runs. I've had mixed luck with xxxx over the years, but the quality has improved steadily as the cost declined.
Q10: Any advice on how to avoid manufacturers substituting counterfeit components?
A10: I've still never had it happen. Part of it is having a good relationship. If there are parts you're concerned about, either consigning them, having someone do the inspection, or something else. I do know plenty of folks who have a trusted partner do their SMT assembly and then consign the assembled boards to the CM or assembly factory. I -have- had my factory try to convince me to switch to local parts. Which I'm really happy to learn about and test. Often, it's connectors and LEDs they want to sub for insanely expensive western, Taiwanese, or Japanese parts. Sometimes they're good. Sometimes they're not. But as a westerner, I don't even know which Chinese brands are an -option-. Every time a factory proposes one, it's a learning opportunity.
Q11: You mentioned consigning parts. My manufacturer convinced me to let them source all parts rather than sending them stuff from the USA. That added at least 20% to my costs but they said it would be worth it because it would avoid the hassle of getting my parts through Chinese customs. What's your experience/advice?
A11: It depends on the parts. But Chinese customs are... vigilant and brutal. Yes, avoid importing into China if you can. Or let your CM handle it If you're concerned about the custody chain of critical parts, you can appoint a specific supplier to your factory. Ask your US sales rep for a china sales contact. Then you can audit purchase volumes and costs. And often get your US negotiated to price delivered to China.
Q12: I've been told that Shenzhen is surprisingly expensive and difficult to navigate unless you know people there. How do you recommend that a newbie get started (in their quest to become a "Shenzhen regular")?
A12: It doesn't have to be expensive. If you want a western quality of life, you can spend all the money. But really, the way to learn is to do. Go. Take the subway. Explore the city. Street crime is basically a non-issue for westerners. I stay in medium fancy hotels (70-100 USD), because of western quality beds. DiDi, the local ridesharing service is generally quite good. and set up to work for foreigners with built-in translation. Oh. If you've traveled elsewhere in China: Shenzhen is a big, modern city that is more comfortable with foreigners than many other places.
Q13: I use xxxx industrial 3D printing service for a case, quality like injection molding, and xxx PCBA service. And I make the assembly manually in-house in Estonia. I still don't know the advantages of visiting China for manufacturing. Do you think I miss something?
A13: Depending on volume, CNC plastic or vacuum molding -may- be cheaper than 3D printing. But part of the reason I recommend visiting is to learn about how they make stuff in China purely to learn. But if you have a good process, run with it.
Q14: Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences of Manufacturing in China. Would you recommend anything other than the usual DHL/FedEx/... To ship samples from the factory?
A14: Usually, I want my samples fast and in good condition. I'm usually willing to trade money for time. So FedEx/DHL/UPS are what I lean toward. For cheaper, SF Express is usually cheaper. DHL has a lot of presence in China, so the factory likely can do that quickly and a bit cheaper than FedEx/UPS. For samples, I just ask the factory to tell me the express shipping cost to use their agent. Sadly, my DHL account only has discounts on us-originating shipments.
Hope all those experiences and suggestions of Manufacturing in China will do some help for you when choosing a China factory. If you have further questions or need a PCBA quotation, pls contact firstname.lastname@example.org for help.