Manufacturing can be the ultimate decider of your company’s fate. Fail to make a good quality product which consumers love, and that’s it for your business. Fail to meet your delivery times, then all your customers, distributors, and retailers will lose faith in you. In the relentlessly competitive and fast-paced world of products, where the most innovative products of the day are quickly ‘out-innovated’ by even newer products, you can’t afford to trip up along the way.
There are a few really simple steps you can take to prevent manufacturing problems. And while they may seem obvious after you’ve read them, you’d be surprised at how many companies have landed up in major crises by failing to take these steps.
1. Always monitor your suppliers
Don’t ever think for a moment that you can leave your manufacturing entirely in the hands of your suppliers. If they say that they’re professionals, they know what they’re doing and ‘don’t worry, leave everything to us’, you should worry and keep a closer eye on them. They may try to substitute cheaper materials for what you’ve asked for, subcontract your work without your knowledge, use different production processes from what was agreed on, or may simply manufacture your product incorrectly. And even the best suppliers can get it wrong as it takes some time for them to work out what exactly it is you want.
Regularly visiting your suppliers keeps production on track and leads to early detection and prevention of problems. If you can’t visit the supplier yourself, you can always delegate this to a local third party supplier management services or inspection company to do this for you.
2. Don’t rely on the supplier’s certifications
These days all suppliers have certificates from ISO, UL or some other certification body. Just like university degrees do not indicate a person’s capabilities, these certificates are not the true measure of what suppliers can actually do. You need to visit the suppliers and check their facilities, equipment, personnel, management, financial stability, quality systems, previous work, and whether they can accommodate your production requirements.
3. The sample and first article product is never the indication of the final product
When you sign on with suppliers, they will give you a sample or first article (the first product off the production line) so that you can check whether the product is what you expected and whether you’re happy with their work. You should be very careful with this as firstly, it is what is produced further down the production line, not the initial product or sample, which will give you a good sense of your product and its quality. Secondly, sometimes suppliers will use completely different processes from the ones in the production run to deliver a perfect sample to you. Their objective is to get you to give the go-ahead so that they can carry on with production and get their payments.
To see how bad things really got for a company who just went by the sample quality, you should read Gareth Evan’s article. He co-founded Rockwell Razors, a really successful Kickstarter-backed startup razor company who had hordes of angry customers at their doorstep when they could not meet their delivery timelines because of their suppliers.
4. Use your own quality control, not the supplier’s
Suppliers will often have their own quality control (QC) departments. You should never depend on them and use your own QC team instead. You know your product best, you know what your customers demand and you are the best judge of your own quality. Moreover, the supplier’s interest is to get their products approved and shipped off as quickly as possible; they would be loathe to find their own mistakes and reject their own products. Remember, the supplier’s QC department works for the supplier’s interest, not yours.
5. Be aware of local holidays
When you work with a foreign supplier, you have to take into account local holidays as they can have a significant impact on production schedules. In China this is the Chinese New Year ‘Golden Week’ holiday which is around the end of January or February; the entire nation shuts down completely for about 2-3 weeks as people go back to their homes to spend the festival with their families. In Mexico, this is around December to January (though even from 31st October, the ‘Day of the Dead’, things start to slow down as the country enters into a festive mood).Again, this is one common trap which many companies fall into.