PPP: Working with a Manufacturer Part 1: Thoughts on Design and Manufacturing
At a show, a sales representative or buyer approaches you from a large retail venue, say one of the larger coffee purveyors. They really like your latte cup and saucer combination and would like to buy 5000 units for some of their newer stores. You quickly do the math in your head: “5000 latte cups and matching saucers that wholesale for $15—that’s $75,000 in gross income!” But the customer would like delivery in two months. You immediately realize that you have to turn this business away because of other commitments. There is no way you can produce your existing work for the retail shows that you have been juried into, as well as supply the 20 or so stores that carry your work. Embarrassed, you turn the work away.
You have reached what I refer to as “the potters’ conundrum.” Your business needs to grow. You want to take a vacation, but there is never enough time or money. You struggle with the business you have. Cash flow is a real issue, and you entertain thoughts like, “If I only had a RAM™ press or a jigger machine, or if I knew how to make molds and slip cast, I could take this extra work and grow my business.”
That may be true, but chances are that you don’t have the space to physically expand your business, or the cash to purchase the new machines, and you don’t want any more debt than what you already have. But you could sure use that extra business.
The Alternative: Taking the OrderNow consider this scenario: When the buyer asks for timely delivery on the 5000 latte cups and saucers, you gladly accept the order and ask to see a letter of credit or their Dun & Bradstreet information to ensure credit-worthiness. You agree to terms of payment and receive a signed purchase order. You ship the work on day 45 to arrive well in advance of their cancel date. A check arrives in a timely manner, and you and your significant other take that vacation you had been planning.
How can this be?
You have an established relationship with a contract producer that can use your clay body and jigger, RAM press or slip cast the 5000 latte cups and saucers. Perhaps they will supply you with bisque ware and you will handle the glazing and firing. Or maybe they will provide finished goods, drop shipped to the vendor, and all you will have to do is shuffle paper. Your business grows, your credibility is sound, and you can take the vacation you need—all because you have used the services of a contract manufacturer.
Contract manufacturers provide the tooling, the expertise and the know-how so that you can work in your studio making the products you really want to. You leave the production to them. Potters and small producers are often caught in this situation and need to redefine the paradigm of how products can be made. While the pursuit of hand-making individual pieces of ware may be noble and affords a certain lifestyle, this choice is not necessarily one that can allow a business to grow and prosper.
Working with a Contract ManufacturerIf you are in the enviable position of having a market demand that far exceeds your ability to produce, what are the things you should consider in working with a manufacturer? Where do you find these operations? How do you develop a sound working relationship with a manufacturer? How can you be assured of the quality from order to order? Is the manufacturer dependable and proactive? Can they solve clay, glaze, firing and production problems if and when they occur?
Finding a Manufacturer.While many pottery making operations in the U.S. have gone offshore, there are some that still produce domestically and might have excess capacity to manufacture for you. There are also a small number of specific contract production facilities that are well equipped and extremely knowledgeable that can produce your work as bisque or even glazed ware. These facilities may even offer design, sample and prototype services in addition to manufacturing services. A well-equipped facility will also offer complete in-house mold and model making services. Talking to other potteries and searching the Internet are good ways to locate a contract manufacturer.
Determining What You Need.The process usually begins by inquiring about the services and programs that are available from the manufacturer and what specifics are involved in having your work made for you. Perhaps you just have an idea that you would like to develop into a product. Some manufacturers provide a design service that can supply drawings, study models and a sample product realized in a glazed piece.
After the initial contact has been made, it is important to request a nondisclosure or confidentiality statement. This will ensure that the information and material you furnish to the producer will stay with the producer, including designs, formulas, business methods, and whatever else may be learned by the producer during the time you work together.
Providing the Right Information.Many producers can work from drawings provided as hard copies or computer media. Some can work from photographs, but most like to see the actual piece that you wish to reproduce. This will ensure accurate pricing and tooling costs. Quotations and bids are usually provided at no charge and will usually be time-specific. Information will also be provided regarding tooling costs, minimums and setup fees, if any. If special packing and shipping are required, in the case of work that goes directly to a fulfillment house or catalog, for instance, you will need to provide exact specifications as to how this needs to be done so that, again, an accurate cost is given to you. Many vendors have specific packing, labeling and shipping requirements. For instance, a catalog company many have substantial discounts set up with a commercial carrier or have third party billing or freight collection programs with UPS. Your manufacturer will need to know this so that the work is not refused for non-compliance.
Ensuring Quality and Consistency.Once the drawings are reviewed, your model acquired and the quotations provided, some shops will also provide a sample program. Prior to going into production for a large quantity, ask if a sample can be provided. For instance, some shops can make a casting mold of an object that needs to be hydraulically pressed. By slip casting and then bisque firing the object, they can show you what the entire production run will be like. In many cases, this won’t be necessary, but it can serve as protection for you.
Shops usually keep a representative sample of the object they are making for you. This can be your original, or the first one or two pieces from the entire run. This is their guideline to ensure consistency and quality. Some facilities will send one of these pieces to you for approval along with a form to sign saying that you approve the sample and that the tooling or production can begin. Glaze color development can also be a service provided by the contract manufacturer. Ask to see representative samples of items that the company already produces for others to gauge the quality of their operation, and make sure that the clay bodies and glazes are compatible. In some cases, you can provide your glaze formula under a non-disclosure agreement.
The Necessary Cost of Tooling.Tooling often represents a major cost in the contract manufacturing arrangement but is a necessary part of making the pieces. Some facilities will pro-rate the cost of the tooling into each piece of the production run, while others might charge an up-front cost to make the tooling. Slip casting, for instance, requires a model, block or first mold, a case mold (master mold) and production molds. Jiggering requires a model or drawing, a profile or roller tool, a master mold and production molds. And RAM pressing requires a model or original piece, a complete set of impressions and a working die-set.
In terms of expense, RAM press dies are the most expensive, as precision-machined steel die cases are used to contain the air permeable plaster materials. Slip cast tooling is next, followed by the more inexpensive jigger tooling. Ask the production facility to itemize the tooling charges so that you know exactly what will be provided for you, as well as what it will cost to recast the tooling when it begins to wear out during use.
Building a Successful RelationshipWorking with your production facility, you can build a project schedule to ensure that the work is received on a timely basis. Make sure that there is a complete paperwork trail, especially if the work is going directly to the final vendor. The manufacturer will invoice you for the work itself, packing charges and shipping. If you are receiving bisque ware, make sure to inspect the work when it arrives and plan with the manufacturer for the status of their seconds. And finally, secure everything you need in writing for setup fees, tooling costs, seconds, packing and handling fees, and freight costs so that there are no surprises when you receive the work and the invoice.
Establishing a good working relationship with a ceramic manufacturing facility takes time, effort and patience. You must be able to speak the same vocabulary so that any problems encountered can be efficiently solved. The rewards can be reaped quickly and include making delivery schedules on time, having enough work to keep your vendors happy, and most importantly, allowing you some time and flexibility to manage your business and watch it grow.
Learning how to work on your business rather than working in your business is a further asset, and is the first step necessary to growing your business.