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Sourcing from China 101, Part 7: Pre-Production: Describing What You Want

I have stated several times that you need to describe your product in detail.

I know this is obvious, but most buyers don’t do is well… and often regret it later.

There are two ways of formalizing your requirements:

  • A written specification sheet, which contains all your expectations regarding the product and its packaging.
  • Pre-production samples, which are supposed to represent what cannot easily be described in written form: the look & feel, the quality of the finishing, etc.

1. The written specification sheet

Writing a spec sheet before production starts serves two purposes:

a) Communicating your requirements, on your terms.

Even if you purchase standard items (with no customization), you should not rely on the supplier’s catalogue information. Some important information might be missing; the tolerances might be too loose, and so on.

Keep in mind that, for every specification that is not defined, you put your trust in the supplier to make a good decision.

But who will make these decisions? People like purchasing officers and production technicians. In other words, people whose main objective it is to save money. For example, they will buy the cheapest cartons if you don’t specify the type of packaging you want.

Maybe you have no idea of what you really require. The easiest way is often to ask the supplier to show you what they do for other customers. If you want something different, ask the supplier to propose something else.

b) Providing a basis for quality control.

Let’s say you purchase pens. When you receive the shipment, you notice that the pens run out of ink after writing for a day. You complain to the manufacturer, who tells you “of course, if you write for 24 hours nonstop, it is possible to run out of ink”. You reply “no, I mean after writing for 1 hour”. This type of discussion can last for a long time.

Is this a silly example? No. It is representative of the situation of many buyers who have not taken the pain to write their requirements down in a way that forms the basis of a quality control checklist.

To get back to the pens, an example of product specification could be: the pens should “provide for at least 2 km of writing on standard paper sheets” and “the empty space inside the cartridge should be between 0.5cm and 1.5cm” (this would be just part of the specification).

Note 1: do not count on the supplier’s salesperson to take care of these details

Chinese factories often hire a few English-speaking young graduates to communicate with foreign customers. When you send your requirements, these salespeople will take care of the translation. But they are seldom good interpreters, because many of them have zero technical knowledge.

To avoid misunderstandings, here are a few tips:

  • Use as many photos and drawings as possible, rather than text.
  • If you have the resources for it, translate the specifications yourself.
  • Even better, go in the factory and collect feedback/questions from technicians and managers. Don’t go through the sales rep’s filter. Ask a manager to stamp and sign on the document.

(Note: quality assurance agencies can generally help with translation and feedback collection. We do this from time to time, and it improves communication immensely.)

3. Defining potential defects

How to define your quality standard? Or, put another way, what should be considered a major defect?

Unfortunately, pre-production samples are not sufficient since they don’t show any defect. So, the definition of potential defects needs to be in the spec sheet.

It is virtually impossible to list 100% of possible defects. However, it is worth spending a little time defining the 20% of defects that come back 80% of the time.

Once you have a list of defects, you should decide on their severity, based on these three categories:

  • Critical defects might harm a user, or do not respect the importing country’s regulations. Tolerance is generally 0.
  • Major defects are usually not accepted by end consumers/users, so they would not buy the product. The corresponding AQL limit is generally 1.5% or 2.5%.
  • Minor defects are the slight issues that usually don’t prevent the sale of the product. The corresponding AQL limit is generally 4.0%.

Using a template for the spec sheet

If you don’t know where to start, you are welcome to use the free template you will find here.

2. Pre-production samples (or “golden samples”)

Descriptions and photos only go so far. You should request a perfect pre-production sample (often called “golden sample”) before production starts.

Most of the time, the supplier needs to submit samples several times before the buyer accepts them.

When you receive development samples that are not satisfactory, take clear photos of the problems and insert them in the spec sheet. Use arrows to point at the problems, and show “OK” or “NOT OK”.

Once you approve a perfect sample, you need to make sure the factory has also kept at least one for their reference, and then make sure inspectors have at least one.

Identifying and protecting samples

As I wrote before, the touch & feel of the product is often difficult to describe. This is why pre-production samples are necessary.

Make sure to identify these samples in a way that cannot easily be altered. For example: ink stamping on a garment, or a seal attached to a hard good.

You would be surprised to see how fast samples can deteriorate in a factory. They go from hand to hand, they collect dust, they are sometimes cut (to verify internal workmanship), and so on. They should be kept in a bag, at the very least, and ideally quarantined away from production areas.

The best is to renew perfect samples every few months. Over time colors start to fade, buttons start to be less responsive, and so on. Don’t let an entire year go by.

Over-promise and under-deliver

Will mass production look like the “golden samples”? Of course not, but no Chinese supplier will tell you about this before you issue an order.

In China, fierce competition means that every supplier feels the need to over-promise, in order to acquire new customers. This is why you need to define your quality standard precisely and have it confirmed before production starts.

The very best way to communicate your quality standard before production starts

The best is to push the factory to do a pilot run on 50-100 pieces.

That’s how buyers with a very high quality standard are forced to operate – they can give feedback to the factory on the pilot run’s quality, and confirm a manufacturer’s ability (or inability) to reach their requirements.

However, very few factories in China accept to do a pilot run. If they really want your business and if they can buy the components in small quantity, this is something you can try to negotiate.

Another important topic is the way to follow the advancement of your orders (through development, production, and transportation). This is what we’ll cover in the next part of this series.

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