Back in the day, when it was time to find a manufacturer for your product, finding the information and contacts you needed was a challenge. Nowadays, in our interconnected online world, there’s a wealth of information available. You just need to know where to look. To help you get a jump-start on your search, we’ve gathered the best online resources for you to find a manufacturer for your product.
Before you start making phone calls however, you should take the time to do the preliminary work needed to answer the questions prospective manufacturers are going to ask. This work includes: designing your product, building a prototype to shake out all the kinks and prove your product works as designed, and protecting your idea by getting the patent process underway. You’ll find resources for all these steps below.
Ready? Let’s roll up our sleeves and begin.
Online Resources for Designing Your Product
The first step is to design your product. While it’s likely you’ve already done this when you thought up the idea, it helps to get professional input so your product is what you envision while also being easy, or at least feasible, for a manufacturer to produce.
Enter the industrial designers. These folks are pros at helping you design your product so it both matches your vision and meets manufacturing standards. What’s more, they can provide design drawings and documentation, both of which will be useful when it’s time to find a manufacturer.
Use these online resources to find the industrial designer who’s right for you:
Core77 Design Firm Directory
Created in cooperation with Bloomberg Businessweek, the Core77 Design Firm Directory  is a great place to start your search for an industrial designer and other professionals who can help prepare your product for manufacture.
The site lets you search by type of professional, location and even budget — a critical concern for small businesses.
The Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA)
The IDSA provides a directory  of members broken down by state (and sometimes city). Unlike Core77’s search, it’s more difficult to quickly focus in on exactly the type of resource you need. That said, you will find plenty of industrial designer listings here.
Elance is a well-known online marketplace for hiring freelance professionals. They have a section  devoted to product design and CAD freelancers, complete with past project reviews and other useful information.
Online Resources for Creating a Prototype
Next it’s time to go from paper to reality by building a prototype. This is sometimes called, “proof of concept” because you’re essentially validating that your design can be produced and that it looks and operates as designed.
If the design doesn’t pan out, you need to head back to the drawing board for some redesign. It may be frustrating, but this step can save the time and effort of revising your patent application later.
Use these online resources to find the prototype creating pros.
Though ThomasNet is best known for its online US manufacturer listings (we’ll talk about them again when it’s time to find a manufacturer for your product below), they also provide listings for other types of services, one being prototype creation. Head on over and look for this preliminary search  to get you started.
JobShop.com is another directory that will be discussed below. However, like ThomasNet, they also list  folks who produce prototypes.
Finally, our third resource for prototype producers is IndustryNet. As with the previous two resources, this site includes many types of suppliers including a handy selection of prototyping professionals .
Online Resources for Patenting Your Product
Once you have a well-documented design and a working prototype, it’s time to apply for a patent. Having either a “Patent Pending” or “Patent Applied For” label in the documentation you send to manufacturers makes it much harder for another company to steal ownership of your idea. The patent office already has your proof of ownership in your patent application.
Use these online resources to apply for your patent:
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)
The USPTO  is where all the patent action goes down. The site is a veritable goldmine of information, making it the perfect resource for any questions you may have. If you’re preparing your own patent application, you’ll also find information on how to do so as well as the form you’ll need to use.
The United States Patent and Trademark Offices Patent Attorney/Agent Search
Preparing a patent application on your own can be a daunting task. So it may be time to have someone else dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s. For just that reason, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office provides a handy search tool  for finding a licensed patent attorney or agent near you.
Online Resources to Find a Manufacturer for Your Product
Now that you have a well-designed, patent-pending prototype, it’s time to look at online manufacturer resources. This is the moment we’ve been working towards so let’s get started.
Online Resources to Find A Manufacturer for Your Product – North America
As noted above, ThomasNet  is the ultimate “product sourcing and supplier discovery platform”. With almost 5,000 manufacturer listings, you’re bound to discover one that can produce your product.
Did we mention that it’s free?
Claiming to offer, “factory sourcing made easy”, Maker’s Row  is an attractive site and powerful under the hood. There are lots of ways to search for manufacturers on this site, though using the system does require a free registration. For more advanced features, a monthly fee is required .
IndustryNet  provides listings for many service categories above and beyond the previously noted prototype makers. From manufacturers to consultants and software providers, you’ll find enough links to keep you busy for a while.
Last but not least in our list of North American manufacturer resources, JobShop.com  offers over 400 product and service categories to search. Unlike IndustryNet, there are less non-manufacturing listings, such as the prototype categories noted earlier. But sometimes less is more when you need to focus in and find a manufacturer for your product.
Online Resources to Find A Manufacturer for Your Product – Beyond North America
Whether it’s because of unit cost, production capacity or speed to market, you’re more likely to find a manufacturer for your product more quickly if you broaden your search beyond North America.
At first glance it may look like some of the sites in this section offer only finished products for sale. However, dig a bit deeper and you’ll find that many of the listed exporters also make products for small businesses like yours. That said, you’ll also find straight-up manufacturer directories here as well.
One of the most well known resources in this list, Alibaba  is a site on which you can spend a lot of time. With thousands of listings in hundreds of categories, finding a manufacturer for your product won’t be a snap, but you can definitely do it here.
MFG.com  is one of the easiest-to-use resources included in this list. You’ll find straightforward categorization of over a hundred manufacturing disciplines on this site and listings that include manufacturers from almost every country in the world.
Bizbilla  offers a broad range of listings ranging from manufacturers to wholesalers, agents and more. There’s also a product tab that can be used to find manufacturers as well.
While it looks like they list only end products available for export, Global Sources  does contain tons of manufacturer listings. It might take a bit of digging, but the results may well be worth the hunt.
Focusing exclusively on Hong Kong, China and Taiwan based companies, HKTDC  offers not only manufacturer listings but many other types of service listings as well. One tip: to focus in on manufacturers, choose a product category and then in the right column of the category page, click on the “Manufacturer” box under the “Business Type” header.
Think Outside of the Box
Finally, if you want to skip the manufacturer search altogether, then check out Quirky . They’ve set up a unique system where you can submit product ideas and the ones that get the most votes (and meet their specifications) get designed, produced and sold on their site.
Now that’s a great idea.
Manufacturing a product of your own can be a challenge, especially if it’s something you’ve never tried before with your business. Hopefully, this list of resources will make it easier to bring your concept to life for your customers.
Manufacturing  Photo via Shutterstock