Turnaround Specialists

September 26, 2005

12 Min Read
Turnaround Specialists

Hurry up and wait. It's a fitting motto for custom-part manufacturing. Though you may be in a hurry to bring your product to market, you will have to wait for truly functional prototypes and low-volume production parts. You'll wait days or even weeks for accurate price quotes from suppliers. You'll wait for those suppliers to provide design-for-manufacturability advice. You'll wait weeks or months longer for the parts to arrive.

Take heart, though. Your waiting days may be over. An emerging class of quickturn suppliers has streamlined the custom-parts procurement process. These suppliers don't just sell parts, they sell time. Some can give you firm price quotes in minutes. And the fastest of them can supply production-quality injection molded parts in three to five business days, not the ten or more weeks it usually takes traditional suppliers. Others can consistently supply machined metal parts in a couple of days, a timeframe often available only to those who have a simple design and a good relationship with a hungry machine shop. For the best prices, these plastic and metal lead times can stretch to two or three weeks. Even so, these manufacturers move faster than their more traditional counterparts.

Today's quickturn parts suppliers take different approaches to supercharging their manufacturing processes. Some have grown out of rapid prototyping service bureaus. Terry Wohlers, a consultant who studies the rapid prototyping and manufacturing, estimates that there are as many as 400 of these service bureaus today. "Many of them can do some rapid manufacturing," he says. Other quickturn manufacturers have their roots in traditional shops that have learned to be leaner and more responsive. "There's some overlap in rapid manufacturing between service bureaus and conventional manufacturers," Wohlers notes.

Yet the handful of suppliers who have made the biggest departure from manufacturing as usual share two important characteristics that set them apart from the crowd: They've developed sophisticated web-based software that automates design analysis, price quoting, and ordering to varying degrees. And they also favor traditional manufacturing methods, so that their parts can faithfully simulate or even replace production parts.

Quickturn manufacturers may have automated the price quoting process, but they still produce actual parts using conventional manufacturing technologies, such as CNC machining. (Photo courtesy of Protomold Company, Inc.)

Shop On-Line

If quickturn manufacturers share a guiding principle, it's that quoting and ordering as practiced by traditional manufacturers represent a huge time sink. Traditional quotes usually require some sort of ongoing collaboration with the part's designer: Phone calls are made. Emails are sent. CAD files are reviewed. Designs are tweaked. All these steps, as worthwhile as they may be, can take days or even weeks.

Quickturn manufacturers have a very different model for quoting and ordering, one that more closely resembles an on-line store. "We think of ourselves as the Amazon of custom parts manufacturing," says Jim Lewis, president and creator of eMachineShop. And he's not the only quickturn manufacturer to invoke on-line retailing.

To make custom parts manufacturing more like a retail experience, the quickturn specialists have invested in automated quoting software that can account for a complex stew of cost factors. These knowledge-based systems all start with a CAD representation of your part. They automatically analyze the part geometry, along with a host of manufacturing requirements—such as the type of machine, finishing options, and more. They then return a binding quote in a timeframe that ranges from a few minutes to no more than 24-hours. The entire quoting and ordering process can take place on-line or through a combination of web-based and desktop software.

That's the general idea behind these systems. In practice, though, individual suppliers apply different amounts of automation. The most advanced systems require no human interaction to generate the quote from the time users submit their CAD files and make a few choices related to production volumes, delivery times, and manufacturing options. For example, Protomold, a pioneer in rapid injection molding, has developed web-based software that evaluates designs, suggests changes if necessary, generates price quotes, and compiles all that information in an interactive web report—all within one business day. Engineers do review those reports before they're sent but almost as a formality. In fact, Protomold President Brad Cleveland says that automation, aside from being faster, actually improves the accuracy and consistency of quotes. "Look for more automation from us in the future, not less," he says.

Rapid injection molding isn't just for prototypes. FKI Logistex uses it to make production parts for its warehouse automation systems.

eMachineShop likewise employs a fully automated process with minimal engineering review. Even though the company's software generates actual machining tool paths as part of the quoting process, this software can still return quotes in a few minutes. Unlike other suppliers, though, eMachineShop requires users to input their geometry and manufacturing choices in proprietary 2D CAD software that the company distributes for free.

QuickParts, meanwhile, takes a dual approach to quoting automation. QuickQuote, its automated on-line system, returns detailed quotes minutes after the user has uploaded a CAD file. For complex jobs or those that run on machines that haven't yet been folded into the instant system, QuickParts relies on a semi-automated approach in which engineers review users' CAD files with some help from internal design analysis and quoting software. In these cases, users get their detailed quotes back within 24 hours. As a third option, QuickParts also offers desktop quoting software for those users who can't or won't submit their designs on-line. While all three options will remain in place for some time, the company does continue to build out the instant, automated quoting option. The reason comes down not just to speed but also to the quality of quotes, according to Michael Maurice, the company's operations vice president. "Our technology is more consistent on quoting than a traditional manufacturer can be," he says.

Other quickturn manufacturers rely on a semi-automated approach and have no plans to do away with the human touch. Take Toolroom Express, for example. This rapid injection molder, which began operations early this year, has its engineers work up price quotes using internal software tools. It then returns quotes within 24 hours. Rick Haddock, the company's president, doesn't want to reduce the engineers' role, even as he works to speed up his process. "I think as our system matures, we can get to the point where we provide the quotes in couple of hours," he says. "But tooling and injection molding are so complex that I don't think you can completely automate the design review."

Manufacturing Models

It's tempting to think that these modern companies have banks of space-age manufacturing hardware that gives them a speed advantage. Rapid prototyping systems—like stereolithography and selective laser sintering—do play an increasingly important role in rapid manufacturing. Right now, though, traditional manufacturing methods still rule quickturn manufacturing. Three-axis machine tools produce most of the quickturn metal components as well as the core-and-cavity sets for rapid injection molds, which ultimately run on conventional molding machines.

Protomold's automated design analysis capabilities can quickly flag design choices that would drive up costs or make parts unsuitable for the company's rapid injection molding system.

Whatever their line-up of manufacturing methods, the quickturn houses take a couple of distinct approaches to speeding up actual part manufacturing. Some, like Protomold and ToolRoom Express, keep all the manufacturing in-house. Others, like QuickParts and eMachineShop, farm out all the work to sub-suppliers. QuickParts alone has more than 30 North American suppliers at its disposal, while eMachineShop sends much of its work over to Asia to keep prices as low as possible.

Both approaches have their advantages. Farming out the manufacturing work allows those suppliers to offer more types of manufacturing services. For example, eMachineShop does its share of machining, but it also counts sheet-metal bending, laser cutting, and sand casting in its roster of services.

On the other hand, keeping work in-house can provide what Cleveland calls "focus and scale." By focus, he means that the company can continually refine its workflow techniques to improve and speed up its integrated milling, toolmaking, and injection molding operation. By scale, he means that he can take on lots of jobs at any given time without worrying about the capacity of its sub-contractors. He reports that Protomold has handled as many as 90 parts for a single customer over a three week period.

From the user's perspective, the reliance on familiar manufacturing approaches has a tremendous appeal for two, sometimes overlapping, user bases. One of them insists on functional prototypes that don't differ from the production parts. Kurt Jenkins falls into this camp. An experienced plastics engineer at Xerox Corp., he explains that machined plastic parts or those made on rapid prototyping machines don't behave like outwardly identical injection molded parts during important functional tests—particularly dynamic ones. The injection molded part behaves differently because the molding process itself imparts internal stresses and surface characteristics that the other prototypes cannot exactly match. For this reason, Jenkins' team at Xerox has sent more than 100 jobs to Protomold over the past three years. "When we can get real parts, in the real material, we can chase down real problems," he says.

QuickParts and other web-based manufacturers have developed software that provides price quotes for custom parts in just a couple of minutes, rather than the days or week it normally takes.

The other type of user looks to quickturn manufacturing for real production parts. For example, FKI Logistex Warehouse and Distribution division has been relying on Quick-Parts for its injection molded production parts. Mark Hein, the division's vice president of R&D, recalls that he initially turned to QuickParts to get some SLA prototypes of an illuminated switch cap and housing end caps used on one of the company's warehouse automation products. He received those prototypes just two days after getting an instant quote on-line. "That really impressed me," he says. So he then started considering the supplier's rapid injection molding services to make the actual production parts. The thing that ultimately sold him was the ease of the transition between prototypes and the actual molded parts. Hein notes that his initial QuickQuote submission drove the whole process. He submitted his CAD geometry only once, and from that submission, QuickParts made prototypes and the injection molds. And he dealt with the same customer service representative as the initial prototype job transitioned to a low-volume molding in an aluminum tool to today's production runs of more than 50,000 parts/year in a multi-cavity steel tool. Other than place the order, Hein says he "didn't really have to do anything extra to get the molded parts." And FKI never had to purchase a mold since the tooling costs are rolled up in the part cost.

By turning to a quickturn supplier for production parts, FKI has tapped into an increasingly viable strategy for procuring production plastic parts. Hein describes his application as the "ideal target" for this kind of rapid production. FKI's plastic parts are relatively simple from geometry, tolerance, materials, and cosmetic standpoints. "We don't do any really complex stuff," he says. And in his case, production volumes are still low enough for the process to make sense from a cost perspective (see http://rbi.ims.ca/4397-561 for an analysis of the economics of rapid injection molding).

Production metal parts may likewise lend themselves to quickturn manufacturing. For machined and sheet metal parts, quickturn suppliers will simply have to compete case by case on the basis of their price, lead time, quality, and technical capabilities. They promise to be a good option for more than short-run jobs with tight lead time requirements. QuickPart's Maurice and eMachineShop's Lewis both argue that their manufacturing models can offer the lowest prices in larger production runs. As Maurice explains, "we don't have the manufacturing overhead of a traditional machine shop, and our suppliers don't have the sales and marketing overhead."

Getting parts from eMachineShop requires three simple steps. Download the company's free CAD and price quoting softwaree. Plug in your design information. And order the parts.

The most likely drawback to the quickturn suppliers may be their limited metal manufacturing capabilities. Nothwithstanding eMachineShop's foray into sheet metal and a handful of other processes, the focus remains on three-axis machining, which isn't surprising. "It handles the vast majority of milling applications," notes Maurice. But if you needing five-axis machining, EDM, or precision grinding, you may be out of luck if you want the shortest lead times. The same goes for die-cast production parts. Yet the good thing about quickturn manufacturers is that their systems, whether for metal or plastic parts, are works in progress. QuickParts, for example, is working to incorporate die-casting and five-axis machining into its QuickQuote system.

So its worth checking back if you don't see what you need. And if you want to see whether quickturn manufacturing is a good fit your application, there's an easy way to find out: Send a job through one or more of these systems and see what comes back. It's not like you'll have to wait long for the quote.

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