August 28, 2018

Rapid Prototyping in China: The Truth Nobody’s Telling You

I’ve been running a contract manufacturing business from China for the past 10 years. Here’s what I can tell you about rapid prototyping in China.

The simple truth is this: Going with most so-called Chinese “rapid prototyping” companies would be like putting down a $100,000 bet that you’re going to hit the bullseye with an old, curved dart from 50 feet out - blindfolded. 

That said:

  1. First, Chinese companies are more than capable of making an MVP… 
  2. Second, this is not only about being scammed or honey potted… 
  3. Third, yes, China is still your best bet… 

Then what’s the issue?

Let me put it this way:

If you called up a random “rapid prototyping in China” company off of Google right now, chances are your call would go like this: 

You: “Hi, so long story short I have an idea for a product and I want to get it to market quickly, test the waters, you know? Was wondering if you guys do this sort of thing and what you can do to help.”

The company: “Ok… send design we print.” 

You: “What?”

The company: “Simple step! You deposit, send CAD file printer, and ship address” 

You: “Sorry, I don’t think you understand, let me clarify: I have an idea for a product, I have a *explains idea in more detail* and I need you to help me get an MVP to market quickly. I want to see if the idea is viable with a prototype. Can you tell me about how you approach developing my idea and also, do you have engineers in-house?” 

The company: 別再浪費我時間! *hangs up*

For those who prefer video content, here’s a video summary of what you’re about to read below.

What just happened?

You just got off the phone with a Chinese company that’s advertising on Google as a rapid prototyping company. But in reality, most of these guys are nothing more than a building with high-tech 3D printers. 

They don’t do idea development, they don’t have a team of engineers to check the viability of your idea, and they don’t do any real manufacturing, let alone rapid prototyping.  

So they’re a scam?

No, not at all. They’re just not in the business of what you need. Their services are limited to getting your deposit, a CAD drawing of your product, and then they ship you a 3D printout. (If they don’t wiggle your money out by falsely claiming they do idea development…) 

What’s wrong with a 3D printout?

Nothing! In fact, that’s a great service if you’re looking for a cheap look-a-like that you can use for sales pitches, crowdfunding campaign images, and other situations where you need to show something.

However, if you’re looking to develop your idea, turn it into a viable MVP, and test your market potential with it - then you need an actual contract manufacturer. 

So I need to be careful what ads I click on and make sure I find a real manufacturer?

Yeah, but of course, it’s never that simple. This is manufacturing - after all. 

The hurdle here is even if you reach deep into the barrel of ads and contacts and manage to pull out a winning ticket of Chinese manufacturing - the ticket being a company that does develop ideas and produce MVPs - there are still many hoops to jump through.  

But this isn’t an essay or an eBook, so I’ll only mention the biggest hurdle when it comes to manufacturing in China…

And this is something that has broken many entrepreneurs, companies, and their investments. Never mind being outright scammed, or dealing with the language barrier, IP protection, legal issues, logistics, assembly, quality control… 

This one beast is far more dangerous because it destroys what could have been. 

Now if you’ll give me the honor of introducing your main opponent when it comes to manufacturing in China…

In the left-hand corner of the ring… The undisputed champion, the dream destroyed, the “China was supposed to make us, not break us” is…


If Rocky Balboa fought miscommunication in the 1985 blockbuster sports drama instead of Ivan Drago, no amount of hero-wins script writing would have done him any good…

No amount of raw eggs in the morning, motion-picture stair climbing in the evening… Even if he had “Eye of the Tiger” playing through Apple’s Airpods Pro (the new 2nd generation), with noise-cancellation, on Spotify Premium (without ads) - he would still get KO’d the second he stepped into that ring. 

It’s simply not a fair fight. 

And here, Mr. Balboa represents your investment and reputation.

You must make sure your chosen contract manufacturer has systems in place that prevent miscommunication in ordering, purchasing, understanding the product, its assembly, and delivery. 

And when mistakes do happen inevitably, they have systems in place that let them fix the issue without costing you any additional time or money. 

I can’t tell exactly how many times we had a client that tried to manufacture something in China, lost around $50,000, and then came to us. This is how around 30% of our clients approach us. We hear the same story again and again.

Again, there are other issues besides miscommunication, like people getting scammed, or their orders taking much longer than promised, or the quality sucking so much that you wouldn’t want your brand name or reputation tied to it even if they made it for free. 

But this article is about rapid prototyping in China, so let me get back to that. I’ll just shamelessly add that MorphoMFG rides on transparency with its clients. If you want to talk to someone and learn more about your product idea, click here - no obligation of course. 

The Holy Triangle: Quality, Cost, Time

Historically, people went to China because of the low cost, but more and more it’s because of the infrastructure. It’s just not feasible anymore to make certain types of products anywhere other than China. It’s not about the cost, it’s about the feasibility. 

You’ve seen the infographic online or you’ve heard the phrase in meetings plenty of times by now:

Good, cheap, and fast. Can’t have it all.

How does this translate in the rapid prototyping world in China?

If you’re unlucky, you’ll pay a lot of money to get a really bad product, really fast. Bit lucky and you pay tons of money to get decent quality. 

And please understand, while MorphoMFG does handle rapid prototyping in China, this is not me ramping up an issue just so I can say “But wait! We have the solution for you!..” This is me setting the stage so I can ask: 

Do you really want to base your prototype, your MVP that’s going to be used to test the market, make or break your idea - on luck? 

But let’s be real for a second. No benefit of the doubt:

If they can get started on your parts ‘as early as week 1’ for rapid prototyping - then what happens to their other projects? Do they just push all their other clients aside to accommodate you? If yes, well then you’ve just found out that you have their attention until the next guy with a deposit comes along.

And if they don’t have other clients… Why don’t they? 

Have your stars aligned so perfectly that you’ve found a legit, experienced company, and they just happen to not have any clients at this exact moment that they can get on YOUR prototype week 1!? Come on…

It’s fair to add that I know this is possible in some cases, but I wouldn’t bet on the quality. 

Bottom line is this:

If you see someone making a big promise on cost, time, or quality alone, they’re compromising on the other two. 

Advantages of Rapid Prototyping

In case someone on your board needs convincing that going the MVP to market first route is best… Here are some factual benefits of rapid prototyping.

1. Rapid Prototyping Lets You Test the Market Early On

Imagine your brother in law or a friend asking you to help fund his new venture. He’s asking you to put down $6,500 so he can create this amazing, interactive website that’s going to help sell his new invention. 

He also has other ideas for investments, like testing different colors and assembly patterns, hiring attorneys to file patents, trademark his company name, and a dozen other things. It’s basically a 2-year plan to throw money around without ever even asking one person on the street: “Hey would you ever buy this product?” 

Now that doesn’t make much sense does it? 

In the past, you’d build products, you worked out the bugs, you solved them, then you mass produced, sold the product etc. But now, before fixing those defects, you can build an MVP to see if there is a market for your product. 

It’s not super relevant to fix the defects at that point, you are just seeing if people will actually buy this thing. In the past, people would do rapid prototyping to make sure a product is good for mass production. Today, people do rapid prototyping to see if the product is good for the market.

2. Rapid Prototyping in China Saves Time

By eliminating the requirement to produce specialized molds and tools for each new product, rapid prototyping has significantly reduced the time taken (as the name suggests) from product design to prototype analysis. 

Everything learned from this process can be quickly implemented further in the development process.

3. Rapid Prototyping in China Saves Money

The creation of molds and tools is not only time-consuming, but also very expensive. Any changes to product design in the development process also incur additional costs in redesigning these manufacturing tools.

Additive manufacturing entirely removes the need for this process and its inherent costs. In addition, traditional prototyping processes are subtractive, where material is cut away from a solid block to create the product. This also causes losses in wastage that do not occur with additive manufacturing.

4. Rapid Prototyping in China Reduces Manufacturing Risk

Mass manufacturing requires rigorous quality control because any small error in the process can result in an entire batch of defective product. One of the key elements in this quality control process is a 100% accurate prototype that can be used as a reference. 

Rapid prototyping allows for detailed physical analysis at an early stage, allowing designers to test for defects and make appropriate modifications before major problems occur in manufacturing.

5. Rapid Prototyping Unlocks the Potential of Design Thinking

Design thinking refers to the process by which designers seek to solve complex problems and find desirable solutions – a process that places a premium on the power of iterative development and repeated prototyping and testing. 

This method has proliferated far beyond its roots in the creative disciplines and become accepted in fields as varied as tech, entertainment and government policy.

Rapid prototyping has removed the technical barriers to design thinking for manufacturing companies and empowered product designers to freely design and test new ideas without fearing of wasting time and money. It is at the forefront of the new industrial revolution that is already underway in manufacturing.

At MorphoMFG, we have embraced the value that rapid prototyping in China has to offer for our clients. Our experience with this method has been entirely positive and we remain convinced that its influence will only grow as additive manufacturing technology improves and becomes more widely accessible.

What makes MorphoMFG any different from a random Google Search result? 

MorphoMFG is not a random LLC in a building filled with high-tech 3D printers. There’s more than plenty of those types of companies in China and we are not one of them. We deal with taking your idea, and having our in-house engineers develop it, make it DFM ready, and get your MVP out to market quickly. 

We handle the whole process, from start to finish, and we use our now irreplaceable list of suppliers and factories we work with on a regular basis. These factories know us, they appreciate our business, and they know our in-house engineers have high expectations, and that our QC & purchasing departments are gonna be on their ass for every single component. 

This unique relationship we’ve built with Chinese rapid prototyping factories is a unique differentiator that we are proud of. It’s one of the reasons our clients keep coming back to us for manufacturing solutions, whether it’s a $30k or $3M+ contract. 

Are you interested in prototyping services?

Visit our homepage to learn more about our services and find out how we do things the MorphoMFG way.

Click here to get in touch with someone who can answer any questions you have right now. No obligation, of course.

About the author

Josh Fairbairn

CEO of MorphoMFG, fluent in Mandarin, Blogger, and Youtuber. Josh loves interesting materials and the craftsmanship that goes into creating innovative products - watches, tech, games, whisky, leather, wood, blockchain & electronics. Josh and his team in Guangzhou, China are striving to create (& consume) the world’s highest quality products. Partnering with entrepreneurs globally to help solve the world's problems - whether small or large.

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