Small Business

Finding a U.S. Manufacturer to Make Your Product Idea


Before you approach potential manufacturers, know that few will take a chance on a brand-new product with small production runs. First, do your homework so you can be as specific as possible

I have an idea for a new luggage design for children. I have searched for a manufacturer, but it seems all roads lead to China. I desperately want to make it in America, ideally in L.A. Do you have any ideas on how I might find a producer here? – M.C., Los Angeles

Despite popular perception, the United States is still the world's largest manufacturing economy, producing 22% of the world's manufactured products, according to the National Association of Manufacturers, a Washington, D.C.-based trade and lobbying group. China comes in second, at 13%, and Japan is third, at 11%, says Erin Streeter, the group's assistant vice-president for communications.

The difficulty that most startup entrepreneurs face is finding a manufacturer that will take a chance on a brand-new product with small production runs. This is true regardless of whether you choose a local manufacturer or outsource production overseas, says Ralph Biedermann, president of the MRB Group, a manufacturing consultancy based in Chicago.

"You don't want to get on a plane and go to China for a startup product, and they are not interested in small volumes there anyway," Biedermann says. "But even if you find a manufacturer in the U.S., they're also going to be interested in volume. And you don't want to start out with high volume. So the key will be finding a manufacturer willing to work with you."

The way to do that is to ensure that before you approach potential manufacturers, you have done your homework, you understand the industry thoroughly, you know how luggage production works, and you have a handle on what the costs and distribution channels will be for your product.

Have a Prototype and a Business Plan

Most importantly, you should consult with a manufacturing engineer who can advise you on materials and manufacturing methods, says Bob Williams, a manager and consultant at California Manufacturing Technology Consulting. "Entrepreneurs who do not have a design that has been engineered are very difficult to help," Williams says.

Take your ideas about materials (plastic, rubber, metal, textiles) and methods (injection molding, vacuum forming, cutting, and sewing) to an engineer who does product design, and find out how feasible your idea is to produce and what the probable cost will be, Williams suggests.

You'll also need a prototype, a tentative budget, and a business plan—or at least a one-page summary of your project, he says. Include details about the status of your design, its cost and price targets, the quantities you'll be starting with, how the product will be sold, the status of any patent applications you've filed, and whether you have gotten interest in licensing the manufacturing or marketing rights to the product.

"People contacted will usually read, or at least scan, a one-page document and make a quick decision whether to pursue the opportunity," Williams says. "Without details, trying to pin down which local company might be capable or interested in manufacturing can be difficult and time-consuming.'

Once you have the details worked out, the CMTC is a good place to get help locating manufacturing services. Williams says two sources you might consider approaching are Tough Travelers, which manufactures luggage in Schenectady, N.Y., and Huggage, based in North Carolina.

Also explore retail trade groups such as the National Luggage Dealers' Assn. and the American Luggage Dealers' Assn. These kinds of industry associations often publish trade magazines and newsletters that can help you get up to speed on the industry. They also commonly sponsor trade shows, which would be an ideal place for you to network, check out your competition, and find suppliers and manufacturers.

The National Association of Manufacturers has a buyer's guide; Thomas Net has a register of suppliers, manufacturers, and service providers. Another database you might find useful is MadeinUSA.org.

Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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