Questions to Ask a Contract Manufacturer

Knowing what type of questions to ask a contract manufacturer can mean the difference between a successful product run and a disastrous one. That’s because not every manufacturer is right for every project, and it’s important to rule out these manufacturers early. Asking targeted questions is the best way to determine whether a manufacturer is a good fit for you and your product idea so you won’t waste any time getting that idea to market.

To help facilitate these discussions, here are just a few of the most important questions to ask a contract manufacturer before you talk about any production details with them. This guide will also teach you how to spot any potential red flags in their answers. The more information you can get from the contract manufacturer from the beginning, the smoother your production run will go.

The Most Important Questions to Ask a Contract Manufacturer

Experienced contract manufacturers expect their prospective clients to ask plenty of questions before they sign anything or agree to a full production run. It’s an industry standard to get certain information up-front, including some ballpark estimates and details related specifically to your project. So, don’t feel pressured into signing any contracts too early. Take your time to get to know the manufacturer and their project proposal.

To get started, here are 10 important questions to ask a contract manufacturer after contacting them. You don’t have to ask these questions in this order or all in one sitting, but it’s generally a good idea to get to each of these questions at some point before you sign the Service Level Agreement (SLA) or any other contract.

#1: Do You Understand My Industry, Customers, and Product Concept?

Good Answer: The manufacturer not only understands your industry but may even have experience working with other clients in that same industry (and has testimonials or case studies to prove it). If they don’t have direct experience, they will make an effort to learn and will set up meetings with your staff to discuss industry pain points. They’ll also perform market research when needed to ensure your product concept meets customer expectations.
Red Flag: They only have experience in one niche industry that is not yours. They don’t ask you any questions about your customers or business objectives and they don’t want to meet with your team to learn more about industry standards. They push to produce your design as it is and have no time or desire to refine the concept before production begins.

#2: How Much Will the Process Cost?

Good Answer: A specific, ballpark estimate of costs based on the information you provide about your product, timeline, budget, and business objectives. It’s okay if this answer isn’t exact at this stage, but the manufacturer should provide you with something tangible.
Red Flag: The manufacturer won’t discuss cost at all until a contract is signed. Or, the manufacturer changes its estimates frequently and at exponentially higher costs.

#3: Who Owns and Protects My Intellectual Property?

Good Answer: You own the IP for your product and the manufacturer agrees to protect your IP by storing models or other information on secure servers or using cloud encryption.
Red Flag: The manufacturer is eager to gain access to full models of your product design before signing any agreements. Or, they say you’re solely responsible for the protection of your IP and take few precautions themselves.

#4: Can You Produce the Exact Number of Products I Need?

Good Answer: The manufacturer will produce only the number of products required by you, nothing more, nothing less. Additionally, they will help you decide how many products to produce based on factors unique to your project if you’re unsure exactly what your first production run should be.
Red Flag: The manufacturer only makes products in large quantities and has a minimum order requirement that is beyond what you need at this time. Another red flag is a manufacturer that pressures you into producing more products without giving a sound reason.

#5: How Much Are You Involved in the Creative Process?

Good Answer: The manufacturer has a team of creative engineers on staff ready to work closely with you on the design before moving on to the final production stage. Even if you don’t need this service and you’re confident in your design, it’s wise to work with a manufacturer that has these creative capabilities in case the design isn’t as optimized for manufacturing as it could be.
Red Flag: The manufacturer has no interest in the design itself or the creative aspects of product development. They work with a limited staff that mainly consists of equipment operators and plant managers.

#6: How Will You Test My Product?

Good Answer: Quality control testing is done at every stage leading up to production. The manufacturer also has quality control tests in place following each batch of product to check for any potential flaws in the manufacturing system. They are transparent about what those tests look like and when they will be performed.
Red Flag: The manufacturer performs quality control testing only at the end of each production run. Their methods are also unclear and they don’t share any documentation.

#7: What Are Your Capabilities?

Good Answer: The manufacturer provides you with a full list of capabilities, including ones they believe are relevant to your project, like 3D printers or CNC machines. These capabilities are varied and located on-site so you can easily transition to them if you decide to change your production plan at the last minute. Nearly everything is done in-house and they have a full team of experts available to handle any new request you have.
Red Flag: The manufacturer only has one or two capabilities. They outsource a good portion of the work to other manufacturing plants that they have no direct control over. Your project is pigeonholed into a certain process that the manufacturer is unwilling to change after the contract is signed.

#8: What Steps Do You Take to Ensure Workplace Safety?

Good Answer: Workplace safety is a top priority and the manufacturer meets or ideally exceeds all guidelines outlined by OSHA and other regulatory organizations. The manufacturer also follows social distancing guidelines and other practices to limit the spread of infectious diseases at the plant.
Red Flag: The manufacturer isn’t clear about their safety standards. It’s unlikely a manufacturer will tell you directly that they are cutting corners. However, if they aren’t transparent about safety and don’t appear to foster a culture of workplace safety and employee support, then this is a red flag.

#9: Are You Full-Service?

Good Answer: Everything from consultation to shipping is handled by the manufacturer. Or, they inform you which aspects of the process are not included in the contract and may even provide recommendations for other companies they’ve partnered with before that provide those services.
Red Flag: It’s not clear where the service starts or ends. The manufacturer mentions shipping, but they don’t specify whether they’ll ship to a warehouse of your choice or directly to customers.

#10: How Does Your Plant Operate?

Good Answer: The manufacturer is happy to describe how the entire process works. They use a lean manufacturing process that is as efficient as possible. There are clear lines of communication and everyone understands their role.
Red Flag: The plant seems disorganized and messy. The manufacturer isn’t transparent about how things are done on a daily basis or who is in charge of each department. You may receive emails from many different points of contact and get inconsistent answers from different members of the team.

There are many other questions to ask a contract manufacturer, but these are a good start to any conversation. They’re designed to give you a feel for how reliable and organized the manufacturer is as well as gain insight into some of the services they can provide and the value they will bring to your project. However, before you ask all 10 of these questions at your next meeting, it’s important to consider when each question should come up so you can get the most detailed answers.

When Should You Ask These 10 Questions?

The first question you should ask a contract manufacturer is the very first question in the list above: Do you understand my industry, customers, and product concept? The answer to this question will tell you whether a partnership with a contract manufacturer is worth pursuing any further. You should feel confident that the manufacturer is listening to you and has a genuine understanding of what you hope to accomplish.

It’s best to group the other nine questions together by theme (as shown below) and ask just one set of questions at a time. This helps the contract manufacturer organize their thoughts and provide the most comprehensive answers possible to your questions.

Logistics

How Your Product Will Be Made

  • How much will the process cost?
  • Can you produce the exact number of products I need?
  • Are you full-service?

Services

The Value the Manufacturer Brings to the Process

Legality

Who is Responsible for Compliance and Protections

  • Who owns and protects my IP?
  • How will you test my product?

Culture

Whether the Manufacturer is Trustworthy and Easy to Work With

You can ask these questions at any point before signing the contract or SLA. Generally, though, it’s best to ask logistical and service-based questions as early in the process as possible so you don’t waste any time communicating with a manufacturer that can’t provide the services you need. Legal questions are essential before you sign anything. Questions related to company culture are less important by comparison but you should still ask them to better understand the manufacturer’s communication style and organization.

Deciding Which Manufacturer to Trust

The more specific a manufacturer’s answers are, the better this bodes for a future business partnership. Even if a manufacturer doesn’t have the answers to all of these questions on the spot, they should be willing to consider your questions carefully and get back to you with a satisfactory answer after doing some research or discussing it with their internal team. Asking questions like these is an excellent way to establish a rapport with a manufacturer early on and facilitate a more robust discussion about your product concept. Think of these questions as conversation starters rather than a checklist to tick off before signing a contract. They will help you establish a positive working relationship with your manufacturer from the word go, which should lead to a successful small scale production run in the future.

Let Us Answer Your Questions

Pacific Research Laboratories is a trusted contract manufacturer that collaborates with inventors and business owners on innovative product designs. We’re happy to answer any questions our clients have about the process, whether they’re still deciding which manufacturer to partner with or they want advice from the experts on how to manufacture their product efficiently. If you’re ready to produce your idea, visit our contact page or call (206) 408-7603.

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