Last week, I talked about how we struggle to balance the economic need for lower prices with our desire to stick with American-made products. (Click here to read the article.)
I said it was tough to decide what to do about Chinese-made products if price matters. This led to an outcry from customers, who said among other things “you get what you pay for” and “have you thought about the poor living conditions of the people who make this cheap stuff?”
There is a simple truth to this debate: It’s easy to stick with American-made when quality matters.
Quality mattered for us when we reordered a tiny casting for our chain pump. The chain pump concept dates to pre-historic times. The design for our pump dates to 1872. It’s a great pump for cisterns and dug wells because it moves a very high volume of water with little effort. When the manufacturer got into financial trouble several years ago, we tried to buy the company. Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach an agreement.
Having failed to acquire the old company, we spent the next few years testing and perfecting our own design. It took several years to get it right. But, by last year, we had the kinks worked out and we were able to start production.
Not knowing whether it would be a popular item or not, we hunted around for a foundry that would make just a small quantity of parts. Once again, we hit a stone wall.
Finally, a friend pointed us to a tiny foundry in China, of all places, that could make the castings. The Chinese foundry owner (unlike the USA foundries we had talked to) was willing to do whatever we needed. 10, 50 or 100 parts. No problem. We hated to send the work overseas, but since we couldn’t find any foundries here to do such small jobs, it looked like we didn’t have a choice.
Unfortunately, there were problems. Quality was a problem. If we ordered 100 castings, we got 50 good ones. If we ordered 200 castings, we got 75 good ones.
At one point, we told the foundry owner his quality was no good. Yes, he said, the quality is VERY good. After an endless discussion in broken English, we finally showed him a shoddy casting with gaping sand pits in it. Stunned, he replied that he didn’t know that we thought “quality” meant “no pits.” From now on, he promised, he would make them with no pits.
I think what he really meant is that he would throw the ones with pits back in the melting pot and send only unpitted castings. Our next order cost twice as much per casting as the prior order, but but nearly all of the parts were usable.
On-time delivery was a problem, too. Our first pumps were delayed for months while we waited on the castings we needed.
The good news is that the chain pumps were a success. There’s not much demand for a pump that only works for cisterns and dug wells, as you can imagine. But, we’re selling enough to make us feel like it was worth the effort. And, if you need parts for your old pump (or need a new one) there’s no where else to get one.
Now that we know we’ve got a good product with a sure (but limited) market, we’re ready to get serious about making parts for it.
The most important thing is that we’re done with Chinese quality and late shipments. So, we’re moving the foundry work to the USA, where it belongs. A few weeks ago, I authorized spending $1,800 for a new pattern. By making a good pattern and by increasing our order size we found an American foundry that can make them for us. Best of all, the parts are comparable in price to the Chinese parts!
It is true that Chinese labor is much cheaper. (The last I heard, a good foundry worker in China makes about $300-$400 per month.) But Americans still do better work. They do it on time. They speak English. They understand what the word “quality” means. And, we don’t have to pay a 20% to 30% surcharge for shipping costs.
Lots of other business owners are making the same discoveries we did. Click here to read an article in Business Week that describes the problem in detail. It lists exactly the same issues we faced: A language barrier. Long delivery delays. Confusion about how to produce the product to specifications.
We found a simple solution. Work with factories who speak your language. Skip shipping hassles by buying inside your own country. And, work with people who understand what the word “quality” means.