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Choosing a rapid prototyping service bureau for the first time is a critical outsourcing decision for any organization, especially in light of just how important the service bureau's role is in assisting timely product design and development. The decision to use a service bureau to help speed a project along is a one-shot deal: failure is usually not an option. Speedily produced prototype parts that are dimensionally exact renditions of the original product design and that meet the customer's needs for form, fit and function testing are the only measure of success; anything less can put the whole concurrent engineering process in jeopardy in term of what's most important -- accelerated time-to-market.
Meeting the Customer's Needs Precisely and On Time
How can manufacturing organizations choose the right rapid prototyping service bureau the first time around and avoid the problems of hiring one that can't deliver the goods accurately and on time? Each product developer's needs are different in terms of software, prototype materials, quality, and performance, deadlines and confidentiality requirements. Going outside to a service bureau involves selecting one that can meet those needs precisely.
Making Rapid Prototyping a Reality
Part of the challenge in working with a service bureau in the first place is the relative youth of the rapid prototyping industry itself. Rapid prototyping is little more than a decade old, yet it is undergoing tremendous technical progress on a range of fronts -- in RP materials, CAD/CAM/CAE software, 3D printing, prototype and metal tooling, virtual prototyping, laser digitizing, etc. The best service bureaus are constantly on the lookout for new and improved technologies, materials and processes, and strive to incorporate the best of them into their menu of offerings.
The universe of rapid prototyping is rapidly expanding as the technology continues to penetrate new key markets. Yet many component and original equipment manufacturers still have little direct experience with rapid prototyping. Fewer still have invested in capital-intensive RP equipment systems directly because of a concern that their annual prototype volume isn't great enough to justify setting up an in-house model shop. And many of those who have, can't do more than produce expensive Stereolithography (SLA) models, which are fine for certain prototyping needs but not for others.
Sophisticated Technologies: Stereolithography and Vacuum Casting
Moving from a CAD image in 2D to a fully formed 3D model that one can hold and feel is a sizeable conceptual step that has a lot riding on it. The process of getting to the solid model further defines and tightens the original design, and perhaps modifies it as necessary. Usually the first prototyping iterations are off the mark. But by the time an SLA prototype is produced the design is close to its final form and shape. SLA technology, commonly associated with 3D Systems of Valencia, California, remains the fastest, lowest cost alternative for making functional prototypes, though in limited numbers.
To prototype functional complex injection molded designs in multiples, silicone rubber molding technology, provided through equipment supplied by MCP Systems of Fairfield, Conn. as an example, ensures physical properties that are closer to what might be expected from production runs of injection molded thermoplastic shapes. In fact, unlike conventional RTV (room temperature vulcanizing) molding, MCP-supplied equipment systems run high-end urethanes that simulate ABS, nylon and polycarbonates and provide thin-walled, complex-shaped prototypes of exact replication.
Outsourcing to a Service Bureau: In Whole or Part?
Typically, companies in need of rapid prototyping services can be characterized by three stages relating to involvement, education and knowledge levels. First, there are "greenhorns," novices working with a service bureau for the first time and learning (often by mistake) as they go. The organization in this situation may have an in-house CAD capability with some bells and whistles attached but usually little more.
After dealing with a service bureau for a small project or limited service, organizations in need of ongoing RP services usually seek more education on the full process, and begin to investigate available equipment systems and capabilities. At this point they may invest in the next step in the progression: purchasing SLA equipment. Finally, if their RP masters in terms of volume and regularity warrant it, they become RP masters in their own right, either meeting all their rapid prototyping needs in-house via their own rapid prototyping operations center, or by forming a strategic partnership with equipment suppliers and one or more service bureaus, wherein some functions are performed in-house and others are outsourced.
Progressing through these three steps, of course, is all a matter of how much organizational need there is for rapid prototyping, how often and how much, cost comparisons between in-house investment and contractual outsouring, and how much control the organization wants to assume over the process. As a result, service bureaus are essntial vendors and partners to this process because only the largest manufacturing companies or industrial design firms develop fully capable in-house RP operations.
What Makes for a Good Service Bureau
To be of maximum service, today's service bureau must cover all the bases, from concept through production, from simple projects to production of multiple prototypes in rapid fashion. It must be full-service, in that it has experience in all phases of product development and applications, as well as expertise in all relevant technical disciplines. Its technical base should be deep, founded on a strong engineering department, especially in CAD. It should possess a strong customer-service function, again especially on the technical side. At SICAM, for instance, in-house SLA and vacuum casting equipment systems are combined with an experienced team of engineers, model makers and toolmakers who have extensive experience in design and manufacturing engineering, new product development, and all relevent RP technologies.
The state-of-the-art service bureau should be able to perform all functions in-house, and it should be able to demonstrate that across-the-board capability and not just promise it by claming "PartsRUs." Nothing can be more dangerous to a customer's RP project than to have its service bureau outsourcing for functions it claims it can do itself. Diminution of control can lead to delays and even disaster. Outsourcing should only be trusted if the service bureau has a long track record that it can demonstrate, of working with one or more outside vendors in close collaborative fashion.
Quality and timeliness of delievry are of course absolutely essential. Remember, for the product development manager or project engineer whose decision it was to contract with the service bureau, failure -- and delays -- are not options. In the realm of quality, understanding customer needs, knowing what questions to ask and always providing quick responses to quotation requests are vital to building a mutually beneficial relationship between bureau and customer. After all, a service bureau is in the "service" business. At SICAM, projects are quoted within 24 hours, and an assigned engineer works closely with the client to coordinate the project from start to finish.
It Still Comes Down to People in the End
Considering the rapid pace of technology advances in rapid prototyping, staying in touch with new technical developments and investing in them is also essential, both as a means to stay competitive and to render the best customer service possible. Technology aside, however, people still buy from people as much as they buy technology or experience, and personal relationships will always remain the tie that binds customers and vendors together for strategic relationships over time. So "people skills" married to sound technical expertise makes for the "value-added" quality offered by the best service bureaus operating today.
About the Authors...
Peter Sikay is president of SICAM Corporation, a full-service rapid prototyping service bureau located in Somerville, 'New Jersey. Michael Wells is president of MCP Systems, a leading supplier of vacuum casting equipment systems and consumables, headquarted in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Service Bureau Sidebar Item
What typifies the right kind of RP service bureau to work with? What are some important considerations to keep in mind when selecting one? Here are comments from the heads of three of the nation's leading regional services bureaus.
"Matching the customer's needs to the service bureau's capabilities is vital. While some of the biggest service bureaus around today can make a claim of being all things to all type of customers, most can't and shouldn't pretend to. We think it's critical to stay in-house so that you don't lose control in outsourcing. Whatever you quote and claim, you should be able to handle yourself. That means staying in your niche and excelling at what you do best. Also, provide your people with ongoing training and cross-train to optimize each person's capabilities.
In selecting a service bureau it's very important that the prospective client perform due diligence. The more they know and understand about rapid prototyping and what it can do for them, the better the probable outcome. There's a lot of misapplication of technology taking place, most of it by misunderstanding. The client should understand what a service bureau can do: they should be able to independently assess the bureau's capabilities and experience level, and they must be able to articulate their needs precisely. Ultimately, the burden is on the buyer."
Terry Vance, President, Faster Inc., Huntsville, Alabama
"The right kind of service bureau is one that offer a breadth of capabilities, both on the technical end with respect to technologies and especially with regard to experience and knowledge of a variety of manufacturing processes. In this way, the service bureau acts as a real consultant to the client and not just a vendor. With a breadth of capabilities under one roof the client needn't feel he's being shoe-horned into an application that may not exactly fit his needs.
The experience of the service bureau's staff is its greatest asset to its clients, because it's people that provide the service. In comparison, technology is a secondary consideration, no matter how critical it is to the final product. Honest communication is a key factor, and that involves asking the right questions and setting clear and defined expectations. If a service bureau doesn't ask a lot of questions, be wary. Also, if their promises sound too good to be true, they probably are."
Steve Ettleson, President, Brookfield Rapid Solutions, Hudson, New Hampshire
"A solid service bureau should be able to offer its clients a full range of in-house equipment capability, combining conventional technologies like CNC machining and injection moulding with new developments like laser digitizing and reverse engineering. Advanced capabilities like stereo- lithography and vacuum casting should also be available in-house. Look for a service bureau that understands good CAD practices and rapid prototyping.
Beyond equipment, however, knowing what your needs are and what are the right questions to ask you up front is where a service bureau can really demonstrate its value. Rapid prototyping should never be treated as a commodity. Make sure you work with a service bureau that understands your project's parameters and requirements. It's not what we can sell you that counts; it's what we can do to help you meet your needs accurately and in a timely manner, even if that means suggesting alternatives. In this regard, advising you on the technical limitations of certain technologies is critical to ensuring your full satisfaction with the RP part."
Bruce Okkema, President, Eagle Design & Technology, Inc., Zeeland, Michigan
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