The Product Entrepreneur

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Introduction: This series of articles is directed toward the entrepreneur or business and is focused on products as opposed to services. The goal of this series is to provide you with the background needed to bring your idea from wild thought to a product ready for market.

The writer has over 30 years engineering experience in industry and product development, is a member of the Board of Directors of Inventors North West, the Product Development Management Association and is a principal in a Bend firm that provides machine design, product design and development services. His email contact is jhunterh2001@yahoo.com.

Article VII: Supplier Selection
In the course of your product development effort you will need the help of a number and variety of suppliers. These suppliers will generally be split into two categories: suppliers of services and suppliers of products. For the purposes of this discussion we are setting aside those organizations from which you may get office products and other operating goods. We are only going to talk about those suppliers that have a direct bearing on your product.

The specific services that you probably need at one time or another are product design, patent support and product testing. We have covered product design and patent support in previous articles. Just as in buying anything, do your investigation.

Do they have experience in the type of product or industry that you are working in? Do they provide you with a clear understanding of what they are going to accomplish for you? In many cases you will have to place a certain amount of trust in them as many of these areas are admittedly areas in which you have little experience.

What I always tell my clients is that I have not completed my job for them until they are satisfied and have everything they need to move forward. On the subject of product testing this is slightly more arcane in that there are specific tests required by each industry. It is quite difficult sometimes for those lacking experience in the wiles of product validation to figure out exactly what tests are required and who can perform them for you. As a case in point I recently had to do just this for a specific component a client was wanting to use in a solar panel installation.

Now, bear in mind that I spent 10 years managing a product validation testing operation, so I knew the ropes fairly well. Despite that “inside knowledge” it took me over three weeks to identify the specific test and sorting through testing labs until I could find the one that could pull it off.

Let’s move on to the suppliers you will use for the components or operations that really make up your product. These organizations may or may not be in the U.S. You will obviously, just as if you were hiring an employee, put each of them through an interview process. You will also want to personally visit (or have one of your hired experts handle the visit) the final candidates. If you have a unique component, you will probably want to identify a backup supplier to step in case there is an issue. The checklist for selecting such a supplier is simple to create:
• Cost
• Delivery
• Quality

But, there is a lot more behind each of these simple words. The cost is going to be a factor of their experience, their operation, and their systems. Their delivery is going to be a factor of their experience, their operation and their systems. Their quality is going to be a factor of their ….wait for it……experience, operation and systems. Hmmm…how can this be? If a company has no experience making “prefabulated ammulite,” then their costs to make some for you will probably be higher than an outfit which has been making “prefabultaed ammulite” for years. (we’ll talk about how this has a bearing on the quality in a moment).

As before, if they have not been manufacturers of “ammulite” then their ability to meet a consistent delivery time and quantity will be in question. And again, with no experience in the manufacturing of prefabultaed ammulite, the ability to attain and maintain a consistent and acceptable level of quality will be difficult. Quality has a cost to it. That cost permeates the operations and systems throughout the organization. It has a direct bearing on any function that organization performs. It has a significant bearing on the costs within and without.

For this reason, you will want to make certain that your component or operation suppliers have a documented quality system in place. Verifying that such a system is in place and is effective is not simply a matter of asking, “hey, do you have a quality system?” I’ve shepherded the implementation of more than one such system. Give me a shout and I’d be happy to help you run this trap line.

So, choosing a supplier is very similar to hiring and employee. Put the supplier through an interview just like you would any employee. After all, you are paying each of them to do something for you. And, like any employee, you need to review their work and make certain that they are performing the work you are paying them for.

Next month we’ll talk about product testing.

John Herrick, Jr. can be reached 503-799-3580, jhunterh2001@yahoo.com. He is a principal in a local design and product development firm (www.smithherrick.com). The company’s focus is on electro-mechanical design and product development.

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