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Many companies are expanding U.S. sourcing to keep manufacturing and engineering in close proximity so as to partner more effectively and promote product innovation. At the same time, companies are also shifting to U.S. suppliers for quality, to be closer to customers for increased flexibility, to minimize supply chain disruptions and for faster time to market. However, aligning engineering and production sometimes is easier said than done.
“We’re seeing daily evidence that domestic relationships are being sought out and built,” said Robert Moakler, chief operating officer of Fabricating.com, an online sourcing platform that connects U.S. buyers and suppliers. To illustrate that, he pointed to the experience of Haag Engineering Co., forensic engineers and consultants since 1924.
Haag's engineers specialize in assessing damage and failures in a broad range of areas and disciplines, including aerial lifts, construction cranes and heavy equipment; energy; geo-technical; mechanical engineering and metallurgy; electrical engineering; and structural engineering.
“The company came to us seeking a supplier for an especially tight tolerance they needed to produce a prototype.”
Specifically, finding the perfect supplier, one that could hold a tolerance of one half of a thousandth of an inch, is what brought Haag together with Fabricating.com.
Haag assigned Erica Lee, the company's product and communications manager, the responsibility of finding a high-precision supplier with the ability to meet an extremely tight tolerance of 0.0005 of an inch. The endgame was to manufacture a prototype of their newest design – the Haag Panel and Membrane Gauge.
It quickly became clear to her that not only could Haag’s “go-to” Chinese manufacturer not able to meet the requested tolerances, neither could any of the companies she was cold-calling in the United States.
Unlike other parts sourced in the past, this complex metal fabrication required holding a tolerance of one half of a thousandth of an inch after being heat treated and plated – literally the equivalent of splitting hairs.
Here is how the Haag gauge will be used: When an adjustor or roofing professional suggests replacement roof materials during a damage assessment, they need to know the standard gauge of the original material. Sometimes that information is not readily available from the building owner, so the roofing professional will need to take a measurement of the damaged material.
The Haag Panel and Membrane Gauge includes standardized slots for measuring the widths of steel and aluminum panels as well as single-ply roofing membranes. A magnet is conveniently affixed to the gauge so that the roofing professional will be able to determine whether a metal panel is made of aluminum or steel.
Finding a supplier with the capability to meet Haag's specs was turning out to be significantly more challenging than anyone had anticipated.
After weeks of dead ends, the engineers at Haag found they needed to streamline the supplier discovery process. Finally, they discovered e-sourcing and essentially hit the buyer “easy button” when it was realized that an online marketplace was an accelerated way to expedite finding the U.S.-based supplier with the expertise and the machine assets needed to complete the project.
Within days they found well-qualified suppliers who could hold the required tolerance. The project specs were revised based on handheld guidance from the e-sourcing provider’s customer service team along with extensive feedback from the expert supplier network.
“When the engineers at Haag joined our sourcing platform, they were able to find knowledgeable U.S. contract manufacturers who were proficient in holding the tight tolerances and had the machine assets necessary to meet the precise requirements to get the job done,” Moakler said. “Once the Haag team issued the first RFQ as a registered buyer, the source of their frustrations immediately came into focus. What Haag was asking for was next to impossible, but the manufacturing experts in our network were proactively offering alternative solutions for their consideration.”
Of the many suppliers offering feedback in the e-sourcing network, Chirch Global Manufacturing stood out specifically.
Lee, Haag's project manager, said: “Chirch impressed everyone by working really hard to solve issues that we didn’t know how to manage in terms of the manufacturing. What made this experience even more positive and unusual, is that we had a customer service representative from Fabricating.com walking us through the entire process.”
Suppliers in the e-sourcing network provided samples of past work, suggestions on material and processes and answered questions from the Haag engineers. From there, based on the extensive feedback collected from the supplier network, the Haag team went back to the drawing board and emerged with a revised, more precise RFQ.
Two weeks later, Chirch Global Manufacturing, a contract manufacturer based in Cary, Ill., delivered the prototype into the hands of the Haag engineers. Swift engagement and accurate feedback resulted in Chirch Global being awarded the job.
Chirch's sales manager, Jeremy Hahn, says that a very precise heat-treating was applied to controlled areas within the tool, which ultimately was made out of mid-phos electroless nickel plate, mostly due to the uniformity of the deposit, as the littlest change could make a big difference to the tight tolerances. At a thickness of .0002 of an inch to .0003 of an inch, the metal was baked for three hours at 375 degrees for hydrogen embrittlement relief.
Haag's engineers were fortunate to work with Fabricating.com, Hahn said. “Metal stampers, laser cutters and waterjet guys would never quote this job. For buyers, utilizing this marketplace is like having a pool of resources where they can go and throw all their fish in the water and see who tries to catch it.”
In Hahn's view, the relationship between engineering and production is important: product innovation works best when the two are able to partner effectively.
When manufacturing is moved next to engineering so design engineers can work closely with manufacturers, they can improve the design, eliminate waste, improve quality, increase productivity and make the product more easily – sometimes at a lower cost.
Resilient supply chains require robust relationships between buyers and suppliers that are critical for sustainability, says Moakler. U.S.-based supplier discovery, collaboration and strong buyer/supplier partnerships will have a game-changing impact on procurement in the U.S. and foster an environment for global competitiveness. Discovery, communication and effective collaboration helped facilitate this successful U.S. buyer/supplier relationship and solve a critical issue.
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