Top 5 Mistakes to Avoid When Manufacturing in China

14 March 2016 | 47 Comments

In 2012, early in the design process for Viticulture, I started looking into how we would manufacture the game. I explored bespoke options, US manufacturing, and Chinese manufacturing.

The latter was the most daunting to me, as it seemed an insurmountable task to coordinate with several different factories halfway across the world in a language I don’t speak to make various components that needed to come together in the same box.

Fortunately I found Panda Game Manufacturing, a Canadian-based company that not only specializes in coordinating and vetting factories in China, but they also have their own facility in Shenzhen (primarily for printed components and assembly). I’ve worked with them ever since.

Panda is one of a growing number of companies in China that provide these all-in-one services; check out James Matthe’s list for the others. Even with the best of these companies, there’s still the potential for a lot of mistakes, confusion, and miscommunication. Billy from Liminal Games (which currently has a team-deception game on Kickstarter called Emergence) has lots of experience working with companies in China, so I asked him to write a guest post on the subject.

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At some point during the creation of your product, you’re going to have to make a tough decision. You are most likely to have this thought: “I should get my product made here in the U.S? It would be so much easier… but China is so cheap!”. If you chose to go with the latter, I am here to give you a set of guidelines to make your life easier and make sure you have a fewer grey hairs.

Tip 1: Beware of Yes-Men

People often underestimate how similar Chinese business culture is to Western culture. You get the typical manufacturers who are your overenthusiastic Yes-Men. I call them Yes-Men because no matter what you say, they say they can do it, no problem. Want an adamantium box cover? – Yes we can do that. Want a transparent wooden cube? Of course! Want a battery that last longer then 48 hours? – Boy, you won’t believe what we have for you!

Tip 2: Beware of Cool Chads

Then you have your, “Cool Chad” who are apathetic to your project and treat you like they are doing you the favor. Instead of them responding to your emails, they play hard to get and you are left working on their schedule and force to appease their demands. Stay away from them too.

Tip 3: Don’t Only Communicate via Email

You can learn a lot from a video call. I’ve rejected manufacturers simply because they couldn’t hop on a video call. You can assess the person’s character, patience, and communication skills. Once you are on a call simply engage in some polite small talk, and then get down to business. No need to try and impress them. Save the real talking for details. Within a few minutes you will be able to feel them out. Trust your gut.

Here I am, hoping on another video call with Mark from Wingo, discussing components.
Here I am, hoping on another video call with Mark from Wingo, discussing components.

What about the language barrier? Let me tell you this, having a language barrier is the best thing that can happen to you on a video call. You get to see how the manufacturer works out misunderstandings.

For example, does he just accept everything you say and respond “no problem, we can do that,” or does he take the time and ask clarifying questions? Those who brush off misunderstandings will have a harder time fixing errors later in the process and will often prevent you from getting the exact product you want. If you can work out a language barrier, you can work out any future manufacturing misunderstandings.

Tip 4: Always Be Specific

The one biggest regret I hear on most people’s reviews after their crowd source project on manufacturers is “I excepted ____ but I got ____ I guess i should have specified.”

Never assume anything, even down to the smallest detail. Chinese manufacturers get a bad reputation for using cheap materials. However, if you don’t request it specifically they will go with the option that makes most financial sense to them.

Going over the exact thickness of cardboard and diameter punch.
Going over the exact thickness of cardboard and diameter punch.

If you want ivory core cardstock 350gsm instead of grey core, request it and have your manufacturer send you sample. If you want a 2.0mm thickness box, request that. If you want a specific Pantone-coated red, request that Pantone code. You get the jist.

And sometimes you don’t know what you want. In those cases, ask the manufacturer for the available options and choose from them.

The greater the precision with which you communicate, the more the final product will be what you want. For example, in Emergence, we use of 10mm acrylic cubes as resources. I wanted to make sure it was the right clear color and acrylic. (It was an important aspect based on the theme of the game.)

It was difficult to describe that I needed the cubes to be translucent, so during a video call I dug up my copy of Pandemic to show the plastic cubes to my project manager. I then asked him to show me on camera what he thought I was showing him to make sure we were on the same page (we went through wooden cubes, plastic ones, and finally got the size that I wanted).

[Note from Jamey: I recommend that you ask the manufacturer to summarize any decisions you discussed via e-mail immediately after the video call. That way you have the chance to clear up any confusion while it’s fresh on your mind, and you have a paper trail to refer to later.]
Mark kindly showing me how they do Spot UV
Mark kindly showing me how they do Spot UV

Tip 5: Minimize Changes

Most manufacturers operate like this: The account manager will get your project requirements and propose it to their boss. That person will approve it before sending it to someone else to create the exact quote. So manufacturers prefer that you consolidate changes to the quote instead of sending tiny tweaks every week.

I learned the hard way when first dealing with an overseas manufacturer. I wanted to make full zip-up hoodies, and I kept having better ideas every week. Eventually the manufacturer responded slower and slower to my emails and at the end downright dropped me. It wasn’t worth their time to deal with someone who didn’t have a clear vision.

~

I am still learning. I am by no means business guru, but I found out with some patience, precision, and willingness to focus on details, working with a manufacturers in China has saved me a ton of money.

***

Thanks to Billy for writing this post! If you have any questions for him or want to share your experiences working with manufacturers in China, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

47 Comments on “Top 5 Mistakes to Avoid When Manufacturing in China

  1. Hey Jamey,

    Thanks for another great post. The timing of this was perfect as I am considering finding alternatives to Panda to try and keep my manufacturing costs down. The list from James will be a great help.

    Thanks for sharing Billy. As David said, lots to think about and consider.

    1. Thanks for reading Raymond!

      Indeed, I think PandaGM is a great company but may not always have the financial competitive edge. Give the others a try! A conversation can’t hurt

  2. 100% agree on all five.
    Regarding ‘Never assume’, the quote request document is a key step. I usually update it before production, once all changes have been made, and request a quote confirmation at that stage and I let the manufacturer know beforehand that the first quite is an initial one and that he’ll get a final spec and quote step at the end of the process. This avoids any surprises/issues.
    Check out this blog entry I wrote on tendering and making a quote request document:
    https://www.flatlinedgames.com/10_tendering_for_production

    1. Exactly! Exactly! Just looked at your post and I will definitely be using it as a guide. Great content, As for gaurantees have you always requested them to be written in the contact, or is it more a act a good faith?

  3. Produce in the USA if you are a US citizen and the cost is reasonably similar (cards only? do it here, you’ll survive the $0.12 cents per game price difference). The net financial impact on our country of sending all production over-seas is very high. #NotAshamedtobePatriotic.
    That said, I am producing in China myself, but it’s not China’s doing, it is the USA’s. We’ve damaged US production capabilities so bad, that US production companies told me to print in China instead cause they can’t make it work for me. Kinda depressing for me, but it is what it is.

    1. Hey John! Love your resources. I agree cards makes a whole lot of sense, I think once you get into printing cardboard and physical components its when the cost gets extremely high!

      1. Of course! Yea, I think in the US its a bit easier in terms of communication. Usually your timezones are too different, and you have an idea of the US culture, you can really bond over current event or sports. I think they thing that separates China is that the timezones are opposite and each question and email is important because each piece of communication is so important! But great tips for all.

        I think in the US, you don’t get as many Yesmen. Thats from our experience!

  4. As someone about to have a video call with Panda Game Manufacturer this afternoon to talk specifics about their cardboard punchout options, I appreciate this timely article!

    Setting aside Tips #4 & 5 (which I think apply to all manufacturing decisions no matter who you’re dealing with), do you feel that you approach even the people at Panda (or other professional printers) with these in mind? I find myself thinking, “they’ll do the hard work [communication & specifications] for me!”, but that might be a first-timer’s problematic thinking.

    1. I think that might not be the best train of thought. I think every company wants to provide great customer service but at some point, its not worth it for them to take on a scatterbrained client. Because you really need to treat relationships as two ways even though you are paying them money you want it to be easy for you and easy for them!

  5. ehanuise: Thank you for sharing that link!

    Leslie: I love working with Panda, but I still think all of these tips apply to them. You mentioned 4 and 5 (precision and minimizing changes). I definitely try to be as precise as possible, and I’m always learning about components they can make that I didn’t know were an option. I probably ask Panda for too many quotes, but my project manager there is good at asking me, “Should we quote this now, or wait for a few more revisions first?”

  6. Nice article. I have been sourcing and self publishing all the Pocket Sports games since 2011. I have 3 small go to factories that handle specific components. One dedicated dice factory, another for paper products (cards & boxes) and another for bits and pieces (playmats, clips, cubes).
    For me, this is how I started so I’m comfortable with who I deal with and the end product.
    I’ve tried Panda and WinGo but I have been able to better their prices and deal direct with the factory myself. I imagine this route wouldn’t be for everyone but being the project manager myself allows me to be involved in all mentioned points above :)

    1. Hey Hamish! Thanks for the read.

      I think ultimately that where we want to get to as well. But slow steps. How has your experience been in terms of communication and reliability?

  7. This is Fantastic! Great summary. The only thing I would add to the list is to insist on something if you want it done. I have only had one game manufactured so far. I began with thinking that I was going to use Panda. They are excellent project managers and the quality they produce is outstanding. In the end I worked with Bang Wee and have had nothing but compliments on the quality of components in my game. The project manager, Bing, was incredibly responsive to my requests. Even when something didn’t work out the way I had envisioned, they fixed it. Thanks for this great list Jamey and Billy!

    1. Hmmm, I will have to give them a call! I hadn’t heard of Bang Wee until you posted it! What was the component you insisted or that made you switch over? I would love to hear your experience.

      1. Hi Billy,

        It actually wasn’t a component that made me switch over. During my KS campaign I received Warband, manufactured by Bang Wee. I thought that the components for the game were pretty good. I asked a friend who also used them what he thought. He liked the work that they did. So, I got a quote from them. It was many thousands of dollars cheaper, without compromising quality. I gave them a shot.

        I am happy to give you more info if you want. Just let me know.

  8. Great Article, as someone who occasionally is on the other side of things some of these points, 3,4,5, Apply as well. I’m a one man shop, but have a few people that I’ve made custom keychains, engravings, the limitations of the machine, and have even taught a few how to use lasercutting, and it all still applies.

    I had one person that was all hyped up about a project, so we sat down and I explained the process of how to mass engrave wood mason jar lids. and then we proceeded to do a sample run. The process was really illuminating for them, They are now rethinking logo design, and coming up with something that will work on the web, burnt on wood, and works with how the engraving looks on their finish. Sample prototypes and sharing visually just explain so much that doesn’t translate in email.

    1. Exactly. I think once the manufacturer and the creator start to understand each other and the process of what goes into what it makes the entire process smoother. I think educating the creator is important and sets boundaries for their expansive vision. Awesome work Sean.

      1. Their front man, Jerry Chan, originally contacted me during our first Kickstarter for “Parenthood.” We did not end up working with them, mainly because we already had a relationship with AdMagic, and that ball was rolling. However, I’ve been in contact back and forth with them quite a bit in preparation for our current KS (Sans Allies), while I am also doing some “comparison shopping.” Here is their website:

        https://yhboardgames.com/

  9. As someone not in the designing publishing side of the hobby (just media), I still appreciate articles like this that help shine a light on the process of what all goes into that side of the hobby. Much appreciated.

    1. It’s so true. Especially since you have no idea you need to know all of this when you first get started. You think its all smooth sailing and that your account manager will be like your parents who just “get you”

  10. Sean: Thanks for sharing that example of how important that sample run was for you. I agree that actually trying to make something can yield some important data–that’s why I always like to see if everything fits into our game boxes before we finalize them! :)

  11. Thanks Billy and Jamey — great article!

    One lesson that I have learned that has served me well is that it helps to get a bunch of quotes for different manufacturers and then when you have it narrowed down to a few who you feel would work well in terms of communication, cost, and being able to make or supply the components needed for your game, to then reach out to publishers who have used each of them to get a first-hand report of how it went for them.

    Most publishers will be more than happy to share their experience with you because they understand how hard it is to know what you’ll get from a manufacturer in another country. And even if there were some hiccups, they might be hiccups that could be avoided as long as you’re aware of them early in the process.

    1. That is a fantastic way to handle it. I know sometimes getting in contact with publishers can be difficult and finding out who has worked with who is tough. Do you know of a good resource where people share their experiences?

      1. I’m not aware of any kind of list for it as some publishers choose not to disclose it. However, here are some ways you can research it:

        – You could ask the manufacturer for a referral.
        – See if the manufacturer’s website lists games they have printed.
        – Check the back of boxes at your friendly local game store as sometimes the manufacturer is listed on them.
        – When you back crowd-funding campaigns, creators will often talk about their manufacturer.
        – Network with other publishers — you can share experiences, lessons learned, and recommend industry partners.

        I bet others on this thread can suggest ideas too!

        1. Great information. Yea I think at this point its not centralized so a lot of time is spent research etc. I wish there was a centralized experience yelp time of things for manufacturers.

  12. All five are very good points, especially about having video contact. Short of meeting in person you cannot believe the difference this makes. Also if you can get to any large convention try to set up a face to face with the prospective company(s). The point of your “gut feeling” cannot be overstated…it is very true!

  13. Dear Jamey,

    Panda Games is known to be rather slow to quote. In addition they don’t provide costs per item but total costs for cardboard and wooden components.

    1. How do you optimize the costs without knowing the exact costs of each item?
    2. How do you create different tiers (base, premium, deluxe) and stretch goals whithout knowing the exact costs of individual items and when the quoting takes so long?

    Thank you for your awesome content!
    Juma

    1. Hi Juma,

      I’ve worked with Panda on a couple games so I can offer some suggestions.

      1. You’re right that they won’t tell you the cost per item in the initial quote, but if you ask them about specific items, they’ll tell you. I usually get the initial quote and then ask for their advice on how to save costs and they’ll suggest changing component types or sizes. For example, I may ask, “What would the cost difference be if I changed these wooden discs to chipboard?” You do have to be specific with them.

      2. Since quotes take a long time with Panda, I have learned that I have to start the quote process at least 4 months before launching a campaign for it. The tricky thing about Deluxe is that if you have two different types of full games, you’ll have a 1500 unit print run minimum for each one with Panda, so you better either have a ton of backers at each tier or have a plan for how you’ll sell the rest. To do multiple tiers, especially as a newer creator, I recommend making one single basic game and then adding on the Deluxe parts as separate items in zip baggies outside of the box since Panda can manufacture/source those single items at lower quantities.

    1. I haven’t seen that much flexibility from Panda in that regard in my experience, but if Ben says they can do it, I’m sure they can. You’re right that everything still need to be calculated thoroughly — make sure you tell them exactly what the differences are and get a quote for it because “cost-effective” is a pretty nebulous term.

      I should point out that once you fund and you give them a deposit, you’ll start working with a project manager and response times will dramatically improve. Plus, you’ll be very happy with the component quality you get from Panda and how much care they take in ensuring your print files are perfect before printing begins. We did a 3000 unit print run of a game with them a little over a year ago and we’ve only had 3 reported manufacturing defects. Impressive.

  14. Definitely do your homework and talk to as many people as you can who have worked with your potential manufacturer.

    We had an overseas printer badly botch a book printing job last year. They had a good reputation with book publishers (I spoke to several who were very happy) but, unbeknownst to us, this fifty-year-old company had recently changed hands and I think new management was looking for cost cutting measures (substituting cheap materials and rushing the workmanship).

    When relations broke down with the first printer, our print broker wanted us to move to his second printer (who he said was just as qualified). I checked out the website of the second printer and wasn’t as impressed as I had been with the first. But I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and began contacting their “partners” (US publishers who had worked with them).

    I only received a response from one of these partners. They said they had never heard of the printer. I asked them to follow up and report back to me. When they contacted the printer to ask why they and their logo were being used on the printer’s website, the printer couldn’t name a project they had collaborated on. At this point we decided it was time to move on to a different broker and printer.

    Don’t ask me the names of these parties. I don’t want to tarnish reputations if our bad situation was just a fluke. Every company goes wrong some of the time. We might have just gotten unlucky.

  15. Thank you for sharing these tips. Personally, I have not yet had a mishap with a Chinese manufacturer or other nationality but everything is in the “exchange” as you indicated. We cannot trust a person who is miles away from us much less entrusting him with the construction of a particular object; a video call is always reassuring and I insist a lot on precision and small details of the product that will not only facilitate the work of the manufacturer but also satisfy us in return.

  16. HELLO, DO WE REQUIRE TO EVEN TRAVEL TO CHINA FOR PRODUCTION CONFIRMATION? WHAT ABOUT PAYMENT? WHAT IS THE BEST OPTION? IS ONLINE PAYMENT WITHOUT MEETING THE MANUFACTURER OKAY AND SAFE?

  17. Thanks for all the great comments. I’m scouting for quotes at this point and Panda sounds like they do a great job of guiding you through the process, though I will definitely check Bang Wee.
    Does anybody know how the new trade tariffs are impacting outsourcing to Chinese manufacturers?

  18. The link to James Matthe’s list of alternative service providers appears to be broken. Does anyone still have this information? Or suggestions to other reliable vendors? Thanks!

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