November 23, 2006

Chinese Manufacturing

Except for specialty boutique items, most children's clothing sold in the US is manufactured in either China, Vietnam or some other Asian country. If you are a children's clothing designer, you may be faced with competing product from these countries. Competition has become increasingly fierce as labor and raw material prices are rock bottom in China. You may be tempted to send your manufacturing to China in order to compete.

I am not against manufacturing in China. In fact, depending on your product, it may be the best option. The Chinese have become more skilled over time and can produce superior product. They can incorporate embroidery very cheaply, or produce complex pieces that many US factories balk at. If you are considering a move to China, you may want to read an article from Business Week (Nov 27, 2006), titled, Secrets, Lies, And Sweatshops and a book titled China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World, by Ted Fishman.

Both this article and book detail the complexities of manufacturing in China. Clothing manufacturers will take advantage of you if you do not have enough money to protect your interests. They will bend over backwards to land the large volume accounts, like Wal-Mart, but not necessarily a small company. In other words, a small company can manufacture in China, but it must be done with a great deal of care and oversight. A small company can find factories willing to work with them, the difficulty is in finding an honest one. The same can be said about some of the remaining US and Mexico factories.

The greatest difficulty about manufacturing in China is quality control and worker efficiency. A Chinese factory would rather hire 5 employees for one job instead of buying a piece of equipment to perform that one operation. The owners are thinking only of short term solutions to get them through their current contract. Eventually those 5 workers will have to be replaced with a more efficient piece of equipment in order to compete effectively. I can see a time when Chinese workers will start to demand better working conditions and pay - it is only a matter of time.

Quality control is a huge issue. As I stated above, Chinese factories can produce superior product. Time constraints, the value of the contract, and the motivation of the factory all play a part. As the Business Week article suggests, inspecting the factories is the only current solution. And yet, parts of your product may be manufactured somewhere else and you will only see a part of it. If you do not have a person inspecting the product during manufacturing or prior to shipping, you may be stuck with sub-standard merchandise. Most, if not all, Chinese manufacturers require payment in full before shipping product. At least in this respect, the Chinese are different from their American counterparts.

I am not an expert in manufacturing in China. I have only experienced a small portion - creating technical specs to send to Chinese factories. And yet, this is an important trend for children's clothing designers to know about. I have seen some very good product come out of China. It can be done. Just be very careful and keep a close eye on your factory, sourcing agents, and product quality.

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