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How I Used the Canton Fair to Manufacture in China

Manufacturing in China & The Canton Fair

 

The China Import and Export Fair (or Canton Fair) occurs twice a year in Guangzhou, China in both the Spring and the Fall. Most of its exhibitors (officially: “Sellers”) are Chinese, although there are also countries represented from outside the mainland. Some are strictly factories, some are design teams, and some are a combination of the two.

Established in 1957, The Canton Fair has the longest history of any international trading event. It also boasts the largest scale, the most complete exhibit variety, and the largest and broadest buyer attendance. For those looking at manufacturing in or importing from China, it’s worth a visit.

manufacturing batteries in China
It’s also a great opportunity to nab some free samples!

It was while attending the Spring exhibition of The Canton Fair in 2017, that I was inspired to create the DrawBag. I had picked up a kraft paper bag in one booth and immediately thought, “Why hasn’t someone drawn on this thing?” Thus began my own journey into product design and ultimately manufacturing from China.

manufacturing tyvek bags in China

 

manufacturing kraft paper bags in China
I noticed paper bags starting to appear early in 2017.

Most of the Canton Fair’s attendees are foreign importers (officially: “Buyers”) looking for new products to bring to market in their home countries. Others, like myself, are designers looking for manufacturers to collaborate with and for inspiration to work from. However, pictures are typically prohibited around exhibitors’ new products, and business cards are gently demanded. This is so that sellers know who they are dealing with and have a means of follow-up whether you show interest or not.

manufacturing Jesus in China
You never know who you’ll meet there.

Using The Canton Fair To Find New Ideas

 

Because I’ve already settled on my two manufacturers, I go to the Canton Fair now primarily for inspiration. I live just a little way down the metro subway line from the two stops that access the fair, so it’s not hard to drop in.

In a previous blog post I break down the process by which I find new ideas from looking at multiple existing ideas or problems. I recently I went back through my old notebooks and found some ideas inspired from previous attendance at the Canton Fair. Here are a few of them:

  1. Cat habitats with themes (James Bond hideouts, Yoda’s hut, bridge of the Enterprise, etc.)
  2. Old skool physical amplifier for smartphones — like a brass trumpet
  3. Magnets instead of zippers/buttons on clothing

I had the inspiration to create these (at least in my imagination) from looking around at what was being exhibited during the Fair, and doing a mental mash-up with other ideas already in my head. I haven’t actually taking the time to do a google search to see if product like this have been made yet. I don’t actually know if they are even “good” ideas! But they are interesting ideas to me.

Using The Canton Fair to Find a Manufacturer

 

A friend and early partner found the manufacturer I eventually settled on for producing the DrawBag at the Canton Fair. I’ve been quite pleased with them, and our relationship has expanded to include personal conversations and discussions over dinner about things like the state of education and art in China.

Neat people.

manufacturing bags in China
My factory partners in manufacturing (except for the cute one on the left– that’s my amazing design partner, Gigi.)

I didn’t meet my marker manufacturer at the Canton Fair, so I’ll discuss that story in a separate post.

The Dangers of Manufacturing in China

 

I’ve visited five different factories in the past year while developing the DrawBag and two unrelated products. Three of these factory visits resulted in healthy and profitable relationships going forward, while the remaining two factories did not. Instead, these two held onto my designs and prototypes while progressively dropping communication to zero within half a year’s time. Whether these other prototypes are now gathering dust or being produced under some other brand name… I  know not.

Background checks are absolutely essential on any manufacturer you are considering working with. Although I learned this the hard way (by getting swindled) I recommend you arm yourself with knowledge before sharing your ideas. Also be aware that a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is only like a bike lock: it’s a useful deterrent, but not an effective means of recovery.

manufacturing bags in China
This character kept one prototype of mine and never replicated it as promised (but he looked so sweet…)

During my learning of the manufacturing process in China this past year, I found a massive reservoir of information on the website Chinaimportal.com. I ended up purchasing what they call “the Starter Package,” which is a start-to-finish guide for someone like me who is attempting to manufacture and import from China.

In a future post, I’ll chat with Chinaimportal.com’s co-founder, Fredrik Grönkvist to discuss a how he assisted me in producing the DrawBag in 2017.