Saturday, June 3, 2017

We'll make it your way

I work at a company that is essentially using Just-in-time manufacturing technique. Our product line is nimble and always changing, and our catalog is deep, so ww essentially build each order as it comes in. And as a necessary adjunct to this, we only keep enough stock on hand to fill known orders.

That's basically what I was doing. However, the lead time on acrylic, PCB boards, small parts, etc. is enough that I had to anticipate Holocron orders somewhat and purchase those materials ahead. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong. It looks like I'm going to be stuck with unused parts. Whilst, simultaneously, being short of what I need to finish the remaining orders.

The problem is largely one of changes.

See, there's a trap I was trying to avoid. I read a lot of horror stories, usually ones that unfolded in slow motion over long threads at the RPF. Someone would have a cool prop that people were interested in and start a run. They'd take money for the first ten. Then financial difficulty -- accidents, health problems, job changes -- would hit, and they wouldn't have enough money left for supplies. So they'd scrabble for another ten orders to bring in enough money to buy the raw materials to finish building the first ten.

And it would roll onwards from there, the debt getting bigger, the backlog of unfilled orders getting bigger, the excuses getting more ragged.

So I took names for Holocrons but did not accept any money at that time. Only when I built and shipped did I bill.

Trouble came, though, when I went to confirm. For each order that had been pledged I had to chase down the buyer and confirm their details, get a shipping address, send invoice.

Out of thirty-plus names, over half have changed their orders to a different style. Five have withdrawn. And ten have never gotten back to me.

Thing of it is, there were issues on this prop. It wasn't ready for general orders when I offered it. First off, I had refinements I needed and wanted to make to the design, refinements that had to be prototyped. Then there were potential shipping difficulties; I had to ship several to test that the size of the box, the fragility of the parts, and the changing regulatory environment around lithium polymer batteries were all surmountable.

Lastly, I had some last-minute inspirations, after I'd already started the run. One of those is responsible for most of the changed orders as it turned out to better satisfy the needs of my buyers.

So what's the lesson learned? I think it is to avoid opening up a general run during the development stage. To run up a design to full manufacturability and work out shipping and other details with small private sales. 

Then when I open a run, take money up front. Money, fixed orders, shipping data already included (via the PayPal system but in any case they already paid so the onus is on them to see I have what I need to ship). Purchase all the supplies at one go and assembly-line the props.

If I do another run. At this point, I'd really rather not.

Among other things, it feels deeply uncomfortable to be taking money for what is essentially hobby on both our parts (the customer's and mine). It can easily be argued that this is something that the customers want, that in selling a prop I am opening to them the opportunity they wanted to own it, and in any case I'm working at or below cost. But that doesn't feel enough.

There is also too much pressure on me to do really careful work. On my side, I can't afford to cut any closer to my actual costs (I'm probably losing money as it is), but on their side, that's a pretty big chunk of change. So I feel obligated to try to make it worthwhile and for me that translates to wanting to take more time than I can actually afford to.

Kits work better in that regard. The onus of the final finish is on the builder, not on me.

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