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how to manufacture 1000+ units of new, custom fabric based product?
January 23, 2009 5:19 AM   Subscribe

I've made a new fabric product that I hope would sell 5000+ units. For viable efficiency I need to buy manufacturing of the product or its parts. I don't want to reveal my product idea, but let's use a SLR camera bag made in sturdy fabric as an example. My product has similar materials, size and complexity. How do I go from there?

background: I lack previous experience from buying manufacturing of a product. (I also don't have business experience but I'll focus on that topic later so leave that for now)

(1) Are there companies with online services that take blueprints/prototypes/CAD-designs of a fabric camera bag type of product as input and output a number of units (100, 1000 ...) of either the completed product or parts for me to assemble?

(2) Are there for fabric camera bag type of product similar services to to print-on-demand book publishing or what et al offer? That is, I input the design and the company hosts my product page, handles the customers payments and manufactures and sends out the product. I get a portion of the money from each sale.

(3) Are there detailed product catalogs with generic standard parts to buy in bulk for this type of product? Something similar to the extremely detailed catalogs of electronic and mechanical components available from many companies. So for a fabric camera bag type of product there would be standard should straps, side pockets, plastic clip-on joints and so on in various shapes, sizes, colors and materials.

Note: I know that there are various craft communities/websites where custom fabric products can be made on demand from any design by hobbyist crafters, as discussed in this thread . But that is not viable for the thousands of units in my example.
posted by nolnar to Work & Money (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think the term you're looking for is 'product sourcing' or 'manufacturing sourcing'. Basically, you'll contact a workshop that takes contracts and give them a pattern, a sample, and some upfront money, the amount depends on the owner.

There are a lot of websites out there that will help you outsource the production of your item overseas, usually to China. Doing this would be really risky unless you have prior experience with the company in question or your product is really simple. There are a million ways that your sample can be misinterpreted during production. It will never be quite right unless you are on hand to proof what comes off the line.

For a run this small it would be better to go local and be more involved. Most places experiencing a downturn in orders and you're likely to get a good deal. Otherwise, if you can be on hand for supervision, you risk getting a thousand units of something that isn't quite right.
posted by Alison at 6:12 AM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I thought about doing this kind of thing as a side business - this is what I have learned from my friend who does this kind of work professionally. Her company produces various kinds of bags for sale on the internet, on shopping channels and in retail stores. They have about 50 employees, which is obviously a lot bigger than you, but I think some of the information may be very useful to you because the process they engage in (and the process that I was considering engaging in) sounds kind of like what you are looking for. The staff in the US designs the bags, reviews samples, coordinates shipping/payment/CUSTOMS (not insignificant)/distribution. They have all their materials produced by contract manufacturers in China - they have a handful of employees who spend a lot of time there coordinating with the factories and supervising the work. I think that they have relatively significant sales, but they also have hundreds of products. For the scale that you are talking about, I think that a single product which sells 5000+ units would be a relatively strong seller. My friend's company sells nationwide and even then they don't have that many products that strongly into 5 figures of annual sales - the market is VERY competitive.

I don't know the specific answers to your 3 questions. I guess it's possible that these kinds of places exist, but it seems unlikely to me that any places like this exist or would be very useful to you. If they do exist, I can not imagine that the products that come out of them would be very high quality materials or be very well put together. There are some catalogs that have some materials that are kind of what you are looking for in #3, but I am not sure that it is as standardized as you think. It sounds like you want to do more DIY, so I'll just share my experiences about somewhat related issues and maybe they will be useful to you.

Each production and materials decision you make impacts your unit price. If you want to do assembly yourself, you have to think carefully about product quality and longevity. There are a lot of issues here - many consumer products are surprisingly well-engineered by people who have been making those products their entire careers. If you are doing things in the kinds of quantities you're considering, it seems that you will have to do some sort of automated or assembly-line human production to make it worthwhile. Once you do that, you have to go offshore to do it. It's a race to the bottom. It's simply not cost-effective to product quality products in lower quantities or onshore. No one does it, and you're going to be competing with offshore, high-quality, high-volume products if you try.

Everyone who does what you are doing for the kind of volume you are talking about has contacts at offshore factories where bags are produced to specifications submitted after samples are reviewed. That requires someone who will do two things: (1) be familiar enough with this process and who know what he or she wants and needs; and (2) go to China and, generally, speak directly with the people at the factories to be able to negotiate what you need and actually get it. I realized that, even if we could do everything else, we could not do those two things.

I came to the realization that:

(1) The market for bags like these is very competitive, all across the range. The stuff that you can find for $9.99 in Walgreen's probably cost $2 to make and is of surprisingly high quality. A bag like that gets produced in significant quantities on machines. The margins on manufacturing are razor-thin. These bags are engineered extensively. I was considering producing high-quality leather designer-style bags. I thought that I could make them for (really rough estimate) $100 and sell them for $300. I found that, even if I could make a bag like that for $100, I would have to do 3000 units to get that price. That meant $300k upfront, without a whole lot of guarantees for that kind of money.

(2) Related to 1, I was in way, way over my head. Going to China to supervise/negotiate? Way too complicated for me. Do you have experience in textiles or similar consumer products?

(3) It cost a lot more to make quality products than I thought. In your example, a small, nice, really nice quality Lenovo camera bag costs, what, $25? I just bought one. It seems to me very unlikely that I could produce such a bag in any reasonable quantity for anywhere near that price.

Anyway, good luck - I think that the idea is really neat, and the business is a good one and profitable if you can figure it all out.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 6:13 AM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have some product design experience, but none with fabric products, and no experience with the purchasing end of such things. With that big grain of salt, here are my guesses:

A camera bag-like product is going to be way too complex a construction for any cafe-press like interface to deal with. Between the myriad fabric choices, types, amounts and placement of internal padding, pockets, zippers, buckles and straps, there's just too much going on to be able to plug it all into a web form and have it spit out your product. I suspect you will have to either describe the product in detail and have someone make a prototype for your approval, or you will have to provide your own prototype for someone else to reverse-engineer.

There are, of course, all sorts of pre-made components such as buckles, clips, zippers and snaps. Straps, however, will probably have to be cut to length from a spool of (polypropylene?) webbing, threaded through appropriate buckles and clips, and sewn. Fabric will obviously have to be custom-cut to shape. Pre-made fabric components like the "side pockets" you mentioned seem unlikely.
posted by jon1270 at 6:14 AM on January 23, 2009

To answer your third question, you can buy a lot of components for this type of product from companies like John Howard.
posted by jackmakrl at 11:53 AM on January 23, 2009

Here´s the Fashion Incubator blog. It´s aimed more at clothing production than bags, but covers a lot of issues with sewn product manufacturing.

So for a fabric camera bag type of product there would be standard should straps, side pockets, plastic clip-on joints and so on in various shapes, sizes, colors and materials.

I´m pretty sure that most manufacturers of this sort of thing would sew the side pockets at the factory. Perhaps sewing a prototype yourself will help you figure out how it all fits together.
posted by yohko at 2:19 PM on January 23, 2009

Ok, this has been really helpful already.

@alison & iknowizbirfmark: thanks for detailing complications with offshore/china manufacture for a product like this. I lack time/budget to go to China. And I'm aversive towards risking paying for units that aren't as good as I envisioned. So while I will research the offshore option some more, you have convinced me enough that I will focus more on the other two options:
- local (or at least less distant) manufacturing.
- buy components, assemble myself

@iknowizbirfmark: points taken about competitiveness problems. But I should stress that my product is new. I can't find anything quite like it on the market. That's a huge dissimilarity with my camera bag example (sorry if I wasn't clear enough on that earlier). I guess I'm hoping that the (assumed) newness of my product gives me a competitive edge temporarily. But if there's real demand for my product then later on someone would make a similar product cheaper than when I manufacture it locally or buy components and self-assemble and so the type of problems you describe would resurface.

@jon1270 & jackmakrl: point taken re cafe-press style options. Given how much some make-on-demand services have evolved ( is a good example I think) I anyway thought it best to ask. Point also taken (also @yohko) about complex components not likely available pre made. Still, some of the type of components on the site that jackmakrl links to could be used in my case. Though admittedly many more complex components are also needed. Maybe a hybrid solution then: buy as many components as possible from catalog, manufacture other components, assemble myself. Manufacturing only some components (not the complete product) could also decrease risks of mismatch between my design and what I get back from the manufacturer and decrease the need of actually going to China to set up the details.

@yohko: relevant link, thanks!

I would especially appreciate any more feedback on my question (3) - additional links and recommendations for websites that sell components similar to the site that jackmakrl mentioned. My hunch is that such components are also manufactured primarily in south east asian countries and if so then maybe there are ways to buy the components online more directly. Or maybe that's unrealistic for the quantities mentioned?
posted by nolnar at 3:52 PM on January 23, 2009

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