Nov 14, 2011

Last year, I was putting together a project that involved a belt for one of my customers. While instant messaging with my Chinese counterpart, he said he thought the straps should be red, instead of the black and brown that the customer had ordered. “In China, the color red has to do with happiness and good fortune,” he said.

I appreciated learning more about the Chinese culture, and explained to my friend that a red men’s belt wouldn’t be a big seller here in the States. (Personally, I cringed at the idea of being seen in public wearing a red belt.) We purchase articles of clothing for how they look, while the Chinese have meaning behind the colors. They integrate red colors in their marriage ceremonies for this reason.

Our discussion once again highlighted the differences between eastern and western cultures. And it confirmed my belief that it’s best that my customers engineer and prototype their products in the U.S.

Some might read this and say, “What are you doing? Aren’t you in the business of helping your customers buy from China?”

Yes; and my job is also to do what’s in the best interest of my customers, which means helping them create the best product possible and, setting the stage for the manufacturing process so that it flows as smoothly as possible.

Over the years, I’ve seen at least 5 reasons why it’s beneficial to engineer in the U.S.:

1. Americans are the best at engineering and designing products that will sell in the U.S.

As my discussion about the red belt shows, what a Chinese person perceives as attractive isn’t the same as what an American does. They like different foods (whenever I visited China, they always told me how they hate cheese) and approach business differently than we do (they take more time to get to know who they’re dealing than we do, and will often sometimes treat their guests to a what can be a long, drawn out banquet complete with prearranged seating for lunch).

This doesn’t mean that they don’t appreciate nice products, but that what sells in China and how it is sold there isn’t going to be the same as it is here. Americans are the best at engineering and designing products that will appeal to Americans, just as a Chinese are the best at designing product to sell in China. If a Chinese person came to me and asked me to engineer a product in a way that will make it appealing to the Chinese market, I’d be at a loss.

2. Ditto for packaging.

I always advise my customers to contact a local graphic arts company to design their packaging. Chinese companies aren’t going to be familiar with the packaging methods and design that attract attention (or turn people off) here.

3. Allowing a Chinese factory to set the production standards is risky.

Years ago, a customer asked us to have a factory in China create prints for his automotive product. When the drawings came in, information was missing that would have been there had a U.S. engineer generated them, such as the tolerances that each dimension would be held to. Not good. This would have given the factory way too much leeway in the manufacturing process, increasing the odds that the product might not work as planned (it had to mate with other parts that the manufacturer in China wasn’t making). The customer should be the one that sets the standards for production, not the supplier.

4. Engineering your product in the U.S. will save a ton of time.

There can be a lot of fine tuning and adjustments that need to be made in the engineering and prototype process. While drawings can be emailed immediately, sending samples back and forth takes weeks. In addition, when you’re starting from scratch with an undeveloped project, a U.S. engineer is more likely to grasp what you’re striving for.

5. You will save even more time once a Chinese manufacturer starts production.

Now that you’ve done all the engineering and tested the prototype of your product, it’s simply a matter of submitting the finished drawings to the factory in China for production. The factory won’t have to waste time going back and forth with product development issues, and can get to work on the manufacturing process.

I should make a clarification here that I am only referring to a new product that is being developed from scratch. For a Chinese factory to make a slight modification to an existing product is normally a simple process for them.

We have a group of experienced, U.S. based engineering and prototyping companies who we can refer you to. Please email me if you want to get started with one of them.

PS: Apple Computer, one of the most successful (American) companies in the world, follows this same model. They design their products in the U.S. and manufacture them in China.