Quality Inspection Blog starts its post by discussing how there is much good advice on “Linkedin and elsewhere, aimed at importers sourcing products from China, Vietnam, or other low-cost Asian countries” but much of this advice is NOT applicable to companies buying under 20 million USD a year — and, sometimes, not under 1 billion USD a year.” It then lists out the following nine things large importers can get from their suppliers but small companies usually cannot. Note that my summary below of the Quality Inspection Blog is in regular font and my own comments/opinions are in italics.
1. Negotiate with large contract manufacturers in many countries. Apple has been looking at producing iPhones in Vietnam and/or in India. Apple knows “large contract manufacturers (e.g. Foxconn) are willing to set up a plant wherever Apple wants.” But if you are a company looking to buy 5,000 mobile phones in Vietnam or India, you very well may not be able to find anyone to make them for you in such a small quantity. This is so true. Our law firm has been working a lot lately with clients looking to source electronic products from Vietnam and Thailand and the Philipines and unless they are willing to buy in fairly large quantities, they are not having much luck in finding suppliers. But much depends on the product and the country. For instance, many of our toy and houseware product clients were able to relatively easily shift their contract manufacturing manufacturing to Vietnam and Thailand.
2. Reserve production capacity for the mid- or even the long-term. Quality Inspection Blog mentions having heard how VF Corporation was able to reserve the capacity of several buildings in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Large companies with mature planning and distribution systems have a good idea about their needs five years into the future and they can often find contract manufacturing companies that will reserve them the capacity to realize those plans. So true, but for a small company this is just virtually never going to happen.
3. Negotiate directly with large sub-suppliers. Li & Fung can reserve greige fabric and dyeing capacity before it knows for certain the colors its massive list of clients will choose. Li & Fung can do this because it has massive buying power and because it is able to talk directly with large sub-suppliers. In many cases, contract manufacturers will refuse even to reveal from where it gets its materials and components to its small company buyers.
4. Open-book visibility about the manufacturing facility. Large buyers are often able to get deep-dive costing information from their contract manufacturers. Things like the “what their supplier pays for rent, per employee, for each line on the bill of materials, and so on. For large buyers such as General Motors or Airbus, this is a given. Any part supplier not willing to share this level of detail is discarded.” Small companies generally should not even bother asking for such information.
5. Force the factory to use your own ERP system. Many tier-one auto suppliers have to use an SAP implementation that perfectly integrates with the SAP implementation used by their buyers. “So, if 50% of a plant’s activity is for GM, 40% is for Chrysler, and the rest is for smaller customers, the plant will need to use 3 different ERP instances.” Small companies often work with suppliers that don’t use ERP at all.
6. ‘Open account’ payment terms. This is much more common for large companies. I am always impressed by small companies that are able to pay 50% or less upfront. For more on manufacturing payment terms, check out China Manufacturing Payment Terms.
7. Product warranty & liability from the supplier. Large companies can get their manufacturer to sign legally-enforceable contracts that make it liable for product warranty and liability obligations and that require the manufacturer to carry liability insurance. “This is pretty much unheard of for an importer buying ‘only’ 500,000 USD a year from a given factory.” I disagree with this statement as we are nearly always able to get overseas factories to sign for good warranties. However, this whole area of warranties and liability insurance is a minefield. How valuable is a warranty if you are working with a manufacturer that has only $100,000 a year in profits? See China Manufacturing Warranties. How valuable is it to get your manufacturer to buy a crappy insurance policy written in Vietnamese? Also, if you require your manufacturer to spend 30 cents per widget for insurance, it likely will just flip around and charge you 30 cents more per widget to cover this cost. Might you not not be better off just buying your own insurance in your own country for 30 cents per widget? See The China Price and Product Liability Insurance: Never the Twain Shall Meet.
8. Shaping the supply chain PHYSICALLY. “You set up a mammoth plant and you don’t want your high-value component suppliers to be more than 1 hour away from you, for just-in-time inventory replenishment? They can be requested to set up a new manufacturing facility next to you.” Small company? No way.
9. Have their own teams on site all the time. “When you develop new products, can you afford to have your own engineers at the main factory, and going around component factories as well? Probably not with the same intensity as, say Apple (who dispatch not only engineers but also supply chain security staff and so on and so forth). In the end, that makes a very large difference in quality & time-to-market performance.” True, but there are a number of very good quality inspection companies, including the company — Sofeast —behind the Quality Inspection Blog. Not quite the same thing as having ten of your own people live in the factory, but a thousand times better than no monitoring at all.
I am going to add a tenth item: price stability. Large companies are often able to get their suppliers to commit to long-term pricing, whereas this is just not possible for most small companies.
So what can small companies that use overseas contract manufacturers do to protect themselves? Go with the basics, as described (at least in part) in our post yesterday.
What are you seeing out there?