What Does the Future of Contract Manufacturing Look Like?
For ages, manufacturing has been the domain of the well-heeled, or large, corporations. With the entry costs of mass manufacturing hovering somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars, small-time engineers would often have to stake all they had to produce the first run of a new product. But, in the last few years, a different breed of contract manufacturing operations has started to open advanced manufacturing to the masses.
So, What’s Driving This Change in Contract Manufacturing?
One of the biggest barriers preventing access to manufacturing has been the overhead cost required to assess how a part can be manufactured. Today, a number of companies in the United States have taken it upon themselves to develop online technology that can quickly evaluate 3D geometry, provide near instantaneous quotes and also deliver manufacturability assessments for almost any part. Moreover, these same companies have also equipped themselves with the machines necessary to rapidly fulfill orders using both additive and subtractive manufacturing methods.
In the past, if a design firm needed a short-run manufacturing contract, they were often sidelined by larger players looking to make thousands if not millions of parts. What was more demoralizing was the fact that even if they could get a manufacture to consider their project, it was often too expensive to pursue their plans under a mass-manufacturing paradigm.
But today, this next generation of contract manufacturers has provided an infrastructure for anyone, regardless of how complex or how few parts they need, to enter into the world of advanced manufacturing.
So, who are these manufacturing movers and shakers? Let’s look at a couple of industry leaders.
With Proto Labs, Manufacturing Reemerges in the Midwest
Minnesota’s Proto Labs (an evolution of Protomold) was founded in 1999. At the time, the company’s founder Larry Lukis was frustrated with the high costs and long lead times that came packaged with the injection molding practices of the day.
Finding that system simply untenable, Lukis, a self-described computer nerd, had the idea that manufacturing could be made cheaper and more accessible if the process of diagnosing how a part should be manufactured could be automated by software.
Fast forward some 15 years, and Proto Labs has grown to a manufacturing powerhouse that supports both plastic and metal additive manufacturing, machining and, of course, injection molding. Most importantly, Proto Labs has stayed true to its original idea of making all aspects of manufacturing cheaper and easier to access through automation.
But how’s that work?
To begin the Proto Labs journey, users are asked to define whether they’d like a part made using additive manufacturing, machining or injection molding. Once a manufacturing solution has been selected, users need to create a Proto Labs account. After an account’s been established, users are directed to their dashboard, where they can select if they’d like to build a project in plastic or metal. With a category of materials selected, users can select the exact type of metal or plastic that meets their project’s design requirements. If the right material has not been selected, Proto Labs will also connect clients with in-house design engineers that can help users make the right material decision.
With material selection out of the way, it’s time to upload 3D geometry. With a simple click, files can be added to a user’s dashboard and sent out for a quote. If the geometry in a 3D file can’t be manufactured true to form, Proto Labs’ algorithms will identify problematic regions and return those results to the client. However, if all is well with a project’s geometry, then it’s time to hit submit and let Proto Labs’ technology do its work.
Figure 1 A CAM Gear in milled in 4140 by Proto Labs. Check out that amazing finish.
Now, while that may seem like a bunch of steps to take before getting a quote, it actually only takes a matter of minutes. Most amazingly, within a few short hours, a quote for your part shows up in your email, and if you accept it, it’s likely that your project will find its way to a production machine in a matter of hours. So, depending on your shipping choice, you could have your part in hand in as little as 24 hours.
How can I know this?
Well, Proto Labs allowed me to take their service for a spin. After uploading my part—a tiny 18-mm gear for a scale model of a Howell V-Twin engine I was given a very reasonable quote ($237.73) and decided to send it off for production. Within 36 hours, I had a perfectly finished gear, milled in 4140 steel in hand.
Obviously, I was impressed. Not only was my gear true to its model’s geometry, it was produced rapidly and for the right cost and used state-of-the-art technology to both process and manufacture my project.
Xometry Blends the Best of the Web with Advanced Manufacturing
Newer to the scene, but by no means behind, is Maryland’s Xometry. Founded in 2013, Xometry also leverages automation to democratize advanced manufacturing. Stocked with PhDs and a team with years of experience developing industry-leading Web platforms, Xometry prides itself on the simplicity of its user interface. What’s more, Xometry also boasts powerful technology that makes part quoting and manufacturability diagnosis quick and, in some cases, instantaneous.
When I tried out Xometry’s service, I found it incredibly easy to use. The process for quoting and ordering a part couldn’t be any simpler.
To begin with, the Xometry experience requires that a user account be established. Once your credentials are straightened away, users are presented with an interface where files can be uploaded one, or several, at a time. With all required files uploaded to Xometry’s service, users must select between CNC or several different flavors of additive manufacturing. Once a manufacturing method has been chosen, a material must be selected as well as a finish, if desired. With all of those facts entered into Xometry’s system, a user only needs to apply those attributes to a part and then hit “Request Quote.” If possible, Xometry’s algorithms will give an immediate quote for additive manufacturing; however, for CNC operations, a quote will take a few hours.
Figure 2 Primary and Secondary Cam Gears printed in 17-4 Stainless by Xometry
For my purposes, I chose to print two separate gears for the same Howell V-Twin. One of the gears was identical to the example machined by Proto Labs, and the other was another gear that fit within the same engine. After following the five-minute process that I described above, by selecting to print the gears in 17-4 stainless steel, sans
finishing, I was presented with a quote immediately (both parts were $267.12 in total). With a simple click, I was whisked to a payment-processing platform and my order was away. Within a few days, I received my gears in the mail. Again, Xometry’s printed model was identical to the original 3D models—another short-run, contract manufacturing success.
What’s the Take Away?
In the end, whether you’re choosing Proto Labs, Xometry or another contract manufacturing firm, the bottom line remains the same, contract manufacturing has made the business of prototyping, short-run production or even mass manufacturing a realistic option for designers on any budget.
What’s most spectacular about both of these new manufacturing platforms is that they’re incredibly simple to use and their order turnaround times are without comparison. If you’re an engineer looking to get parts made for live design reviews or for short-run engineering applications, both Proto Labs and Xometry should be your first stops.
Simply put, innovation just got easier, with the barriers to manufacturing now surmounted by Proto Labs and Xometry. What’s to stop engineers from developing incredible products?
For more information on these two services, please visit their websites.
About the Author
Kyle Maxey is a mechanical designer and writer from Austin, TX. He earned a degree in Film at Bard College and has since studied Mechanical and Architectural drafting at Austin Community College. As a designer Kyle has had vast experience with CAD software and rapid prototyping. One day he dreams of becoming a toy designer.