3 Tips for Manufacturing Products That Last a Lifetime
Companies across consumer product categories, from Patagonia apparel to All-Clad cookware, are successfully marketing their products by focusing on longevity, not price.
This time last year, a small website called Buy Me Once launched a solution that filled a previously unmet shopping need: It gave people an easy way to search for products that are built to last. The site attracted more than 400,000 visitors in less than two months after its launch, and has been widely recognized for helping people purchase products that they will enjoy using for decades to come.
The recent emergence of sites like Buy Me Once, Buy This Once and other similar sites signals a significant market opportunity for entrepreneurs. By researching those sites, they can identify consumer categories filled with soon-to-be-disposed-of products, and introduce alternatives that will last a lifetime.
However, these people should know that they still face a long road ahead; bringing your product to market is much harder than just coming up with the right product design.
I personally learned about the difficuly of building durable products ten years ago, after founding a company to sell umbrellas I designed that were built to endure. In growing the venture into a global business, I’ve come to appreciate the following lessons when making products that will last:
Implement a quality-control program at the beginning of production, not the end.
Umbrellas are surprisingly intricate mechanisms -- it can take over 200 parts to make a single folded unit. During one of our first production runs, we learned the hard way that little can be done after mass assembly to fix a flawed rivet or a missing spring. When this happens, starting production from scratch is often the only viable option, since disassembling a product can compromise its build integrity.
This type of nightmare can be avoided if you work with your manufacturer to establish several quality checkpoints at the beginning of the process, as soon as the parts and materials arrive. Early detection is the key to a successful production, especially when you are dealing with high-end products that have lots of components.
Any single part can derail a product’s success, as owners of the ill-fated Samsung Note 7 will attest.
If your manufacturer reps tell you that they can only do quality control after production, ask if you can implement the pre-production quality-control process yourself. If the manufacturer you’re working with doesn’t agree to this, find another one that will.
Avoid the inevitable inertia to compromise.
Particularly in Asia, where manufacturers frequently work with clients whose goal is to achieve the lowest price, the best factories look for ways to save money and increase efficiency for your company. Over the years, though, I’ve faced situations where manufacturers have switched materials suppliers without telling me, or made requests to omit certain product aesthetics to streamline production.
These compromises might seem small, but collectively they will have a significant impact on the final result.
When making a product that lasts, one of the many critical areas where you cannot comprise is material quality. Plated plastic might be less expensive to work with, and synthetic leather might look like the genuine item, but neither will endure. When you look at companies like Gibson or Calphalon that have built highly successful businesses by selling products guaranteed to last, you’ll notice that they never compromise on material quality.
Beyond using the highest-quality materials, always look for ways to improve how your product is assembled, without sacrificing the important and often small design cues that make it special. When looking at Rolex’s manufacturing process, you’ll see that the company has invested in its own R&D team to focus specifically on making improvements in this area.
While startups might not be able to afford a dedicated staff to improve manufacturing processes, Rolex’s actions offer a clear indication of how even the world’s most successful companies don’t rest on their laurels when it comes to manufacturing.
Choose the best manufacturer, then, regardless of that company's geographic location. To build a product that lasts a lifetime, make sure that everything is at the highest-quality threshold. Beyond using authentic and durable materials, choose a factory in the best geographic location for producing the product, whether that be in the United States, China, Italy, Germany or another country.
When we were looking for manufacturers to produce our first line of folded umbrellas, I learned that China had a tight-knit ecosystem of suppliers and assembly factories within several small provinces that made production extremely efficient. Yet, when we started making a line of traditional wood shaft umbrellas, we decided to source the wood from Italy and assemble the units in the U.K.
It might have made more economic sense to have all our production centralized in one region, but we chose manufacturing facilities for each model that would ultimately deliver the highest-quality products.
Don’t shy away from the costs associated with using the best manufacturer for whatever you’re making, even if that means having to charge a little bit more for your product than you initially expected. The people who will buy your product will do so because they would rather purchase one item that lasts than an endless stream of cheaper replacements.
Offer an unconditional lifetime guarantee.
Despite your best efforts to create a durable product, you’ll still have the occasional defect. Adding an unconditional lifetime guarantee that extends the product's reliability beyond its normal shelf life shows customers just how much you stand behind your product’s durability.
Le Creuset and Briggs & Riley are great examples of successful brands that offer an unconditional lifetime warranty, essentially guaranteeing that customers will have a great experience using their products for decades. They understand the implicit agreement: If customers pay the right price, they will get something that stands the test of time.
I understand that, particularly for companies that are just getting off the ground, taking the step to offer this type of warranty isn’t easy. In 2005, our team hesitated before offering an unconditional lifetime guarantee; we were initially concerned that people might try to take advantage of the offer.
However, we quickly saw that a request for repair or replacement was also a golden opportunity to re-engage and impress our customers. In time, our guarantee became our most valuable word-of-mouth marketing tool.
David Kahng is the founder and CEO of Davek, a global provider of high-performance umbrellas. As an entrepreneur and mechanical engineer, he has focused his career on designing products with high aesthetic standards. He received his MBA from Columbia Business School.