While on your search, concentrate on finding a supplier that’s a good fit with your product and its place in the market. But other aspects must also meet your needs: the manufacturing process, capacity, standards, turnaround time and cost.
There are five basic ways to manufacture a part: in-house (for companies with internal R&D labs or small shops with desktop or industrial 3D printers, CNC mill, or injection molding press), using an independent machine shop, partnering with a service bureau, partnering with a broker, and using a high-volume production house.
Each type of potential partners has its benefits, but knowing the ins and outs of each is essential. Before you start interviewing possibilities, sit down with your design and production team leaders and walk through your requirements and options. You might be able to eliminate some partners right off the bat – for example, if you don’t have your own equipment, in-house production can be taken off the list. Or, if you need high-volume production and quick iterations during development, you’ll probably want to avoid a high-volume production house at the start of your development.
Questions to Consider
As you evaluate your options, start by asking yourself six important questions:
1. Does the supplier have the manufacturing capabilities you need? When possible, visit the factory floor to look at its machinery.
2. Does it have the manufacturing speed and capacity to respond to quick-turn orders during product development, market launch or production phases?
3. Does it have a minimum-part order? Many high-volume production houses have large minimums, which can be a risky upfront financial investment if only low volumes of parts are initially needed. When low volumes are desired, look for a service bureau with no such restrictions.
4. Does it have the level of quality control you need? A medical-grade supplier’s quality control should be excellent, but that can add expense to a commercial-grade product that might not need an elevated level.
5. Does it work with your project’s materials? Service bureaus typically stock with the widest selection of materials on hand, and have the most expertise in using them. They often accept most customer-supplied materials as well, so keep this in mind if it’s a necessity.
6. Does it offer design support? If you’re not a manufacturing expert, advice or feedback on the manufacturability of your project could be in order. Not all partners offer this service, so make sure to ask about levels of support, and if there are additional costs associated with it.
Lean on Others for Advice
Remember that when choosing a partner, you don’t have to go it alone. Ask your network, or others developing non-competitive products.
Product-development consultant Perry Parendo, founder of Minnesota-based Perry’s Solutions, has extensive experience in the medical, automotive, aerospace and defense industries. For corporations, mid-sized companies and others with the resources to assess a supplier’s capabilities, he recommends working directly with a service bureau. For smaller companies and those without such evaluation expertise, a broker might be the place to start, as it can advise you through the process. Parendo typically recommends taking projects directly to suppliers to streamline communications, avoid the expense of a broker, and maintain greater consistency and control.
“You’re trying to build long-term relationships with select, critical suppliers,” Parendo says. “With a broker, you never know who [among their own supplier network] they’ll go to next.”
Michael Corr, founder of Duro Labs, a Los Angeles-based manufacturing consulting firm, agrees. He says working with a broker can make things simpler “if your own Rolodex of suppliers is fairly shallow.” A broker or intermediary can also help overcome language and cultural barriers, reducing the risk in dealing with overseas suppliers.
“You might lose a day because you have to send engineering notes to the translator and then they have to translate it and send it to a Chinese supplier, and then the reciprocal,” says Corr, whose experience includes working in China with contract manufacturers and suppliers. “But losing a day in order to save, say, three weeks, because a part has to be redone because of miscommunication, is worth it.”
Working directly with manufacturing suppliers, however, is the best way to avoid delays and mistakes arising from miscommunication, and enables your team to get feedback that can improve your current project and as well as future ones.
“Manufacturing is all about relationships with suppliers at the technical level and the personal level,” Corr says. “It’s all about what you can do to remove any potential ambiguity or misinterpretation because the risks are too high, or too expensive both in time and money.”
This handy “cheat sheet” is a good way to drive your internal conversation around potential partners. By starting with this overview and walking through the recommended questions, you should be able to narrow your search down to the one or two options best suited for your requirements. Here’s a closer look at the five options for potential partners:
1. Service Bureaus
Quality control: Consistency is a strong suit. They typically have better control plans, inspection reports and processes to ensure repeatability and reliability.
Turnaround time: Should be extremely responsive, with better results from those with the ability to respond immediately to your order.
Volume: This varies, depending on capacity. A small service bureau might hold little volume advantage over an internal shop.
Production cost: Cost varies but might be higher than some internal shops. Service bureaus, however, know the competitive landscape and price accordingly. Prices at larger bureaus fluctuate less than at smaller ones, which tend to drop prices when they need work and raise them when they’re busy.
2. Service Brokers
Quality control: Consistency is a potential problem because subsequent orders might go to different service bureaus. You might get exactly what you want one time but not the next.
Turnaround time: Time will vary based on the size of the broker’s network and the capacity of the suppliers within it. Delays are inherent as the broker bids out the project.
Volume: Volume also depends on the size of the broker’s network. If its usual bureaus are busy, your project might go to a lesser-known supplier.
Production cost: The broker’s practice of bidding jobs out might offer some savings. But using a broker adds cost.
3. Independent Machine Shops
Quality control: Quality ranges across suppliers and usually depends on their niche or expertise. Quality control at a machine shop specializing in aerospace or ISO 13485 medical devices should be excellent, and still be good but less formalized at “garage shops.”
Turnaround time: Independent shops should be fast and competitive when they have capacity, but are subject to backups when busy.
Volume: Because they tend to be smaller, machine shops might have capacity constraints. If your project is in the shop’s core service, it should have greater capacity for that than for other jobs.
Production cost: Shops specializing in parts for the aerospace industry, for example, or those working with exotic materials or parts with tight tolerance will typically be more expensive because of the higher-end machines required.
4. High-Volume Production Houses
Quality control: QC is typically very good. Production houses specializing in highly regulated industries typically meet the required standard. Quality control for commodity-type parts will be at a lower, but appropriate, level.
Turnaround time: Typically, turnaround time is good and predictable for high volumes. Delays might result if the supplier must acquire equipment to produce your part, which many do.
Volume: Large orders are their bread and butter. They will dedicate equipment to a project, such as a molding cell that will run parts for years at a time.
Production cost: The higher the volume, the better the cost, because of the focus on operating efficiently. If you need just a few dozen or a couple hundred parts, however, they’re more expensive.
5. In-House Production
Quality control: Typically, quality control is very good, but likely sporadic, in an early R&D shop, and better when a part is transitioning to production.
Turnaround time: In-house shops often operate at or near capacity, leading to long lead times that force development teams to outsource to get parts made quickly.
Volume: Typically work in lower volume because of limited capacity and specialization.
Production cost: Larger OEMs often have a friendly cost structure that doesn’t apply costs to individual projects. OEMs and in-house shops can be more expensive when manufacturing parts outside their forte.
With a number of potential partner models to manufacture your part, it’s vital to understand the benefits of each option. Before taking the plunge, make sure you’re on the same page as your design and production team leaders – that could help to narrow the list from the get-go. Then, remember to keep these factors in mind as you evaluate your options: the manufacturing process, capacity, standards, turnaround time and cost. When you finally decide upon a supplier, it will be a match made in heaven – and pave the way for a successful partnership for years to come.
Jeff Schipper is director of special operations for Protolabs.