Setting product tolerances – look before you leap

What people are saying about Mulberry Fields
Your blog speaks to the many issues I have experience with when doing business in China” – a company in California

Anytime you have a product that being manufactured in China that relies on human labor or natural materials you need to give your vendors tolerances. If you are making a willow basket in China, for example, you cannot expect that each basket will be done to exactly your specs because willow is a natural material and the basket is woven by hand. Ditto for many textile products where natural fabrics are concerned and there is significant CMT ( Cut/Make/Trim) involved. And then you have to take into account product color. Natural materials react with and hold dyes unevenly and it is sometimes very difficult to match a color on a swatch. In short consumer goods are inherently imperfect. Because of this it is unreasonable to demand or expect perfection from your vendor or to impose excessively rigid production tolerances.

When you set tolerances, you should check to see if there is an industry standard. In some industries where many parts are made by automation there are globally recognized tolerances. In other industries there are no tolerances and tolerances will be set by the buyer. For example, going back to our willow basket, if the basket is meant to fit into a retail display box the overall product tolerance would pretty much be the inside dimensions of the box. As far as interior dimensions, assuming it is a gift basket, the tolerance would be the minimum which would allow everything to be fit into the basket. That that would be a reasonable product tolerance for a gift basket.

But setting tolerances is an art and should not be taken lightly. You have to find a tolerance that allows you to maintain your product integrity but at the same time a tolerance that is fair to the vendor and does not ask them to do the impossible. If you have extremely rigid tolerances, you run the risk of putting a strain on your vendor that will only have a negative impact on your production. Vendors will become frustrated, angry and at some point might just give up. For this reason if you do have a product that is handmade – or even partially handmade – do some research on tolerances. Don’t just throw out a number to your vendor without acknowledging the difficulty of the endeavor and a justification for your standards.

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