I’ve heard many things from many people about what to expect on a manufacturing business trip to China, and when it was my turn to embark on my first trip to several factories, I had my preconceptions of what to expect. While some descriptions were accurate, others were far from reality, but these weren’t things I could discern until seeing them for myself. Here’s my take on how to have a successful trip to factories and contract manufacturers (CMs) in China.
Visiting the factory
When you first arrive at the factory, you will be greeted by one or two people who will immediately take you into a large conference room. From there, everyone will go around the room to exchange business cards and shake hands. Our experience has been that depending on the size of your group, they will usually try to match numbers with numbers, so if you have 4 people in your group, they will also try to have 4 people. Though this is not necessarily true if you are the lone representative from your company.
Tip: It is proper etiquette in China to present your business card with both hands as you state your first name. For each person, you take their card, study it, and shake their hand before moving to the next person. After you sit down at the table, arrange their business cards according to where they are sitting at the table.
After initial greetings, the CM will do a presentation of their company and capabilities, and sometimes a demonstration of a few successful products they have worked on in the past. Following the presentation, you will have an opportunity to ask more questions to get a better idea if your product would be a good fit. Be prepared to have a presentation of your own ready to go. They may expect you to describe your company and how both parties can work together.
Questions to ask:
- In what type of technologies do you specialize?
- With what types of technologies have you worked most?
- Have you worked with Wifi/Bluetooth/Cellular (if applicable to your product)?
- Do you normally work with startups, big corporations, or a mix?
- How many SMT assembly lines do you have?
- Do you have offices and/or factories outside of China? If not, do you plan to?
- What are your typical margins?
- What design services do you provide? Just DFM or product design as well?
- What’s the average lead time to setup a dedicated line?
Tip: Keep in mind that a CM is different from a factory. A CM is usually an umbrella corporation for several different companies, the factory is the physical manufacturing location, of which there could be many. Additional subsidiaries may be covered under the CM, like sub-vendors or design services.
The next step of the visit is the factory tour. Depending on the size of the facility, the tour could be as long as two hours, but usually they are about 30 minutes to an hour. During the tour they will show you a few SMT lines, engineering offices, test equipment, and less exciting things like warehouses. Don’t be surprised if you see people sleeping at their desks. The typical work day in China is 10 hours, 6 days a week, so it is a common occurrence during lunchtime or work breaks. If a factory is loaded up with work, sometimes they run two 10 hour shifts per day, or three 8 hour shifts.
Tips during the factory tour:
- Notice the quality of assembly fixturing on the SMT lines. Since fixtures on SMT lines must be custom built to each product, the quality of fixturing is a good indication of the factory’s competency when it comes to assembly lines. Speed is the name of the game here, the more units they can churn out, the better. Good fixturing allows them to assemble quickly and accurately, with quality checks embedded along the way.
- Ask about warehouse storage conditions, especially for electronic components. They should be temperature and humidity controlled.
- Another indicator of quality is the cleanliness of the factory. Do they require you to put on a clean suit, complete with a cap and booties? Are the workers wearing them as well? Are the floors clear of debris and crates of scrap? If so, you might be looking at a top notch facility.
- Don’t be surprised if the compound buildings look run-down, you will often see paint and tiles peeling, signs of water damage, and dirt roads connecting buildings. These are not usually good indicators of the quality of a factory.
- Ask permission before doing anything. Often times the factory will not let you take pictures or touch any parts without permission.
Following the factory tour, they will usually take you out to lunch. Hopefully you have some experience with chopsticks! Watch out for the paper on pork buns.
To wrap up, every factory is different, so your experience may be a variation of this. In general, when selecting a CM, you should treat them as if they will be an extension of your company; they are a partner and should be treated as such, it should be a completely symbiotic relationship. Visiting factories should be an essential step when choosing your CM, because this partnership could mean the difference between success and failure for your product.