Now that you’ve come up with a concept for an exciting new product, it’s time to start thinking about how to find the right manufacturer for it. Although this seems fairly simple, it’s actually very common for product designers to get hung up on this step. When so many manufacturers seem capable and trustworthy, how do you know which manufacturer is right for you and your product concept?
You need to know which green and red flags to look for in a contract manufacturer. In this guide, you’ll learn how to find the right manufacturer based on factors like your design readiness, the manufacturer’s capabilities, and your expectations for the partnership. When you take the time to research the manufacturer as thoroughly as possible, you can feel more confident in your choice and trust your manufacturer’s strengths.
How to Find the Right Manufacturer: A Step-by-Step Guide
Knowing how to find the right manufacturer is extremely important because your choice impacts almost every aspect of the product development process. Ideally, you should partner with a manufacturer that understands your point of view, values your business objectives, has multiple manufacturing capabilities, and is experienced in creating products for your industry. Choosing the right manufacturer could lead to:
- Higher quality products
- Faster time to market
- Increased return on investment (ROI)
- Lower overhead costs
However, on the flip side, choosing the wrong manufacturer—one that is inexperienced, not interested in collaborating with you, or that misunderstands your industry and customers—could negatively impact all of the above. You could be disappointed in the product quality and experience significant delays in the product development timeline. Higher overhead expenses could also eat into your ROI or even put you in the red, and it can take months or years to recover from this setback.
To avoid this, here’s how to find the right manufacturer for your needs in an easy step-by-step guide:
- Evaluate the readiness of your product.
- Vet the manufacturer’s capabilities.
- Discuss your expectations with the manufacturer.
Once you’ve followed these three steps, you should have a better idea of which manufacturer you want to work with on your next project. Below, you’ll learn more about exactly which questions you should ask during each step of the vetting process.
Step 1: Evaluate the Readiness of Your Product
Some designers mistakenly believe that they have to be ready to manufacture a product today before they contact a contract manufacturer for the first time. In reality, you can start looking at manufacturers no matter where you are in the design process. In fact, looking at your options early will help you find the right manufacturer for your unique situation.
Start by analyzing where you are in the product development process currently:
★ Do you have an idea for a new product but haven’t made a working prototype yet?
It’s perfectly fine to shop around for manufacturers this early in the process—some manufacturers actually prefer it because they can help you refine your design for manufacturing. If you’re still in the early stages of the project, you’ll need a manufacturer that is willing to work with you on the design and prototyping stages, in addition to manufacturing and fabrication. Ask whether they are comfortable doing this and if they have experience helping clients design products. It’s also appropriate to request client testimonies or a design portfolio from the manufacturer.
★ Do you have a few basic prototypes but you want to continue testing your design or need help selecting the right materials?
In this case, you’ll need a manufacturer that specializes in rapid prototyping and quality control testing. There are two qualities you should look for in a good manufacturer. First, they should have the tools, capabilities, and experience needed to create prototypes quickly so you can move on to the manufacturing stage as fast as possible. Second, the manufacturer should use an iterative design methodology, meaning that they will continue to refine your original design as each new prototype is made and get frequent feedback on its functionality from test users. Manufacturers that put a lot of effort into the prototyping stage are generally less likely to face unexpected obstacles or complications during the manufacturing stage later.
★ Are you ready to fabricate or manufacture your product right now?
For this situation, the manufacturer’s other capabilities outside of creating the product aren’t as critical to your process. You’re just looking for a manufacturer that can quickly model and produce your design. However, beyond manufacturing capabilities, you should also look for a manufacturer that respects your timeline and is honest about what they can and can’t accomplish within that timeframe. At this point, you’ll also need to narrow manufacturers down by how many products they can make for you. Some specialize only in short run manufacturing, while others prefer to manufacture products on a larger scale.
The best contract manufacturers are able to help you at any stage of your design process. However, not all manufacturers are versatile or experienced in every area of product development. Some ask that you have all your ducks in a row before you discuss your project with them—this usually means having a fully-realized design that you’re willing to commit to manufacturing immediately. Others ask that you loop them in on the design process from the start so they can help you create the best possible product for you. It’s important to know these expectations up-front so you can contact your manufacturer of choice when the time is right.
Step 2: Vet the Manufacturer’s Capabilities
Now that you have a better sense of how to find the right manufacturer based on where you are in the production process, it’s time to take a closer look at the manufacturer’s capabilities. It’s generally a good idea to select a manufacturer that has a wide range of capabilities, as this gives you more options when you get to the manufacturing stage. However, as long as the manufacturer has the tools and experience needed to manufacture your product properly, this is all that matters.
The capabilities you should look for depend on your design, including the materials you plan on using and the product’s complexity. The number of products you want to manufacture also determines which capabilities you should look for in a manufacturer. Here are a few tools and capabilities you might consider if you’re trying to get a product on the market:
|CAD and CAM modeling software
|Refining a design and programming CNC machines.
|Producing detailed, consistent products quickly.
|Producing a small number of products quickly.
|Producing simple products or components in large or small quantities.
|Producing simple or very complex products or components.
|Producing thin-walled products or components.
|Woodworking or metalworking
|Producing a very small run of products—this is usually best for prototyping, rather than manufacturing, as it’s slower than other methods
Bring up each of these capabilities with potential manufacturers when you speak with them for the first time. There are many more capabilities than this, but this is a good general list to get started. Your manufacturer will help you select the best method based on your design, timeline, and budget when you sign the contract. However, having this conversation with potential manufacturing partners before you hire them is a great way to see what’s available and narrow down your options.
Step 3: Discuss Expectations with the Manufacturer
One commonly overlooked step in finding the right manufacturer is setting up a clear line of communication from the word go. When things go unsaid, the manufacturer may make incorrect assumptions about your product or business objectives. Be clear about your intentions and expectations right away, before you sign a contract.
Opening up this line of communication will also tell you how easy the manufacturer is to work with on a daily basis. How does the manufacturer prefer to communicate—by phone, email, video chat, or a combination of the three? How quickly do they respond to you? Is there just one point of contact, or many? Do they seem open to your questions, or annoyed by them?
Another detail you should consider is how willing the manufacturer is to let you in on the manufacturing process directly. Some manufacturers prefer to keep clients at a distance and won’t inform them of the small day-to-day operations. If this is something you also prefer in a manufacturer, then this is a good fit for you. Other manufacturers allow clients to take part in decisions, even minor ones, and are very open about the manufacturing process. If you envision yourself collaborating with the manufacturer, then this is an important quality.
Regardless of how the manufacturer communicates, at this stage, you also need to ask for a detailed list of expectations in the form of a proposal. This should include a ballpark estimate of costs and timeline as well as any other important points you want to address.
The Best Product Manufacturers Value Teamwork
Many product designers want to take part in the manufacturing process, even if this just means being informed about the project’s progress and the decisions engineers are making. After all, when you design a product, it’s understandable that you also want to have a say in how it’s manufactured for your end-users and customers.
If this is true for you, then you should know how to find the right manufacturer that values collaboration with clients. These manufacturers are often easy to spot. They will ask you detailed questions about your design, what inspired it, and what you hope to accomplish with it. These manufacturers will also be completely transparent about their manufacturing process and will tailor this process specifically to your product concept. The manufacturer should make you feel at ease and encourage you to ask questions directly to their engineers, project managers, and other manufacturing experts.
When it comes time to make your decision on which manufacturer to partner with, weigh their capabilities and expertise, but also consider which manufacturer made you feel the most supported. These are the manufacturers that will care as much about your product concept as you do and will work the hardest to produce a phenomenal end product.
PRL’s engineers have dozens of manufacturing options available to help you solve any challenge facing your product: CNC machining, custom tooling, 3D printing, thermoplastic molding, reverse engineering, and more. No matter what stage your product is currently at, we can create it and optimize it for manufacturing.