Looking to get into custom manufacturing? Here's what to expect.

Lee Ebreo

October 7th, 2015 Shenzhen, China

It's 80 degrees Fahrenheit at 50% humidity. I'm wearing business shoes, slacks, shirt, and a jacket, standing outside a factory waiting for our driver. I'm still very much jet lagged - a 13 hour time differential is weird. The days’ bookends are reversed, and the middle hours are the worst because instead of a full night’s sleep, you have a full day’s work. To make matters even more difficult, in Shenzhen, it seems that a large portion of work is traffic. Our driver claws his way back, and we make our way back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel we have a few hours before we head out to visit another manufacturer, and in that short time we need to eat lunch and debrief on the factory visit, which goes as follows:

"Does what we saw corroborate with the monthly capacity they stated?"

"Did they say two or three weeks to source material"

"They hardly asked any questions about our business - did they understand what we are trying to do?"

"That warehouse was cluttered - how do they keep track of products?”

On that first trip to Shenzhen, China became something other than a theoretical destination, or a news headline. It became a living, breathing reality, and an amazing one. Each factory visit put me in front of highly-skilled people who build our phones and tablets, from the factory manager down to the inspection teams. It turns out that all of the electronics that we take for granted, that we purchase at stores or online each have a history. It was a privilege to trace the steps backwards from the retail shelves and digital shopping carts all the way to Shenzhen to see how these products are made, and what it takes to make them.

It was also, quite frankly, nerve-wracking. We weren't there as tourists. We were there to do business. We were there to execute a strategy key to ContextMedia's future growth. A mistake in selecting a manufacturing partner or a miscalculation in logistics could stall our growth, which would mean failing our Healthcare Providers and our Patients. With that in mind, we embraced those meticulous conversations about our visits, so by the time we needed to make a decision, we did it with confidence.

The nerves, the attention to detail, the many 14 hour flights back and forth. It's worth it. It's hard endurance and thinking work, but it's given us advantages,

First, we now have control of our supply. The exam room tablets installed in 2013, 2014 and 2015 are all consumer tablets that you find off the shelf, the well-known brands that make those tablets (Apple, Samsung, etc) change their products frequently. For them, this makes sense, because they have a diverse set of consumers they need to please and entice. ContextMedia needs tablets that don't go end of life every two years to make room for the next models. As we continue to install more products in U.S. Healthcare we can ensure that we have the right amount of hardware at the right time, which frees us from the whims of the consumer market.

Second, we can customize to our Members’ and Patients’ needs. For example, our elderly patients have poor sight, which means we don't want a 10" tablet screen, we want to go bigger. Now, we can. Having our logo on the UI takes up valuable touch screen real estate, so now, it's printed on the bezel. We have dozens more customizations queued for our hardware. It’s an exciting time - custom manufacturing can meet our ambitious designs.

Lastly, we can provide high quality products at a reasonable cost. In 2016, ContextMedia  is tracking to install 60K+ devices. We've been able to reduce the costs down substantially while improving the quality of our products, and we’re ensuring that there is neither a penny wasted nor a dollar spared. We are taking those savings and investing them back heavily in product innovation, talent and content production.

Are you looking into custom manufacturing? I have some advice.

  1. Go to China. You can't do this over Skype.
  2. Invest in soaking up the culture. It will help.
  3. If you can't speak the language, you better go with somebody who does.
  4. Ask for help from a diverse group of people. It's partly a mapping exercise.
  5. Make sure you know why you want to take on the tremendous task of custom manufacturing.

The last one is the most important, because you'll need to lean on those reasons when the going gets tough. For ContextMedia, the investment in time, resources, and focus that we’ve put into custom manufacturing is all done with our mission in mind: to improve health outcomes.


Lee Ebreo is VP of Product Engineering at ContextMedia. To see current opportunities at ContextMedia, visit ContextMedia Careers

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