A California firm bridges the chasm between retailers' demands for low-priced goods and manufacturers dealing with low-cost Asian factories.
Manufacturing Modes Inc. provides U.S. representation for two companies in southern China, including an injection molding shop near Hong Kong. The molder operates 33 presses, with clamping forces of 80-500 tons and shot sizes of 3-60 ounces.
Manufacturing Modes also controls a 27,000-square-foot assembly area and offices in the same plant.
``The one floor is devoted exclusively to our products,'' said Alison Richter, the management firm's president and chief executive officer. ``Our technical background is mostly plastics.''
Manufacturing Modes also represents a metal fabrication shop in Shenzhen and, by year's end, will establish exclusive relationships with both factories.
The firm also handles product design and engineering, tooling, secondary processes, assembly, printing, cutting, sewing and model casting, using plants in China, Taiwan and Mexico.
The firm's engineers and quality inspectors oversee production of audio speakers for indoor, outdoor and home theater uses, aqua fitness products, veterinary teeth cleaning items and chewable toys, three-dimensional educational tools and scientific toys such as desktop microscopes.
In setting up a job involving multiple sites, managers from the subcontracting locations meet, particularly to discuss acceptable tolerances.
``We are uptight about quality,'' and ``we control component manufacturing,'' Richter said.
``We tell the factory how the line is going to move, the inspection procedures and how to test product before packaging. The factories in China know our quality expectations.''
Making the right decision on where to produce is critical, she said.
``If the product has multiple parts and is handled a lot, we can do it in China,'' Richter said. ``If it is highly mechanical with automation [systems] and not a lot of handling, it should be done here [in the United States]. If it is light assembly work, maybe in Mexico.''
Manufacturing Modes has used an Ensenada, Mexico, maquiladora for some production but was dissatisfied with the results.
``We've not had on-time deliveries, material gets wasted [and there is] no accountability,'' she said. ``We are used to having a high level of control'' in Asia.
Richter formed the company in 1989 with three others. All had worked for an importer of Asian-made medical devices, medication promotional items and patient education aids.
Manufacturing Modes had offices in Danville, Calif., until relocating in September to ``a more efficient space layout'' in nearby Walnut Creek, she said.
Initially, the pharmaceutical industry supplied the bulk of Manufacturing Modes' business, but the Clinton administration's attempt at health-care reform led to a major decrease in that industry's promotions. The threat ``stopped them from spending money,'' Richter said, but pharmaceutical promotions ``picked up again in 1997's first quarter.''
Now, about 75 percent of the firm's business is retail-oriented and price-driven by large stores; the other 25 percent is in health-care products. Richter projects 1997 sales of about $5 million.
Manufacturing Modes employs six in Walnut Creek, six in Hong Kong and one in Taiwan and has sales representatives in Los Angeles and Philadelphia.