Photo: Sallyann Corn

Pacer Design Metal, Seattle, WA. Photo: Sallyann Corn

It seemed like such a simple idea: design and launch a line of products made in the USA that emphasized quality and fun. We had read all of the articles about hungry American manufacturers and shaken our fists at the big box retailers pushing manufacturing off shore in search of quick profits. Our business model was fairly straightforward: design products that we would feel good about buying ourselves. Choosing to manufacture in the US meant we could actually visit the factories, save shipping time and help boost our local economy. We were going to make a difference and help start the American manufacturing revolution!

We miss being this naïve.

A BRIEF AND ENTIRELY UNSCIENTIFIC LOOK AT THE AMERICAN MANUFACTURING LANDSCAPE

First off, the American manufacturers that exist today are survivors. These businesses have seen their peers ravaged and gutted and have been hardened. Most have found a unique niche in their field—a niche that keeps their lights on, their machines running and their staff employed. Many have been burned by entrepreneurs with the next “big idea,” and are understandably wary of new ventures outside of their freshly-carved niche. Determined, they cling onto advantages they may have—things that overseas manufacturers can’t yet do faster/cheaper/better. Proficiencies such as short-run, high-quality, semi-custom, high-margin, or fully-automated. Their communication can be a little jaded, a little gruff and a little nonexistent. To be fair, they have watched as clients utilize their expertise, working through a manufacturing process, only to later be dropped for a Shenzhen factory that offers higher volume production and lower pricing.

So, what’s it like working with American manufacturers? In one word—frustrating. Many simply never reply to inquiries. And sometimes it’s worse when they do. The process can be maddening and even illogical. We have often found ourselves ranting, “This is no way to run a business!” Some manufacturers ship inexplicably late, some send too many parts, some send the wrong parts and some go incommunicado for months at a time.

MAKING IT HAPPEN

Only now, after two years, have we gained a bit of insight into the nuances of working with American manufacturers. We now know that these survivors are indeed still hungry, while also understandably hesitant. The good news is we’re much smarter now than when we started, and it is getting easier. We are by no means experts, but in the hopes of helping others down this path, we’d love to share a few lessons we’ve learned along the way.

Do your research. It seems like a simple thing, but knowing a manufacturer’s capabilities will save everyone a lot of time. Having even a minimal knowledge base of their particular niche will show that you’re committed and appreciative of their time.

Build a relationship. Factory owners are people, too. Be clear and upfront about what your expectations are. Pay invoices on time, respond quickly and clearly, and do not assume anything. Ask questions and know when to pick your battles.

Get a recommendation. If you know others who work with US manufacturers, ask their advice. We constantly share the names of manufacturers with whom we’ve worked (well). New opportunities help ensure a factory stays in business—while building upon now-established relationships.

Know your scale. If you can describe yourself as any of the following – new, unproven, or small-scale – you don’t have a lot of clout. This is hard to hear, but it’s true. This doesn’t mean you’re not important to manufacturers, it just means that only as you continually build your relationships with them will this change.

Pick the right process. If you tailor your product idea to fit within a manufacturer’s current capabilities, you will have much more initial success. For example, if they are currently compression molding rubber gaskets, asking them to make silicone jewelry might be a stretch. In most cases, if they aren’t already set up to make something very similar to what you’re looking for, you won’t even get your foot in the door. At the very least, you will be setting yourself up for a communication nightmare. Only once you build a relationship can you start pushing their processes.

Recognize their time and investment. When you begin working with a new manufacturer, understand that they are taking time for you that could be spent elsewhere. And remember, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Be ready and willing to pay for prototyping services, samples and their time.

SILVER LINING

Making (it) in America? Aside from being somewhat stubborn and really wanting our path to work, the moment when we find a manufacturer that actually gets it is incredibly rewarding. Working with a manufacturer that is willing to learn and grow with us is the best part of the bringing-a-product-to- market process. Together, we’re helping maintain jobs in the USA, stimulate the local economy and we’re very proud of the quality products we’re creating.

Right now, we’re lucky to be working with a small group of manufacturers who understand our goals. It’s a very short list, but we’re working on it.