Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Where To Manufacture Your Product? China? Think Again

In recent years, when a start-up company wanted to have their goods manufactured the dominant mindset was “Well, let’s go to China”. Cheap labor was always the answer and China has it in abundance.

American manufacturing companies suffered as a result. They just could not compete. Large companies like Wal-Mart could set up their own facilities over in China and get the job done. Smaller companies, retail or wholesale, could find a source that would be willing to manufacture the items in bulk and ship to warehouses in the U.S.

As a rep I started noticing flaws in the past few years with this supposedly winning strategy. Customers may not have been willing to wait for several months or more that usually was the norm for manufacturing in China. Quality may not have always been there either.

An article in the March ’11 issue of Wired confirms that “Made In America” may be making a comeback. Recent currency rates certainly have something to do with it, but there are other key factors that may have been going on for quite a while.

The U.S., it turns out, has more manufacturers up to speed on robotics. Chinese have lots of cheap laborers, but robots eventually cost less than any human workers…and when things get going real good, robots don’t demand pay raises. Remember when Japan and Korea were both the places to go when you wanted to make something cheap? As those countries became more affluent, their laborers wanted more money. And their costs approached that of using U.S. workers. So you see Japanese carmakers building factories in Tennessee, Ohio, other U.S. states…and often, they are non-Union shops turning out good quality cars. These factories also pioneered robotics.

When one manufactures in China it involves huge quantities to be produced…and that large amount of inventory dollars may not be quite the advantage that a smaller cost-per-item means. U.S. companies may be better off with a domestic maker who doesn’t commit their customer to a boatload of finished goods months in the future. What if, by the time they show up, demand is starting to slacken for that particular item? If it is a new, innovative product, what if, by the time it shows up, someone else has produced a similar product domestically and beat you to the punch? They will have had several months of sales under their belt while you’re unpacking for the first time.

That touches on another aspect: waiting for months for goods to ship. Most customers appreciate fast service. If someone committed to a large purchase order of goods in early 2008, what do you think their reaction was when they shipped that holiday season when sales had plummeted during the start of the recession? There are many cases where a customer wants to hold his cards close to his vest and place an order with a quicker ship window. U.S. manufacturers hold an advantage here.

One company I’ve worked with that sells special, collectible guitar picks had this exact problem. Their Chinese connection promised goods by a certain time and kept putting off the delivery date. Funny, when they set up things in the first place, the manufacturer promised them the moon!

Whether this Chinese manufacturer was an outright liar or not, who can tell? I do know from personal experience, however, that many Asians think it rude to tell the truth when the truth might be bad news for the recipient. It isn’t that they are trying to deceive or cover their own hide…it’s just good etiquette on their part. My Indonesian wife and I needed to get some documents over to a translator during our honeymoon in Bali. We asked a cab driver if he knew the address, he replied he did. Then he proceeded to drive around aimlessly for the better part of an hour when the translator told us by phone she was only five minutes from the hotel. The driver finally admitted he was totally lost. We did not pay him as we got out and started walking...

They are trying to be polite, but would you want to tie up your goods with a guy who could turn out to be like that cab driver?

Brendon Koerner’s Wired piece also mentions the phenomenon where many Chinese manufacturers have reached their limit. They simply have too much work on their hands. What do they do from there? They either tell the American customer they can’t deliver when promised, or they outsource to another Chinese manufacturer in Western China where the quality standards may not be as high…and where the team doing the work has not dealt with the original source. The goods wind up being of inferior quality, and it’s a classic case of “penny-wise, pound foolish”. It’s real hard trying to return a boatload of inferior goods. If an American manufacturer screws up, at least it’s easier to get them to make good.

This leads us to the next problem: copyright and intellectual property theft. It’s well known that this issue dominates discussions between diplomatic corps of China and the U.S. If a manufacturer in Coastal China farms out some of his work to someone near Mongolia, how copyright protected are those goods? Obviously, this is a distinct possibility.

When discussing new product lines or product types with a vendor, it is a good idea for sales reps to mention the kinds of expectations their customers may have and what advantages “Made In U.S.A.” can have for faster service, better quality. In the long run, the extra cost, if there is one, may be worth it.