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How the Factory Lockdowns in Spring 2020 are Still Affecting Us

In the Spring of 2020 our factories in China (and pretty much everyone all over the world) were on a temporary lockdown with major restrictions of movement. By early summer most of these were lightened and most of our factories indicated to us they were back to work at full capacity. Then in July there was a surprise outbreak in China – not in the province our factories are located, however. This didn’t seem to directly affect things, luckily.

When I wrote a series of updates in the Summer regarding these events – particularly that there’s a new outbreak – there was quite a bit of flack I received with many comments on Kickstarter and in forums echoing some form of “other KS projects are no longer delayed with the lockdowns in China lifted, why are yours still going slowly?” A summary of my response to that continues to be: I don’t know. I am not privy to anything going on with any projects but ours.

So what gives? Factories have been at “full capacity” for months now. Why are things still delayed after the big “pause” in the Spring?

The answer isn’t complicated, but it’s not easy to condense into a single sentence. The first thing to know is that the delays created by a pause of four months don’t equate to simply “four months” once operations resume. I.e., things don’t simply pick up exactly where they left off the day right before the pause with no other effects on the schedule. Let me walk you through why that is. I’ll have to use some arbitrary numbers to explain, but all will make sense.

Let’s suppose that a factory who regularly makes big, plastics-heavy games takes, on average, 10 months to make each game. Suppose it can handle a capacity of 30 such projects being worked on in a given month. Based on this, if it’s typically at full capacity, we can determine that the factory can only take on 3 new projects in any given month; if it ever took on more than 3 in one month, it would be at 31 projects, an over-capacity.

If a factory is given a project when it’s at capacity, it builds a backlog, rather than turn clients or jobs away. For example, if in May there are four new projects from clients, and it doesn’t want to turn them away, it takes on three of them, and the fourth is begun in June instead, when the next set of three projects leaves. Note, I’ve never heard of a factory declining to take on a project no matter what is going on – even during the lockdowns (they just say they can’t start until later, naturally). I get quotes from a dozen factories, usually, for any project we look to do – all of them always want to take everything on.

So far so good?

Now, what if the factory is shut down for four months, say between March and June? A few things.

First, publishers still bring games to the factory as new projects, building up a backlog of new projects (if they normally take on 3 per month, there could be as many as 12 new projects waiting to start in July). Perhaps fewer than 12 were built up, because publishers were also less active during the pandemic. But I can tell you that Petersen Games sent several (smaller) projects to factories last summer – notably Cthulhu Wars: Duel which was manufactured in late Summer 2020, and the files were provided to the factory when the factory was essentially “paused.” Also, Evacuate, Potions and Profits, and Invasion of the Brood.

In July, once operations resume, the factory has to resume the thirty active projects it had before the lockdowns. But it also has a new backlog of 12. That means it has 42 projects, which is over capacity.

Now what? How are things prioritized? Obviously, “first in, first out” is a great policy in theory. But does it hold up in practice? Yes and no. It’s entirely possible that a particular mix of older and new projects makes the most efficient workflow for which of the 30 projects they’ll want to work on when operations resume. After all, games are not uniform. Suppose one of the new projects has only 5 molds and one of the old projects from before the pause has 20 molds. Those two projects could form an efficient combination together if the factory had 25 injection machines. Furthermore, how many miniatures are being made per mold? Perhaps the project with 5 molds has lots more minis per mold than the one with 20 molds, meaning those 5 injection machines will be used for longer. The factory will work out which project is best to fit in with those 20 machines after that project is done. And so forth.

My point is that “first in, first out” may be less efficient overall from the factory’s perspective which seeks to maximize its total output and total revenue it can get from clients. And that might mean, sometimes, that older projects are not “first” to resume even when operations resume.

While we have a good relationship with all the factories we use (and we use several), I am not privy to the ways they prioritize every project, and there’s only so much influence I can wield in very unusual circumstances such as this. I’m sure every client was simultaneously asking when things will be ready and how long the delay is, and if there’s can be put to the head of the line, etc. (And if any factory would be accepting more money to be earlier in line, that’s not something we can afford right now for any of our projects – and it feels ethically dubious to do so, anyway, which makes me averse to the idea).

One way I have helped influence things is by physically visiting the factory floor in China. By going to the factory, the management wants to show me their progress and give me very concrete details on everything. Because I’m there in person. I’ve seen this help move our projects along several times in the past – for a few years in a row I went at least twice per year. But I haven’t been to any factory since November 2019. This 14 month gap is the longest I’ve been away since I first went to a factory in 2014. This pandemic sucks for lots of reasons, and this is one of them.

Not everything of ours has been affected. For example, our Hastur Rising project did not experience very long of a pause (it did have a brief one). We sent the 3D files during the height of the pandemic, but because of the nature of the project – with one miniature – it was judged something that can basically continue with very little additional delays once normal operations resumed in the summer. This no doubt pushed back projects of other clients of that particular factory. Sorry guys!

My ultimate point is not to describe all the actual logistics of a factory – after all, I don’t mention Chinese New Year, a regular major pause in operations, and projects are of various sizes so having a uniform “30” capacity in a given month is totally bogus – as is the idea that only exactly 3 new projects can start, and 3 projects leave every month like clockwork. Clearly this all depends on each project individually.

My point is that there IS a capacity, and ever since the lockdown all factories we work with have been at overcapacity while seeking to get things back to normal. Remember, just because operations have “resumed” as long ago as six months doesn’t mean that everything was only delayed by the amount of time of the “pause” itself.

Oh, and we’re STILL sending new projects to them. I have all the files ready for the follow up to Cthulhu Wars: Duel, for example. And they say nothing on this can start until after Chinese New Year, even though that’s still weeks away.

Also Shipping. Major backlog there. Check out this piece from my friend, Tony Mastrangeli.

Although things may not be pretty, at least now you know. Which is half the battle, I’m told.

– Arthur

UPDATE January 19th:

Six temporary hospitals have already sprung up again – one built in 5 days – in response to the resurgence of Covid-19 in China.