Manufacturing in China

Some Chinese made products get a bad wrap when it comes to quality. But as Tim Mclean writes, investing in time, communication and quality control can make China a quality and cost effective source for manufacturing.

What does an Apple iPhone, a Mercedes E200, a Coach handbag and an Airbus A320 all have in common?

They are all made in China.

I find it common for people to tell me that the quality of made in China products is poor. And yet, if I were to ask the same people about their perception of the products listed in my question above, they would most likely tell me that they are all high quality products.

The reality is that quality has nothing to do with country of origin or the ethnicity of the production workers. The quality of products is solely a function of the quality of management overseeing manufacturing and how well the manufacturer understands their customer’s needs.

You Get What You Pay For

Imagine in your own country that you have to source a product. If you were considering cost as the major factor, you might find a supplier who operated an old factory in a remote village with a dirt floor, using 50-year-old machines and a workforce of illiterate peasant farmers. It be the cheapest option, but would you expect to receive quality products? Of course not.

However many buyers seem to think that they can select the cheapest possible supplier and also expect western standards of quality (and corporate governance) when they come to China.

This does not happen in Australia, nor will it happen in China (or India, or Thailand). Simply put – you get what you pay for.

Therefore, if all your manufacturing decisions are going to be based on price, you are likely to end up with a supplier who is unable, and probably unwilling, to meet your quality requirements.

There are occasions where the cheapest supplier might also offer the best run factory with good business systems in place to deliver what you want, but my advice is to properly consider all factors in your supplier selection beyond just price.

Properly assess your potential suppliers and, ideally, visit their factory and review their systems to make sure they can deliver what you want, to the quality you want.

You Get What You Ask For

Choosing the right supplier can still take some time to reach best results. Consider that if you have been producing your product internally or using a local supplier, the end results are based on the supplier’s years of experience working with your businesses in producing your products to the right requirements.

Much of this experience may not be documented, including corporate memory of past quality problems and key tips and tricks on how to get the product right. Consider these factors when establishing your relationship with your new manufacturer in China.

For best results, invest in time to really communicate to your Chinese supplier exactly what you want, why you want it and how to achieve this quality.

This usually means locating key technical staff from your business in the Chinese suppliers’ factory during the start-up phase until quality is assured.

Remember also that you are working with a supplier in a different country, with a different language and culture, so this knowledge transfer is likely to be more difficult, more detailed and take longer than it would when communicating with a supplier in your own country.

Building In Quality Rather than Inspecting It Out

Around 30 years ago, lead by the Japanese, manufacturers in developed economies discovered that it was much better to try and locate and prevent defects on the production line rather than trying to inspect defects out of the completed products.

The next big quality improvement wave in China is therefore working to assure “quality at the source”, so that each worker is accountable for his or her own quality. Once quality is assured, inspection can be slowly eliminated, reducing cost, reducing waste and finally assuring a quality product to the end customer every time.

There is nothing inherently bad about the quality of Chinese-made products. Many premium “high quality” products are already made in China, however buyers need to be careful to select suppliers based on their ability to deliver a quality product, and not soley on price. Time and effort then needs to be put in to ensuring the Chinese supplier understands exactly what the buyer wants and how to make it.

*Tim Mclean is the Managing Director of lean manufacturing consultancy TXM. The firm’s Shanghai office opened in 2009. Tim has more than 20 years in operational and general management roles in a wide range of manufacturing industries. Contact Tim via Email: 

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