Sourcing from China: Managing customer expectations and supplier willingness is a balancing act

Customers must have realistic expectations because manufacturing is not perfect anywhere in the world.

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I’ve been asked several times if I have learnt any valuable lessons while working as a sourcing agent in China. I don’t know if what I’m going to say is “valuable” or not, but here are two things I have learned to accept after working in the Chinese manufacturing sector over the years.

  1. There will always be a mismatch between manufacturing theory such as 3D drawings and factory reality.
  2. There will always be a mismatch between customer expectations on quality and the supplier’s willingness to manufacture that product to the exact product specifications.

As China sourcing agents, it is our job to negotiate these expectations. But even as we, at Sourcing Allies, harangue suppliers to ensure that the product specifications are as close to the client’s drawing specifications as possible, as an engineer with years of practical experience in manufacturing, I have some advice for customers looking at sourcing from China (or anywhere else in the world) too.

For one, I’d advise them to be realistic with their expectations and not insist that the product is made 100% according to the specifications in the 3D file. After all, the 3D file is “theory” and production is a different game, not just in China but anywhere else in the world. Minute distortions take place because of expansion and contraction, for instance, or because paint dries at a different rate depending on humidity, which can result in minor differences in the shade.

I’m not saying high-precision manufacturing cannot be done. Of course, it can. But that would be high budget manufacturing for, say, critical components used by the medical industry, and not a door knob or a tap that is going to be used in someone’s home that needs to be manufactured at a reasonable price.

Some customers don’t like hearing this, but that’s how it is.

Theory vs reality

So, how we deal with such customer expectations?

Let’s say you are a new customer to China from the West. You send across a complicated drawing of some mechanical part that you want manufactured. This part has 100 dimensions on it. My response to this request would be honest. I’ll tell them upfront: “Well, there are 100 dimensions, so at least one of them is bound to be wrong after we have made it.”

I would then ask the client to tell me what are the critical dimensions in that part. We call them CTQ or critical to quality. These are the dimensions that absolutely must be within tolerance. Once we know what these dimensions are, we’ll ensure we get this right at least. But it is the client who must tell us which ones are critical to the functioning of that product or component.

Handling Chinese suppliers

While negotiating customer expectations and pushing the supplier to do their best job, we keep in mind the supplier’s tolerance to being asked to repeatedly redo a product to match exact specifications. After all, each manufacturer has a threshold after which he is unlikely to want to work with us to perfect the product because the effort required to put into it far exceeds the rewards.

We push them of course — a lot. But we also have to weigh up the risk and the frustration we are going to create by insisting that a product — say, a tap — is made 100% to the drawing specifications. The risk is that the supplier will just turn around and tell us that they are not prepared to invest the time to ensure the product meets the drawing specifications 100% and are willing to give up the order because it’s simply not worth their while.

This happens to us quite often because of our insistence on quality, and we end up going through suppliers quite a lot. This is, admittedly, all part of the game. But there are times when it is unnecessary and avoidable, and that only happens when the clients do not temper their expectations.

Having said that, we have helped our clients successfully manufacture an array of components such as complicated automotive parts to simpler products like door knobs since 2006. It is not difficult for sourcing projects to meet with success when clients pay attention to what really matters, and trust that we — as experienced sourcing agents — will ensure that they have absolutely no complaints about the quality of their manufactured product.

This article was written by Jeff Crawshaw the Director of Operations at Sourcing Allies based in Ningbo China.




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