Proto Labs' on-demand production facility in Minnesota houses more than 100
injection molding presses. (Image courtesy of Proto Labs.)Working with a
contract manufacturer is a relationship that’s often compared to marriage.
In both cases, finding the right match is the key to a happily-ever-after
outcome. As with matrimony, experts recommend focusing on compatibility before
going down the aisle—make that placing an order—with a manufacturing
The search for that right match should focus on finding a supplier that’s a
good fit with your product and its place in the market. The manufacturing
processes, capacity, standards, turnaround time and cost should meet your
Before taking the plunge with a contract manufacturer, you may consider
doing your project in-house. Prototyping or short-run production may work for
companies that have internal R&D labs or small shops with desktop or
industrial 3D printers, a CNC mill or an injection molding press. In-house
shops, while convenient, may fall short on producing more complex parts, often
have limited capacity so they become backlogged and may have a limited selection
To overcome those challenges, the ideal partner may be a service bureau, a
knowledgeable manufacturing supplier of parts with a full suite of services. The
best service bureaus will work with you all the way from design and prototyping
to engineering builds and on-demand production over the life of your
There are also companies that are considered brokers, outsourcing their
orders to a network of other parts suppliers through a model better known as
distributed manufacturing. This can provide you with more production options in
some cases, however, working with a broker may add time and additional layers of
communication as they bid out your project.
More than 450 CNC mills and lathes line the floors at Proto Labs’
production facilities around the world. (Image courtesy of Proto Labs.)Quality
and consistency may be a concern as well, since parts are being produced among
different manufacturers versus a single manufacturer with an established set of
quality regulations. In fact, there is a high rate of variability from machine
shop to machine shop when considering capital equipment, process controls,
quality standards and more.
An independent machine shop is a smaller manufacturing alternative,
typically specializing in a limited number of services. They also may run into
capacity constraints because of their size or when large customers’ orders take
High-volume production houses are the answer when you need many thousands
or millions of parts. Upfront engineering to ensure a smooth run will add cost,
however, and they likely will be slower and more expensive for prototyping,
short runs or low-volume production.
6 Questions to Ask When Selecting a Supplier
As you evaluate your options, ask yourself these six important
Does the supplier have the manufacturing capabilities you need? See for
yourself and visit the factory floor if possible.
Does it have the manufacturing speed and capacity to respond to quick-turn
orders during product development, market launch or production phases?
Does it have minimum part order? Many production houses have relatively
large minimum part orders, which can be a risky upfront financial investment if
only low volumes of parts are initially needed. Look for a service bureau with
no minimum part restrictions.
Does it have the level of quality control you need? A medical-grade
supplier’s quality control should be excellent but that would add expense to a
commercial-grade product that may not need such an elevated level.
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.
Does it offer design support? If you’re not a manufacturing expert, advice
or feedback on the manufacturability of your project may be in order.
These are some of the primary considerations that product development
consultant Perry Parendo advises keeping in mind when evaluating prospective
suppliers. Parendo, founder of Minnesota-based Perry’s Solutions, has experience
in the medical, automotive, aerospace and defense industries.
For corporations, midsized companies and others with the resources to
assess a supplier’s capabilities, Parendo recommends working directly with a
service bureau. For some smaller companies and those without such expertise, a
broker may be the place to start.
When possible, Parendo said, he prefers 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 said. “With a broker you never know who they’ll go to next”
among the broker’s supplier network.
a Los Angeles-based manufacturing consulting firm, said working with a
broker can make things simpler “if your own Rolodex of suppliers is fairly
shallow.” A broker or intermediary also can 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,, 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
Working directly with manufacturing suppliers, however, is the best way to
avoid delays and mistakes arising from miscommunication, and to get feedback
that will improve your current project and future ones.
Manufacturing is all about relationships with suppliers at the
technical level and the personal level , It’s all about what you can do to
remove any potential ambiguity or misinterpretation because the risks are too
high, too expensive both in time and money.
He added, “I personally never use brokers. I learn so much more by talking
directly to the supplier about what they need. It makes me better as an engineer
so that the next time I work with them or another supplier I will have direct
experience about what they expect.”
Choosing a Manufacturing Supplier: 5 Options
Here is a closer look at five options for choosing a manufacturing
1. Service Bureaus
Service bureaus typically have a wide choice of manufacturing technologies,
with the best offering a full suite of services such as injection molding, CNC
machining or 3D printing. In addition, these bureaus often provide online
automated quoting, and valuable design-for-manufacturability analysis.
Higher-value service bureaus will have the ability to work with you throughout
the design and development process as well as the entire life of your product.
Service bureaus typically have a deep knowledge of how to make the best use of
their processes and materials.
Quality control: Consistency is a strong suit. They typically have better
control plans, inspection reports, and processes to ensure repeatability and
Turnaround time: Should be extremely responsive, with better results from
those with the ability to respond immediately to your order.
Volume: Varies, depending on capacity. A small service bureau may hold
little volume advantage over an internal shop.
Production cost: Varies but may 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
A broker can help companies, especially smaller ones, that don’t have the
resources to evaluate suppliers. Brokers have an incentive to find the right fit
between their client and the outsourcing partner in terms of manufacturing
capabilities, quality control or certifications. Find out a broker’s sweet spot
and determine whether it aligns with your project. A broker specializing in
automotive prototypes, for example, might not be the right choice for your ISO
13485 medical device.
Quality control: Consistency is a potential problem because subsequent
orders may go to different service bureaus. You may get exactly what you want
one time but not the next.
Turnaround time: Varies 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
Volume: Also depends on the size of the broker’s network. If their usual
bureaus are busy, your project may go to a lesser-known supplier.
Production cost: The broker’s practice of bidding jobs out may offer some
savings. But using a broker adds cost.
3. Independent Machine Shops
These suppliers typically are smaller and more specialized. Some may be
good at working with challenging materials like Inconel, but may be more
expensive for basic aluminum parts. Machine shops may be among the best at their
core expertise but not in others.
Quality control: Ranges across suppliers and usually depends on their niche
or expertise. Quality control at machine shop specializing in aerospace or ISO
13485 medical devices should be excellent and should still be good but less
formalized at “garage shops.”
Turnaround time: Should be fast and competitive when they have capacity but
subject to backups when busy.
Volume: Because they tend to be smaller, machine shops may 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 typically will be more expensive because of the higher-end machines
4. High-Volume Production Houses
High-volume production houses, typically focused on injection molding and
CNC machining, reduce piece part price when running thousands or millions of
parts. Their niche is shaving seconds and pennies off of projects through
high-speed repetition, especially when running “lights out” or in a factory
that’s fully automated. Upfront engineering expenses may be high. These
suppliers typically don’t like doing prototypes because they’re not cost
effective at it.
Quality control: Typically very good. Production houses specializing in
highly regulated industries typically will meet the required standard. Quality
control for commodity-type parts will be at a lower but appropriate level.
Turnaround time: Typically good and predictable for high volumes. Delays
may result if the supplier has to acquire equipment to produce your part, which
many will do.
Volume: Large orders are their bread and butter. Will dedicate equipment to
a project, such as a molding cell that would 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
In-house production offers the prospect of convenience—just walk down the
hall to get a part made. A desktop or industrial-grade 3D printer can make a
concept model of a product or parts for form and fit testing. An in-house shop
with an industrial 3D printer, CNC machine, or molding press can provide
engineering-grade parts that are production representatives. That convenience
comes at a cost, however, from the upfront capital investment in equipment and
acquiring and storing materials to having skilled who can operate the machines
effectively. And that convenience is available only when an internal shophas
capacity. They regularly partner with service bureaus for quicker, simpler
production parts or functional prototypes.
Quality control: Typically 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
Volume: Typically work in lower volume because of limited capacity and
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.
See the chart below for a side-by-side comparison:
SupplierQuality ControlTurnaround TimeVolumeProduction CostService
BureauStrong ConsistencyVery ResponsiveDepends on CapacityMay Be Higher Than
Internal ShopsService BrokerPotential Consistency ProblemsDelays Due to
BiddingDepends on Size of NetworkBidding May Offer SavingsIndependent Machine
ShopVaries by IndustryDelays Due to CapacityCapacity Constraints Due to
SizeVaries by Shop SpecialtyHigh-Volume Production HouseTypically Very
GoodDelays Due to Specialized EquipmentDedicated Equipment for OrdersImprove as
Volumes IncreaseIn-House ProductionBetter for Transitioning to ProductionLong
Lead TimesLow Due to Limited CapacityOEM Cost Structure Doesn't Apply to