What’s it Like to Visit a Chinese Factory? Our Trip Recap

The Lab,  
Fred Perrotta
Giulia sat back down in a huff, frustrated that she had had to negotiate for her morning espresso. The hotel wanted to charge her an inflated, non-guest, price for a cup of (already overpriced) coffee. But she got her price. Lesson learned: don’t get between an Italian and her espresso.

Patrick and I were impressed. Clearly, we have the right person in China negotiating with our suppliers. Giulia may be from Italy, but she’s adapted well to life in China.

All of our products are made in China. Despite the oft repeated myths about manufacturing, China is still the best place in the world to make soft goods like backpacks.

Note that I said best, not cheapest. Chinese factories have moved up the value chain of manufacturing. Companies seeking lower prices have moved to Vietnam for bags and Cambodia, or Bangladesh, for clothing.

At the end of May, we made our latest trip to China to meet with our suppliers. Giulia, our production manager, is based in Shenzhen, China. Our industrial designer Patrick and I flew in from the States for the week.

Inspired by factory visit recaps by Need/Want and Brass, I wrote today’s post to document our trip to give you a look into our manufacturing process and partners.

Chinese factory

Typical Chinese factory exterior. They all have the same gate.

Running a Sprint With Our Factories

Time in China seems to move at a strange pace. You’re either hurrying or waiting.

Part of the reason is that we’re often visiting with the intent of running a “sprint” with our suppliers. Meeting in person for a limited amount of time puts pressure on the factory to move quickly, especially when building samples, the prototypes of soft goods products. On a visit, we’re able to get through multiple samples of multiple products in a week. In some cases, we can discuss an idea in the morning and come back from lunch to an improved version.

Patrick estimated that our week in China would have taken a month and a half to accomplish otherwise. We also saved a lot of money in FedEx bills by not having to ship samples across the ocean for review. Physical product development is an expensive challenge for a remote team.

Our full team can’t work with the factory in person every day, but Giulia is on the ground in Shenzhen to make sure everything runs smoothly and to give product feedback to suppliers.

Once we’ve worked out the major problems with a product concept, we can move from “okay” to “done” in a sprint on a visit to China. For more complex bags, like the Tortuga, we visit suppliers by the second sample or later. The first sample is usually too flawed to be usable.

For simpler bags, we can visit when the first sample is done. We arrived on this trip to see the first samples of the five packable concepts that Patrick designed. On the trip, we narrowed them down to two and finished all but the final touches.

With Patrick’s tech packs and Giulia’s help our new supplier delivered the best first samples we’ve ever received of our most complex product to date. We’re excited by that result.

By the time we left China, we had 4 products 95% done (ready for production) with just the final branding touches left: logos, labels, and custom zippers and buckles.

Visiting the Backpack Factory

sewing on the production line

Hard at work sewing on the production line.

We spent most of the trip with our new cut and sew factory. Cut and sew is the manufacturing process behind our bags: cut fabric then sew it together. Most factories specialize for maximize efficiency and quality. Larger factories may be diversified into multiple types of manufacturing.

die cutting

Die cutting material. The “cut” half of cut and sew.

After landing late Sunday night, Patrick and I took a cab to our hotel in Shenzhen where I promptly passed out. We awoke on Monday, met with Giulia in the lobby, then headed straight to the factory. They were gracious hosts and insisted on picking us up and dropping us off at our hotel every day that we spent with them despite the 1.5 hour drive from Shenzhen to Huizhou. We spent a lot of time in their Kia van. Thank goodness for captain chairs.

On four of the five weekdays that we were in Shenzhen, we visited the factory to review samples, hardware, and branding options.

supplier team

Me (Fred), Patrick, Giulia, and our supplier team of Shirely, Jacky, and Jerry.

As with many factory visits, we started by meeting the team: Jacky the boss or laoban, Jerry the Sales Manager, and Shirely our Sales Rep. After the ritual of exchanging business cards, we toured the factory.

production line

A well-run factory: clean, organized, well lit, and cool.

They proudly showed off their production lines, QC, packaging, and storage areas.

They told us about their custom ERP software and showed off the screen showing the morning and afternoon shifts’ production levels against targets.

Display tracking each shift's production against target.

Display tracking each shift’s production against target.

Then we got down to business. We reviewed the samples for mistakes, asked tons of questions about our options, and made hundreds of decisions on the fly. When needed, we brought in the factory’s production managers for technical expertise.

Part of building products is making sure that they’re durable enough to meet our and your expectations. After talking design, we toured the factory’s testing room.

Drop testing

Drop testing to judge long-term durability of seams and handles.

Fabric testing

Stress testing fabric for long-term durability.

Zipper testing

Testing zipper tape and teeth over thousands of pulls.

Volume test

The volume test for backpacks. Fill with tiny plastic balls then test the volume of the balls.

While we start the design process with an idea of what we want, we also need to hear from the factory what they can do well and at scale. Patrick’s best design is useless if it can’t be made consistently thousands of times in a row. One of the reasons we chose our new supplier was their willingness to ask questions and to give us honest answers, even when the answer was no.

Many factories in China will say yes to anything and everything, even if they can’t do it. They say yes, then do their best or outsource it, even if the result is bad. Saying yes saves face, which is important in Chinese culture. Beware of factories overpromising what they can do. If a factory can’t do it in a sample, they definitely can’t do it in production.

Finding a partner that will say “No,” or, “Try this instead,” is invaluable. They are the experts in manufacturing and should be part of the design and problem solving process. We do our best to build a two-way relationship with our suppliers, not just to give orders. We can make better products that way and, hopefully, our suppliers will prefer working with us.

Quality, speed, and a willingness to ask questions were the biggest reasons why we chose our current supplier from among 22 factories that Giulia visited in the winter and 6 finalists that sampled V3. We rejected factories that produce for major brands like Osprey and Incase to work with our chosen supplier.

Visiting the Welding Factory

On Wednesday, we traveled to Zhongshan to meet with another supplier. This factory specializes in making waterproof products using a technique called welding. This factory makes hydration bladders and dry bags for many brands that you probably know in those categories.

We are developing waterproof accessories with their help. This supplier is larger than the ones that we typically work with, but welding expertise is hard to find. We’re a small fish to them, especially given that we are only working on waterproof accessories so our quantities will be smaller than with the backpack factory.

Again we took a tour of the factory and were able to observe a variety of manufacturing processes from welding to laser cutting.

laser cutting backpack straps

Laser cutting backpack straps. Great for quick prototyping but too slow for production.

The scale of this factory and its variety of manufacturing expertise made for an educational visit. We learned more about how welding works so that we can improve our waterproof designs and develop better products in this category. More to come in the future.

Due to a mix up, our trip to the factory took all morning. We had another very long day despite only spending a few hours on site.

Everything in China is big and spread out. Traveling between, or even within, cities takes awhile. Whether by metro, train, or car, you will spend a lot of time commuting between factories. Plan accordingly.

Visiting the Supplier’s Supplier

duraflex entrance

A warm welcome from Duraflex.

Thursday morning was a bit different. Our cut and sew factory picked us up, and together we visited the Duraflex factory near the Shenzhen airport. You may know that we use Duraflex for most of our buckles, tension locks, key hooks, and other non-zipper hardware.

Duraflex claimed to have over 100,000 products in stock at the factory. We were like kids in a candy store exploring every option. Every time we looked at a piece of hardware, like a chest strap buckle, we asked, “What else do you have?” The options were endless, but we wanted to be informed. With this redesigned collection, we will set a precedent and establish the default hardware to use on future products. These questions are important and will have long-term ramifications.

Part of this visit was to learn more about the full universe of accessories that Duraflex offers, or can custom make. We often ask, “What can we do?” The amount of options was a good reminder of why you need to understand your customer and develop products with a strong point of view. If you don’t know who you are building for and what they want, you will be paralyzed by the number of options.

After choosing hardware for four bags, we also discussed customizing the hardware. Look out for custom buckles on our next round of products.

Once again, we made hundreds of decisions in a short period of time. Thanks to Patrick for keeping up with the frenetic pace of China on his first visit.

After a break for lunch, we toured the factory by following the process of creating a piece of injection molded hardware.

injection molding

A “mother mold” or “positive” (copper) being used to make a production mold for buckles.

injection molding

A row of injection molding machines.

Unwinding in China & Hong Kong

While we were hyper productive and put in long hours in China, we still made time to explore Shenzhen, to go out for dinner, and to grab a few drinks. At Splendid China, we saw a dance performance recapping the history of the country.

We visited Sea World (no, not that Sea World) and OCT, Overseas Chinese Town.

On Saturday, we took a day trip across the border to Hong Kong. From Shenzhen we crossed at the Futian Checkpoint Station then took the Hong Kong metro into the city. Jerry, the Sales Manager at our backpack factory and a Hong Kong local, was nice enough to pick us up and drive us up to the Peak for a beautiful view of downtown Hong Kong.

We did as much wandering as possible given the rainy weather. At the Wan Chai Computer Market, we picked up some cheap charging cables while exploring a maze of booths selling electronics.

We burned incense at Man Mo Temple.

Then we ate char siu at Joy Hing Roasted Meat and Michelin-starred dim sum at Tim Ho Wan.

After dinner, we took a late bus back to Shenzhen. In the morning, Patrick and I hopped on our flight back to SFO via Beijing. Following a week of non-stop action in China, I slept much better on the return flight.

TL;DR

Yes, we make our products in China. Contrary to what some may think, our suppliers are well run businesses capable of making premium products.

On our latest to China, we visited two factories and one hardware supplier for a “design sprint” to get the Tortuga V3 finalized and ready to launch.

[optin align=”center”]

The results of our China visit are coming soon.

If you want to be the first to know when our new collection of travel backpacks is available, sign up below. We’ll keep you apprised of our progress and other Tortuga news once a month.

[/optin]

Image Credit: Pixabay