Making small batches of products yourself as a maker can quickly reach its limits. To achieve greater scale, suitable manufacturers need to be found and briefed. Whilst you may think this would be a straight forward process, it often isn’t. Manufacturing companies can be difficult to find and then each of them has their own capabilities, levels of experience and ways of working. The initial searching and contacting is often full of frustration as well as trial and error. But taking the time to find the right one is important. You are not just about to place an order with a supplier, you are starting a new working relationship. So be prepared to make it work, particularly in the early stages.
If you have not have worked with a manufacturing company before, it might seem a daunting prospect. You may feel that they hold the business expertise and will lead the conversations. But remember that many manufacturers have not worked with creative people before. Whilst they have expertise, they may not understand your perspective. Be confident and take control of the briefing stage. Ensure that your expectations, and theirs, are clear up front. Any assumptions could be costly to rectify later down the line.
Relationships are easier if you have worked with manufacturers before and if you turn up with the necessary drawings and specifications that a manufacturer can see and understand. It is also a much more fruitful conversation if you know that you have a sales channel ready and will be placing a reasonable size order once the samples or prototypes meet your needs. It may seem sensible to ensure a manufacturer can produce your product before you begin seeking new sales, but that makes you a less viable proposition to do business with, and may effect the level of time and effort that a manufacturer can give you.
There are different ways in which makers approach manufacturers:
1. Let’s develop this together
You may have a new idea that you haven’t produced before and you need specialist manufacturing capabilities and expertise to realise it. In this scenario there will be an exploratory prototyping process that may need many trial and error iterations. If charged for, this will become incredibly expensive and time consuming - without any guarantee of success. You will need significant finances or a partnership approach. You may need a manufacturer that likes a challenge, or one that sees future potential in your design and is willing to develop it with you.
2. Let’s scale this up
You may have a product that you have already been selling in small batches, but now needs larger production scale. Even though you may have spent months or even years originally developing your product to a standard of quality you are happy with, don’t just expect that level of detail to be reproduced first time in a new environment and at larger scale. Working with a new manufacturer will involve a repeat process of testing and iteration to get it right. Be ready to pay for that set-up cost and be clear about how much iteration will be included in any development fees. Be prepared to protect the quality level you need to meet, but also be prepared to hear suggestions and changes that might improve on what you thought was a finished design.
3. Let’s produce this to order
Manufacturers make their money from production orders. The larger the order, the more efficiently they can work and achieve economies of scale. Once your design is set-up correctly and ready for larger-scale production, you are a much quicker and easier customer to deal with. If your set-up involves moulds or templates, be clear about the ownership, storage and usage-terms of these.
- If possible, arrange a visit. Get a tour, see the working environment, meet the people, see the equipment.
- Ask about the process involved in other projects. Examples of the most simple verses the most complicated can help to demonstrate the range of expertise, pricing and potential timescales.
- Ask if they have they worked with creative people and projects before.
- What documents, files or data do they need or expect from you? Do they offer guidance and support on developing the specifications to meet the needs of their team or equipment?
- What happens if you are not happy with quality, finish or other aspects? From seeing your plans, are they expecting problems or complexities with any aspect of what you are requesting?
- What order numbers do they tend to work with. What size order are they expecting from you?
- Check payment terms, contractual terms & conditions and Intellectual Property.
Storage, assembly, packing and delivery
Remember to discuss how your finished products will be stored and packed. Will they be dust free, dry and covered with care? Some manufacturers will expect to ship bulk orders immediately and may charge for storage. Others can offer assembly, packaging and distribution services to assist your sales process.