There’s little the guitar gear forum community enjoys more than a good scandal. Top of the list for Pedalgate performances is the case of the altered identity: Unmasking a popular pedal, rated for its boutique tones, as a repainted Far Eastern bargain box available on Ebay for half the price, is guaranteed to turn the internet apoplectic. When it emerges that each butter smooth overdrive with haunting mids is not carefully built from hand-picked parts over many days by a white haired guru with smoldering iron, but in fact, assembled in runs of a thousand in about 45 seconds from jelly bean parts on a pick and place machine in Shenzhen, the race to post the pithy comments begins. The angry, the indignant, the pseudo-scientific, and a curiously large number of lawyers, all compete for space, and much more than their 2 cents. It can be pretty funny and enlightening to read, until it gets threatening, which amazingly sometimes it does. If you’ve never read one of these it’s worth searching a few out.
Each case has its own merits (and demerits) of course, and there may be some real issues. For example, Country of Origin labels are often carefully regulated by international governments. In the United States, the FTC controls what can be sold with ‘Made in the USA’ labels, and the rules are complex and not at all obvious. Many quite large companies have fallen foul of this legislation and penalties can be very serious. If you are planning on selling products marked as made in the USA, I strongly recommend employing the services of (real) legal counsel, and a trade compliance specialist. Hint: just actually making it in the USA, doesn’t count.
The general gist of things though, is that taking someone elses product, sticking a new label on it, and selling it on as your own at a higher price must be immoral, illegal, or in some way or other wrong, surely? Except often it isn’t. I’ll bet almost none of the consumer electronics around your house were manufactured by the company whose name is on them. Your computer, phone, TV, refrigerator, microwave, power tools, yes, maybe your amplifier, effects, and even your guitar could have been manufactured by a completely different company. Don’t believe me? I have a sandwich grill on my kitchen counter called the George Foreman. It even has his signature right on the top. Now, he may have knocked out Joe Frazier, but I’m pretty sure no one here believes that the former heavyweight champion of the world is banging away in a shed behind his house knocking out griddle plates. The name on the front doesn’t necessarily tell you who made it.
If you design a product and take it to a specialist manufacturer to build it for you, this is called contract manufacturing, and it’s common with projects of all types and sizes. Take electronics for example. Many modern components, especially digital ones, are surface mount and extremely small. They are purpose designed to be installed by machines. Hand soldering surface mount parts is difficult, slow, and unreliable. The machinery and facilities to do it correctly cost tens of millions of dollars, but a CM can assemble your boards for a few bucks and make a perfect job every time. It’s the economy of scale. Hand soldering PCB’s doesn’t scale, so you send them out to a CM. Maybe you also use another CM with specialist milling machines for drilling enclosures, and one with coating facilities for painting. You get a high quality, consistent product at a reasonable price. Why would anyone complain about that?
Ok, so having a contract manufacturer build your product is one thing, it’s still your design and your work: You designed the circuit, laid out the PCB, did the 3D enclosure design, and created all the artwork and output files. The CM is just providing the machinery to make it. What you absolutely cannot do is take someone else’s finished product, paint over their name with yours, and sell it on as your own at a higher price, right? Wrong. Many manufacturers not only don’t care that you take their product and stick your own label on it, they have whole divisions whose sole job is to help you do it. it’s a hundreds of billions, probably trillions of dollars worldwide industry. It’s what Chinese manufacturing was built on. Welcome to the world of the OEM.
OEM is an acronym for Original Equipment Manufacturer. You may also hear it called private label, or white-box. There’s also ODM, or Original Design Manufacturer, which is sometimes used interchangeably but is slightly different. If you’ve ever looked at something such as a coffee machine, electric drill, or microwave and thought it looked exactly the same as another brand, there’s a good chance it was. OEM’s can grow their business and spread their R&D costs by selling the same product over again to different companies. Sometimes well-known brands have OEM divisions. My home wireless router has an ATT logo on it, but it has a Cisco part #. I have no idea who’s factory it was actually manufactured in. On the other side of the coin are companies with no real brand of their own who mostly only build products for others to put their names on. Ever heard of Westec or Quanta? Probably not, but I bet they made some of your electronics.
So what does this have to do with effects pedals? I probably get 10 emails a week from overseas companies, some I have heard of, most I have not, offering pedals, amps, guitars, cables, all manner of musical hardware. There’s one or two new ones every week. They have full ranges of pedals, amps of all shapes and sizes. Here’s an extract from a typical email I received a week or so ago:
We are the best manufactory of guitar effect pedals in china.
43 kinds of Tones be provided here.
Distortion, Overdrive, Chorus, Heavy Metal, Fuzz, Flanger, Phaser, ECHO/Delay, Booster ETC.
Accept OEM & ODM.
You can’t make this stuff up. Their price list has a full range of analog and digital pedals including digital delays, loopers, reverb and five different distortions, and that’s just their mini line. They also have tuners, flight cases, pedal boards. Prices go from $12 – $26. I can get a mixed case of 50 units for around $500 and they’ll send me free samples for testing. There’s no brand name on them, I can put on whatever I want. According to the literature they also have a ‘shinning surface’, ‘patend design’ and are fire-proof! Yowza! What am I waiting for? I’m setting myself up in the pedal biz right away.