Prototype and Short-Run Manufacturing in 2022 in the United States
Prototyping and short-run manufacturing in 2022 requires facing emerging challenges in a changing world. The effective firm recognizes the need to adapt to this world, whereas the ineffective firm will see their costs increase and lead times lengthen as it attempts to apply legacy solutions. This article will survey the changing manufacturing landscape in relation to prototype and short-run orders and offer solutions that will maintain a firm’s effectiveness.
Manufacturing Service Providers
Labor Markets, Worldwide
The story of the 21st century continues apace, in spite of the short period of reversal associated with the 2019-2021 pandemic. Off-shore and near-shore resources continue to improve in technical ability, English proficiency, and supporting infrastructure. In developing countries, more industrial centers are being created while existing ones are becoming more specialized and higher skill.
In 2022, a firm that has not attempted to outsource lower volumes (10-100) in several years should attempt to find and build a relationship with off-shore and near-shore resources to evaluate them against other options. This may be done directly or with the help of a Manufacturing Service Provider. A firm that manufactures in an existing industrial center, such as Shenzhen, should attempt to find and build relationships with resources in emerging centers, such as Chengdu. It may be the case that many of the communications, technical, and lead-time barriers that existed 10 years ago are no longer a factor.
Manufacturing Service Providers
There has been an explosion of digital Manufacturing Service Providers since 2010 that manage manufacturing and supply chain for short runs (or high volume if needed). Once limited to 3D printing, these service providers now provide a wide range of processes using manufacturing networks consisting of factories and shops across the world. A service provider offers many advantages that improve a firm’s efficiency:
Speed. A service provider will likely have idle spindles available to start cutting chips immediately. Parts are immediately sent to secondary processes, eliminating so-called “shelf-time” that dominates most manufacturing schedules.
Cost. A service provider’s fees will likely be much lower than the fully burdened cost of the firm’s engineers conjuring and coordinating an ad hoc supply chain that can fabricate and deliver his parts in a reasonable time and with good quality.
Access to new or specialty processes. A service provider may know of niche or boutique processes that are unfamiliar to the firm’s engineering team. A firm that applies black oxide to their steel parts may discover that black phosphate is a better option thanks to the service provider’s network of expert resources.
Paperwork. A firm may resist adding and approving vendors to its accounting and quality system. Since the service provider assumes responsibility for quality and delivery, the firm doesn’t need to radically expand its approved supplier list or accounting system to take advantage of many more manufacturers.
In 2022, firms should try using a Manufacturing Service Provider instead of their go-to low-quantity resources. Some of the best include:
Firms that use a manufacturing service provider for appropriate jobs will see a boost in productivity from their engineering and support teams, as well as improved parts.
"We soak up the busy-work so engineers can get back to designing and machinists back to cutting chips." – Roald Dietzman, President, Fast DMS
Labor Markets, Worldwide
The tight job market will persist long after the pandemic is over. In the US, declining birth rates, reduced immigration, and a labor force drop-outs (due to early retirement or other reasons) will leave a demographic hole that will take a generation to refill. Some workers may be lured back with wage increases, pro-natalist policy, or friendly immigration policies, but these solutions will require years to impact the labor force.
In 2022, firms should focus on productivity investments to get the most out of their workers. An effective firm will investigate software tools and attempt to streamline operations by outsourcing non-core tasks. A firm that implements Slack in place of email (and trains employees on best communication practices) will get more out of each worker. A firm that uses a Manufacturing Service Provider (and trains employees to use it effectively), will further reduce workload.
Mismanagement and political dysfunction have exacerbated an already-challenging logistical situation for manufacturing firms. Demand for goods has spiked, but the worldwide capacity has struggled to respond. Specifically, the port of Los Angeles and Long Beach has become a choke point for many manufactured goods, caused by local political dysfunction for which no solution is apparent. Secondly, Chinese domestic and foreign policy threatens trade relationships and the free flow of shipping worldwide. It’s easy to imagine a future where shipping across the Pacific is no longer desirable. Container prices (up from $2k to $9k) and lead times (up from 3 weeks to 7 weeks) have already soured many firms to Asian manufacturing.
In 2022, firms should attempt to diversify their supply chains away from areas of political instability. A firm that relies on sea freight from China can investigate options in Mexico or the USA to avoid interruption or delay. The sooner a firm does this, the better positioned it will be in the event of a crisis–its competitors may be forced into a last minute panicked realignment. The efficient firm will have warm relationships, through its own efforts or through the use of a Manufacturing Service Provider, that can be spun up or drawn down as is required by geopolitical forces outside its control.
Edit 3/2/2022: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused factory closures all over Europe in Asia because of (1) closures of Ukranian factories critical for supply chains, and (2) economic sanctions on Russia and Belarus. In an interconnected world, what was once a regional 2-party war can now affect business worldwide.
Emerging Manufacturing Processes
Innovations in the manufacturing processes space have never been faster or more impactful. Rapid additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, attracts the most media attention, but in fact there are innovations across the entire landscape of manufacturing. In the area of 3D printing, new technology from Carbon and HP can make production-quality parts at lower prices than ever before. Outside of 3D printing, tooling for highly efficient processes (such as injection molds, stamping dies, sinker EDM electrodes) has become cheaper and faster to obtain, and therefore now appropriate for lower quantities.
In 2022, firms should reassess the processes used to make each of its components, starting with the highest cost parts. It may be that a milled part can now be 3D printed more efficiently, or that stamping is now appropriate for a part that had been cut with a wire EDM. The most efficient firms will maintain good relationships with experts in many areas of manufacturing, either directly or through a Manufacturing Service Provider, to constantly evaluate their parts for potential improvements to cost or performance.
Prototyping and short-run manufacturing in 2022 requires facing emerging challenges in a changing world. The effective firm will proactively reorient itself in order to maintain or improve operations for the next 12 months.
The ineffective firm will attempt to retain old processes and techniques, negatively impacting their profitability and product quality. To maintain your firm’s effectiveness, use this survey to create a 2022 plan for your manufacturing operations.