October 13, 2020 - American Precision Engineering


Five questions to ask your fabricator

In today’s economy, you cannot afford to choose an inefficient manufacturer. A company without the design, fabrication, and management skill required to perform the work efficiency, could cost you time and money now (through inefficient production) or in the future (when design shortcomings cause product failures, such as the subject of blog post no. 2). In this post, I share five qualities to look for in a manufacturer to avoid these pitfalls.

Do you need a shop that can weld 4″ plate?

 1) Is the company an optimal size for the scale of your project?

When it comes to a custom manufacturer of your product, bigger does not mean better.  Your project is important to you, and you need a fabrication partner where it is important to them as well.  Larger fabrication shops can have tremendous machine capacity that can produce massive amounts of products which can be impressive.  However, this can also mean that they are manufacturing parts for very large & powerful companies that can push your project to the very end of a long schedule.

Along with the potential schedule impacts you might also not get the level of service that you are expecting.  This can be very important with new products since you are almost certainly going to have design iterations that can be very costly to both budget and schedule at larger shops. Make sure you do not select a shop based on square feet of manufacturing space. I recommend that product companies select a fabrication shop that is a smaller company then they are, or at least a similar size.  This will help keep the fabricator highly incentivized to perform to their highest level for you.

2) Do they have a Quality Management System?

You don’t need to be an ISO auditor to ask questions about a fabricator’s quality management system. Whether you are looking to mass produce an existing product, or you are at the early design stage of a new product, your manufacturing partner should have a process for how they assure customer satisfaction.  Three key things to ask about are: 1) How do they handle design and drawing revisions? 2) How and when do they inspect parts? And, 3) How do they handle non-conforming work?  The best way that these could be answered is with a written, document controlled, 3rd party audited process that can be explained by everyone that works there.  Some products do require this level of attention, and some do not. If you are confident that your product does not need this level of quality process documentation then I recommend that you at least tour their facility and ask how they will assure both a quality product and quality service.

Measuring the parts for accuracy to the print is important, but only one part in a successful project

3) Who will manage your project?

It is not the machines that make a project successful, but rather the people that manage the project.  Every project is measured by quality, schedule, and price, and machines can make a big difference in each of these areas.  However, it is the management team that combines them together in a package for you, and it is the combination that will make or break your project.  As projects become more complex, the management skill of your manufacturer becomes an even more critical aspect since small problems can easily snowball into giant issues of quality, schedule, and price if not professionally managed.  I recommend asking your potential manufacturer what relevant projects that they have managed to a successful outcome.  It is also important to know who exactly will be managing the project once you submit your PO.  You don’t want to fall prey to a bait and switch move by a sales team trying get your money, so ask specific questions about who will be managing your project.  A professional working relationship is critical to success in manufacturing so you should make sure the person that will manage your project will work well for you.

Who will manage your project?

4) What do they specialize in?

Taking the first fabricator you find is like going out for dinner in a new city by walking into the first restaurant you come across. If you are indifferent between a fancy steak house and a hot dog with mustard and relish, that might be okay. But if you have specific quality and price metrics that you would like to meet, I recommend asking the fabricator to tell you what they specialize in. If your project is not a good fit for their specialty, they might not be a good fit for you. Like many industries, the manufacturing industry is separated into many different niches.  Specifically, they separate into size and quality as shown below, with a 3rd Axis being their typical volume.  The business that is good at making one of something is usually not good at making 1,000 and vice versa.  And you probably wouldn’t want to get parts for your medical device made at any shop that has angle iron being machined right next to it.

Where is your product on this matrix?  Where does your fabricator specialize?

5) How clean is the shop bathroom?

Yes, I am being serious. If a business cares about the small details of a business, like how the bathrooms in the shop look, then it almost certainly cares about the small details of the products and services that it provides to you.  Having been to 100’s of shops, I can tell you that the correlation of cleanliness to quality is remarkably close.  The nicest shop I have ever been too has white tile floors, and the worst had insults scratched into the bathroom stalls about the ownership.  While you might not be able to actual visit the john, the same concept can be utilized by just looking around the shop and noticing how clean (or dirty) it is around and behind the machines.  If a shop can’t do the little things, how can you expect them to do the big things.

How clean the bathroom is says a lot about how they handle the little details

There is a lot that goes into the decision of where to have your product made.  Each product will have a host of concerns that are specific to itself.  However, using these 5 tips should get you pointed in the direction of success.


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