A handful of forward-thinking manufacturers have evolved significantly over the past decade into digital supply chains that are far more agile, efficient, reliable, and versatile than their traditional predecessors. This is great news for like-minded companies and procurement teams wanting to partner with manufacturers that place importance on technology.
So, how do you find the right digital manufacturing company? From cost and quality to equipment and capacity, ProtoLabs suggests assessing these 10 areas when choosing a supplier.
Let’s start with one of the most obvious points of critique that a procurement team is tasked with: the reduction of overall manufacturing costs. Lowering your piece-part price in injection molding without sacrificing part quality, for example, is important. But what is the most efficient way to do that? Increasing volume and investing in steel tooling to shrink piece-part price, right? It could be, but then you are strapped with a significant and risky financial investment in tooling that could make or break your project if there is an unexpected market reaction and major design iterations need to happen to your product.
So, there are other options. Find a supplier that has different manufacturing levels to step into; if you are prototyping molded parts, then use prototype tooling. If you need low- to mid-volume part quantities in the tens of thousands, then use low-volume or bridge tooling. Mold costs with aluminum-based tools are often dramatically more affordable and the integrity of piece-part price remains intact when total cost of ownership is considered. In addition, there is no minimum order quantity with low-volume tooling and resulting storage fees for excessive inventory.
2- Turnaround time
Accelerated, reliable production speed is another critical characteristic that provides companies with agility at all product phases, from development to launch to growth to sunsetting. If your 3D printer is fast, your team might even have a few sitting on their desktops. But commercial-grade 3D printing equipment (that offers precision, repeatability, and low-volume production) is nearly as fast with digital manufacturers regularly shipping parts in as fast as one day. This is not really a huge surprise as commercial 3D printing has taken significant steps as a major manufacturing player over the past five years. What is more welcoming is the concept that “rapid manufacturing” is no longer limited to and associated with just 3D printing.
Traditional manufacturing methods like machining, sheet metal fabrication, and molding have all been digitised to consistently deliver low-volume production components in the same timeframe of days, not months. Find a manufacturer that embraces a technology-agnostic approach to digital manufacturing so you have a true “on-demand” manufacturing source across many different manufacturing methods.
See also: Culture Integration and Adaptation in Supply Chain
3- Quality system
In few areas of manufacturing is the concept of digitalisation more important than a supplier’s quality system. Automated software and hardware breeds speed and consistency. This concept of the “digital thread,” which stretches from CAD model to design analysis to production to shipping, is becoming essential to suppliers and should be a requirement of procurement teams looking for legit digital manufacturing companies to work with. Here are a few digitised areas to look out for:
- Automated Design Analysis. This helps save your company development time and production costs by avoiding design reworks.
- Traceability. Digital traceability software ensures revision control of customer data and tracks the digital history of key manufacturability communication.
- Inspection. Make sure the supplier’s scope of its monitoring and measurement system includes receiving inspection, machine-based inspections such as automated part probing and tool checks, in-process inspection, and final inspection.
- Visibility. A supplier that outsources its customers’ orders, inherently loses visibly and quality monitoring without an in-house quality system at work to monitor parts at every stage.
Certifications are really a subset of our aforementioned quality system point, but nonetheless deserve their own mention. So, how qualified is your supplier? If you work with a service broker, are its manufacturers qualified? Do you work with a supplier that is ISO certified? Certification is important because it provides independent validation and assures companies that suppliers are meeting verifiable standards.
5- Material selection and monitoring
You might have an amazing supplier that manufactures quality parts fast and cost-efficiently, but if it has a limited selection of materials or its own material supply chain issues, all of the attributes that make it amazing in the first place (speed, quality, cost) can be impacted. Hence, find a manufacturer that has a wide selection of in-house plastic, metal, elastomer, silicone rubber materials and one that accepts customer-supplied resins, but also a supplier that has good visibility to its materials. This is an important subtlety.
A manufacturer’s equipment list is important, such as Haas, Toshiba, Cincinnati, Arburg, Concept Laser, Viper, Projet, but touting an impressive inventory of machinery is not necessarily where the conversation should end. What is the manufacturer’s overall purchase and implementation strategy? An equipment-agnostic approach is a customer focused approach and it simply involves using the machines that are best suited for the production of parts. Such approaches help prevent the manufacturer from being anchored into a particular equipment brand. Within each particular manufacturing process, however, equipment redundancy can help drive consistency.
Like many of the points on the list, capacity is dependent on other areas like equipment and technology, and capacity issues can inherently impact turnaround time. Has your part order ever been deprioritised due to another company’s larger order? That should not happen if capacity is stable. A reliable supplier will typically run at 70-80 percent of its capacity so it has flexibility in its production schedule to avoid shipping disruptions. Ask your supplier what its on-time delivery rate is, and the answer: they should have that data and it should be in the upper 90 percentile.
Another benefit of large capacity is that if you are working with multiple suppliers at any given product phase and one of those suppliers runs into capacity issues, it is good to have another supplier with open capacity. One that is willing to produce parts on demand so your company’s procurement schedule remains linear and absent of production hiccups.
Manufacturing as an industry has been notoriously slow to adopt digitalised processes but for some manufacturers, technology-minded operations are the only way forward. Find a supplier that embraces technology – not one that hides from it – because it is highly beneficial to your company at every point of supplier interaction.
An experienced manufacturer is an intangible benefit worth factoring into an overall supplier audit. Years of business is important since the manufacturer has most likely produced millions of parts and analysed tens of thousands of part geometries. As a result, these manufacturing companies can recognise the most efficient ways to manufacture those parts. Experience also helps validate processes in pre production, during manufacturing, and postproduction, inspection, and shipping.
10- Ease of business
This is another intangible and underrated supplier attribute. Is your experience with your supplier smooth? How is the quoting engine? Do you have full transparency into costs? Is it easy to order parts? Do the parts arrive on time? Are there in-house points of contact that are responsive with any questions that arise? Other few questions to ask on your way to finding the ideal supplier. If your supplier has a clear answer to these questions, then you should collaborate with them.
Read also: The Continuous COVID-19 Pandemic: Have You Reboot Your Supply Chain?