If you are purchasing products that are quite standard for the manufacturer and if the processes involved are simple, you can do like most importers: approve pre-production samples, write down the specifications, issue a purchase order, and send some money.
However, if you are launching a new product, there are a number of steps that you can take to ensure production starts up as smoothly as possible. This article will cover some of these steps. Many of these steps are also part of the PPAP (Production Parts Approval Process) that is the standard in the European and North-American auto industry.
The sayings “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” and “the devil is in the detail” are particularly applicable here. However you look at it, you must have a plan in place for your pre-production start-up.
(Note that a lot of this work falls on the supplier’s engineering team, so they obviously need to value your business and agree to doing all this. You can also hire an engineering firm to help the factory, but its staff needs to set aside time to follow it up in any case.)
1. Inspection checklist (very common)
A sample is not sufficient to establish a standard. You need to write down what will constitute a product “conform to expectations”. I wrote more about it in this article.
2. Quality control plan (common in some industries)
An inspection checklist is useful for you to check the finished products. But a quality control plan will guide the manufacturer in what to control (both product and process characteristics) during production.
A control plan includes dimensional variations, measurement methods, machines or equipment to be used for a specific task, control methods and reactive plans, and more if necessary.
3. Sample approval (very common)
Before production starts, there has to be an approval process where samples are signed off. It allows you, the buyer, to systematically cross-check the criteria in your inspection checklist.
A sample approval process can be used regardless of what industry you are in; the primary objective is to provide the manufacturer with a clear and understandable set of requirements. It helps to ensure the processes used to manufacture your products are consistent and repeatable between production runs.
4. Detailed drawings / technical data file (common in some industries)
Every industry, from apparel to consumer electronics and perfume, requires products to be made to a specific standard or specification. It is paramount that the technical data file is complete and finalized prior to production start.
For example, for an electro-mechanical product, the technical data file should include:
Information concerning the products design assessment and construction, including information showing how relevant essential requirements have been met (which may include references to technical standards)
General arrangement drawing
Description of the apparatus, usually accompanied by block diagram
Copy of instructions (user, maintenance, installation)
Dimensions that are critical to quality or critical to functionality should be marked up as ‘critical to quality’ (CTQ).
These critical dimensions will need to be monitored and tracked throughout the manufacturing process (if possible through Statistical Process Control).
5. Change control process (not very common)
Once the technical data file has been released for production, ideally any changes required must be managed through a change control process.
This way, any change implementation can be managed and scheduled. It also produces a revision history to be monitored so that the wrong parts are not produced due to the previous specification being used.
6. Process flow chart (uncommon)
Understanding how your product is manufactured will allow you to generate a process flow chart. Then you can engage the manufacturer in reducing movement throughout a factory. There are two benefits here:
It eliminates wasted time and effort in moving products between workstations or other holding places.
it reduces quality issues since product are often damaged, mixed up, or even lost during transportation from one workshop to the next.
7. Tooling requirements, if any (not very common)
If your product requires tooling such as injection molds or pressure die casting, there are key activities that should be completed prior to production which will ensure you are in the best possible state when production starts.
7.1 PFMEA or Process Failure Mode and Effects Analysis – should be conducted during product quality planning and before beginning production. It is a disciplined review and analysis of a new/revised process and is conducted to anticipate, resolve, or monitor potential process problems for a new/revised product program. This is a very useful approach that is very seldom applied in China.
7.2 Mold flow analysis is a software simulation that helps predict the effects of polymer being injected into your tool design before steel is even cut. This saves a huge amount of time and cost (less rework due to poor quality).
7.3 Tool or die sign off process needs to be completed correctly, otherwise there could be potential tool life issues as well as quality issues introduced due to poor tooling manufacture. This process often follows these steps:
Tool design approval;
Mold flow analysis approval (as described above);
Trial 1 is where the tool is assembled for the first time and tested on the injection mold machine;
Trial 2 is the second tool trial and generally this is where product samples would be submitted for review/approval;
Final trial is the pre-production and final tool approval. At this stage the tool should have been inspected by qualified engineers and the injection process monitored and checked then signed off as fit for production.
8. Machining work instructions (uncommon)
Machine processes or line settings need to written clearly with a full understanding of each step and what each of these steps’ setting should be. Here are a couple of examples:
Injection mold machine screw rotation speed and plunger time;
The reflow over profile on a printed circuit board flow line.
During the production trial run (mentioned below), each of these processes would be monitored, measured, and adjusted for optimum output from a quality point of view (as detailed in the quality control plan, mentioned above).
9. Production trial run (uncommon)
The production trial run should be carried out with production tooling, with all the relevant equipment that will be used in mass production, and ideally with the same components as mass production.
The output from the trial run will allow you to analyse data such as machine settings and process capability studies, to review the process instructions, and to get products for testing and validation.
There can be a number of production trial runs where there have been changes to improve the output results. These trial runs can have small incremental step improvements, but at some stage production has to start and this is triggered by signing off the final trial run.
10. Maintenance plan (very uncommon)
Having a maintenance plan in place helps repair machines that breakdown… But having a preventive maintenance plan in place is even better! It allows the manufacturer to have scheduled maintenance carried out on machines and equipment that will help to improve a machine’s life and will help avoid those unplanned maintenance activities that generally prevent production from continuing.
There will always be the odd breakdown or machine down time due to unforeseen circumstances, but if these can be kept to an absolute minimum the factory will run at an optimum output.
11. Improvement framework (very uncommon)
The idea behind the PDCA cycle is to have a system for improvements. It is a logical process:
PLAN every change before acting;
DO the steps set out in the plan through clear instructions;
CHECK and validate the results;
ACT upon the information found after the planned change.
This is a rinse-and-repeat process, not a one-time activity. It works well when it is an ongoing process to sustain continuous improvement. But Chinese managers usually don’t work on this.
12. Appropriate contracts (relatively common)
If you want the manufacturer to take your requirements seriously, and if you want to have some leverage after you have wired a 30% deposit, a good practice is to work with a lawyer. Here are 3 informative links from the China Law Blog about the types of contracts you may need:
A non-disclosure, non-use, non-circumvention agreement
A product development agreement
An OEM agreement
In order to achieve a smooth production start-up, you should have a solid plan in place beforehand. What needs to be done, when it needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and what to do when things go wrong, should all be very clear.
These activities are not realistic for small buyers. But applying at least 5 of these elements is a MUST for a hardware startup that raised money from Kickstarter or venture capitalists and bets its future on one product, for example.