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An Intro to Making Products and Sourcing Manufacturers



How do I find a manufacturer to make my design a reality? I think this is a common question for many small artists wanting to dip their toes into producing their own merch. I'm by no means an expert, but I hope the things I've learned over the years may help you at least get started . I will be separating this into several parts as I'd like to be very detailed in sharing my knowledge and personal experience.

For today I'd like to focus on a brief summary of some options when deciding to make a product. This post will be made public in the spirit of helping others!

There is a lot of questions to ask oneself before deciding where and how to make your design a real product. How do we make sure workers are compensated properly and work in safe environments? How much of a product should you make? How much will it cost? There are many things to consider when choosing what will work best for your unique financial and logistical situation.

So when looking for a company to make your merch, where should you go?


1) Source Locally

These are companies offering their services in your country or neighbourhood. They may be local printers, tshirt shops, and other manufacturers that run their business in your country. They may be individual artists, craftspersons, etc. who you pay for their services. A quick google search for the product you're interested in and your city/country will usually bring up plenty of results.

They could be companies that act as a middleman and outsource their products to a different country. You may not want to use their services in this case if you were looking for a truly local option. They could be a good choice if you want to eliminate the effort needed to contact overseas companies or deal with a language barrier.

Examples: Local print shops (i.e Catprint is local to me so I use their services for posters, postcards, business cards and more). Artscow has its headquarters in the USA, but their items are made in Hong Kong.

Pros:
- your manufacturer will likely be much closer to home
- there is likely no language barrier
- may allow smaller order quantities
- you might have a better working relationship with them simply because you can see them in person or share the same culture and language

Cons:
- may be more expensive if you're ordering small quantities

-be careful if your local manufacturer actually produces the item themselves or simply outsources it to a different country for a profit
- they may not have the specialized technology needed to make your design
- you may be limited by which companies you can choose 

 
2) Source Internationally

These are manufacturers located in a different country than yours. Most of the products you'll see in stores in North America today will be made in a different country than where it is sold, because it is cheaper to produce it overseas. Countries like China have huge industries built on satisfying this demand.

Examples: Any manufacturer sourced from Alibaba. For example, Vograce is a popular Chinese factory most artist alley artists will make keychains with.

Pros:
- you can source from a much larger pool of companies, each offering their unique technologies and expertise
- greater range of products and customization (OEM and ODM)
- some may also allow small order quantities but this is rare (i.e anime keychains can probably be ordered in quantities less than 100 pcs, but anything else almost always requires 100 pcs or more)
- the unit cost may be cheaper. this is because these companies are more established and better equipped to handle large orders and also because of different cost of living in different countries  

Cons:
- there is often a language or cultural barrier. Personally I like to work with Chinese manufacturers because I am Chinese Canadian, but those who speak only English may have a more difficult time navigating conversations
- time difference, if the manufacturer you are working with is overseas
- shipping costs are very high to ship from overseas, especially if your shipment is heavy and bulky
- importing fees and taxes
- like when choosing any company to work with, but especially those overseas, there is a responsibility and an ethical question of whether workers are compensated properly or are working in safe environments (I will write a full post on this in the future)


3) Producing things by yourself!

I think this is self explanatory, but if you have a skill you could most certainly make your products by hand.

 Pros:
- you control the production and quality of all of your products
- each item is handmade by you or someone you've employed, which may be a unique selling point
- you can make products on a small scale

Cons:
- your labour will be extensive
- buying materials and equipment may be more expensive vs commissioning a company that already has equipment and the ability to buy in bulk for a lower price
- making products on a larger scale may be difficult

Personally I have explored all of the above options when creating my merch and still work with local manufacturers whenever possible. When in doubt, ask your manufacturers questions. It is literally their job to explain to you what they do. You'll then be able to make an informed decision about which is best for your particular project.

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Here are some basic terms you'll probably want to know before communicating with manufacturers

MOQ (Minimum Order Quantity) - This is the minimum number of the product you'll have to order. Some manufacturers will allow you to make small quantities but usually the more you make, the lower the unit cost will be.

Unit Cost - This is how much each unit of your product will cost to make. For example, if you spent $100 to make and ship 100 stickers to yourself, the unit cost of your sticker is $1.

ODM (Original Design Manufacturer) -  This is a company that manufactures a product, by your original design. i.e you designed a new product from scratch and you commission the company to make it for you.

OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) - This is a term that has different meanings, but specifically in this context it is a company that allows you to purchase and sell products that already exist. They may also alter the products to some extent, like printing on a logo for you at an extra cost. ie. a company already sells a shirt you like and you decide you just want to print some artwork on it. Artscow is an example of a company that does this.

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With certain products you'll probably want to familiarize yourself with specific techniques and finishes that are related to what you're making. By spending time researching first, it'll give you the correct terms and the literacy to explain to manufacturers exactly what you're looking for.

I'll be explaining the actual process of searching for a manufacturer in more detail in future posts! This is a brief introduction based on my personal experience from knowing absolutely nothing about making products to now knowing a bit more. The more research you do, the better equipped you will be!

I hope this is a helpful introductory post! If you have any questions or suggestions for future posts like this, please let me know!

All the best,
Maobaby