The business of manufacturing high-quality plastic mirrors is as much about relationships as it is about materials or processes. Starting with the very best raw materials is, of course, crucial to achieving a great end product, but the journey of securing those perfect raw materials is contingent on knowing the industry, having the right relationships, and building the right network.

Step 1: Ask The Right Questions To Identify The Key Players

Getting the first step right requires finding answers to a few key questions. Who provides acrylic, polycarbonate, and substrate for mirrors? What sets one supplier apart from another? What is the brand promise of each supplier? What are their strengths? To whom do they cater?

The answers to some of these questions come from firsthand knowledge, which can only be gained from years of experience, but diligent research is also required. Lots of companies make acrylic, for example, but only a few focus on quality above all else. Therefore, it is important for us, as the buyer, to visit the supplier’s facility and actually see the plant, the production process, and the sheets, and talk to the quality-control manager. Getting to know the sales representative is a good first step, but that is only one member of that company’s team. There have to be multiple relationships on several different levels to make an informed choice.

Step 2: Sample Supplies—The Test Drive Of Manufacturing

At some point early in the process, the supplier should give the buyer some samples. They should be easy to obtain and they usually will be provided free of charge. The only way to determine the quality of raw materials is to work with them. We try forming the plastic, metallizing it, testing how the masking holds up and comparing it to other materials we’ve already purchased. In this stage, we are primarily looking for two things: how are the optics and how does the material hold up during the manufacturing process?

As with any relationship, the person doing the selling puts his or her best foot forward. If the salesperson can’t get the sample right, it will likely only get worse from there, and that potential supplier can easily be ruled out. But even if the sample is good, the manufacturer can’t assume the supplier is necessarily qualified to become a partner.

Step 3. Follow Through: Crawl Before You Walk

More visits to each other’s respective facilities are sometimes beneficial. Raw materials providers often find it helpful when we send them our finished work samples to discuss what we liked and didn’t like. Assuming the samples were good, the next step is to run a reasonable initial production quantity of perhaps 100 sheets. This is the beginning of the sequence of crawl before you walk; walk before you run. We normally pay for the sheets at this point, and hence step 4 becomes important.

Step 4. Iron Out The Details

From here, it is time to work out the details, not just about pricing, but about the range of sizes they can offer, the dimensional tolerances on length, width and thickness, the specifics of the supplier’s own internal quality metrics, and, perhaps most importantly, lead time. Without acceptable lead time from suppliers, manufacturers can’t serve their customers in a timely manner. When customers want the finished product quickly, suppliers that can deliver quickly jump to the top of the list.

Step 5. Ongoing Relationship Building and Production Quantities

As we progress to purchasing in production quantities, the human relationships continue to grow. The supplier’s understanding of the buyer’s needs and expectations get further clarified. Understanding of the supplier’s capabilities grows and is clarified for the buyer. Mutual trust builds, which enables the relationship to be strong for the future time when challenges such as special customer requirements or quick shipments to fulfill hot orders are needed. Earned trust is the lubricant that makes the gears of the buyer-supplier relationship continue to operate smoothly and efficiently.

Quality products start with quality plastic materials. Identifying and securing the very best substrate requires research, strong relationships and thorough testing. There is no substitute for any of these vital elements.