China Manufacturing: The Real Story

international manufacturing lawyers

Helen Wang just wrote an interesting post on innovation in Chinese manufacturing, or the lack thereof. The post is entitled, Myth of China’s Manufacturing Prowess, and its central thesis is that Americans misunderstand what drives Chinese manufacturing. I agree with her and at the end of this post, I will explain how this misconception negatively impacts foreign companies that use China for their OEM manufacturing.

Ms. Wang’s post starts out discussing a common misconception regarding Chinese manufacturing versus United States manufacturing based on sheer volume:

In a meeting in Silicon Valley with high-tech and business professionals, I asked how many of them thought China was the world’s largest manufacturer. Almost 90 percent raised their hands.

The latest data shows, however, that the United States is still the largest manufacturer in the world. In 2008, U.S. manufacturing output was $1.8 trillion, compared to $1.4 trillion in China (UN data. China’s data do not separate manufacturing from mining and utilities. So the actual Chinese manufacturing number should be much smaller).

Contrary to the conventional view, manufacturing in the U. S. has been growing in the past two decades despite the decline in manufacturing jobs.

She then focuses on what I see as the more important misconception, that China is leading in manufacturing innovation:

It is true that China’s manufacturing is growing faster than that of the United States. However, there is a key misconception about China’s manufacturing prowess.

In the United States and Europe, the manufacturing industry was created due to technology innovation. In China, the manufacturing industry is being created in response to global demand. Chinese manufacturers take orders from Western companies that have designed products for their home markets. They have no involvement with product development, innovation, market research, and even packaging.

She also notes how China’s manufacturing methods have caused “many Chinese manufacturers to focus on short term gain. They compete on volume and price, and only enjoy wafer-thin profit margins.” I completely agree and I am constantly seeing how this impacts foreign businesses that outsource their manufacturing to China.

The first impact is on the product itself. Foreign businesses going to China for manufacturing for the first time often have no idea what is really involved. Many of these foreign businesses believe they can take a concept or a design over to China and return in a few days with a completed product, ready to be manufactured en masse. Things rarely work that way.  If you do not have a completed product before you go to your factory in China, it will likely take months for your Chinese factory to get the product done right.

The second impact is on how Chinese factories handle product quality control problems. The easiest way to explain this is by the following composite conversation between an American company and me:

Company: I got this large shipment of widgets and the quality is horrible. No way can I even sell them and I am out USD$500,000. I’ve been trying to work it out with the Chinese company and we are not getting anywhere.
Me: You asked for them to return your $500,000 and they are saying that’s not possible

Me: And they have not offered you anything beyond a 5% discount on your future orders?

Right. How’d you know?
Me: Because this is typical and because there is a really good chance your Chinese manufacturer company doesn’t have anything close to $500,000 to refund to you. What do you think they made from your order after paying for the materials? $5,000? $10,000?

I don’t know, but it has to be more than that.
Me: How much more? Seriously. Estimating as high as you can while still being realistic, how much do you think they made on your order?

Maybe $20,000.
Me: So let’s assume they cleared $20,000 on your order after paying for materials and let’s assume they are the most efficient Chinese factory out there and that after paying wages and utilities and taxes they got to keep $10,000 of that and let’s multiply that $10,000 out over all their other orders. Doing this, do you think they make even $300,000 a year in profits?

No. Probably not.
Me: So there probably is no way they can come up with $500,000 to pay you.

So what should I do?
Me: You have a number of options, none great. You can retain a Chinese lawyer and sue, but the problem with that is that you will almost certainly need to come out of pocket for the court costs, which are based in part on the amount you are seeking and actually can be quite high as compared to the U.S.m and you will probably need to pay the lawyer something as well. And you are going to have to ask yourself whether it will be worth spending real money to try to collect from a Chinese company that you yourself now realize probably will not be able to just pay you even if you win the lawsuit.

Or you can just try to get whatever you can from this company, maybe $20,000, $50,000 if you are really really lucky, and then just move on. But I have to tell you, most of the time it is difficult to get even $10,000, but you should at least try.
My best advice I have for you is to take precautions to prevent this from happening the next time. If there is going to be a next time, give me a call and we can work together to get you a China manufacturing contract that will reduce the likelihood of this sort of thing happening again and better position you for recovery if it does.

Okay, thanks.

For how to protect your company when having your products made in China check out The Seven Keys to Product Quality When Manufacturing Overseas

9 responses to “China Manufacturing: The Real Story”

  1. It’s amazing how many importers look for ways to avoid risks ONLY AFTER they have started purchasing in Asia and been burned.
    They send good money without guarantee, but they don’t pause to think “what if they ship some junk to me?”
    Maybe they just assume it’s as safe as buying domestically. Or maybe they think there is nothing they can do to improve their odds. Or maybe it’s not an education problem, and they want to do it the cheap way? I don’t know…

  2. Also be careful how you find suppliers–being an Alibaba Gold Supplier or having an Alibaba Trustpass doesn’t mean much. I wrote a blog post about how fraudulent suppliers can obtain an Alibaba Trustpass or Gold Supplier status by impersonation.

  3. I think this post hits the spot in more ways than one (as you would expect from Dan’s & CLB’s most excellent blawg posts).
    As far as I have been able to see, China manufacturing is all about low-cost and lower-cost still. Innovation, of which there is frightfully little as it is, is often limited to just the duplication in China of some process that was obsolete in US/Europe years ago, but because it is “new” in China, it is therefore classified as innovation. I work in a state-of-the-art innovative company/industry, and over the years, of our R&D budget of millions, the total amount actually spent on proper “R” and/or “D” is somewhere well behind the decimal point. The best we do is repeat what has been done before (whereby we cut costs by throwing out some QA anything to do with long-term planning).
    Also, the “numbers” on manufacturing as mentioned in the post are flawed beyond adding up apples and turnips. Just looking at dollars obfuscates various underlying issues (besides turnips) such as whether the total number of widgets produced increases or not, or how these widgets are priced, relatively, or whether they can be compared at all, e.g. in terms of quality. In other words comparing China and US manufacturing $ for $ is wrong, since what’s made for those $$ (or RMB) can’t be readily compared in many cases. Turnips again.
    Apart from that, it is not clear whether any increase in $$ can be attributed to more production (of widgets) or simply an increase in price (e.g. our labor costs went up last year by about 15% while the amount of turnips stayed roughly the same — that is NOT a growth of 15% as our $$ figures might suggest).

  4. Actually, the best advice I have for you is to take precautions to prevent this from happening the next time.
    Company: Well thanks.
    Me: Seriously, if there is going to be a next time, give me a call before you contract and we can work together both to minimize the likelihood of this sort of thing happening again and to better position you for recovery if it does.
    Company: Okay, thanks.
    I can’t stop laughing!

  5. It really depends on your criterion for “largest”. If you define “large” as number of people employed, then I don’t see how the US is going to be large by those standards.
    I don’t think that anyone thinks that China is leading in “manufacturing innovation”. The thing about China is that it has a combination of a huge labor force and good infrastructure so that it can grow a massive economy without being particularly innovative.
    The fact that Chinese manufacturing is “non-innovative” helps China to create a middle class, because China can take people with basic education, and then give them jobs that pay a lot more than they did before. The fact that US manufacturing is extremely technologically innovative creates a lot of challenges for the US economy. In order to do just about anything you have to have a masters degree, and what’s worse, it creates an economy that is somewhat more inflexible. If you rely on labor intensive methods to create refrigerators and then suddenly people want toasters, it’s pretty easy to retool.
    If you have technological intensive methods then it’s much, much harder for people to switch jobs.

  6. What major U.S. company was the first to use Chinese manufacturing and what year was it in?

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