Shopping for a Rapid Prototyping Service Provider

imageThere are a lot of companies out there providing Rapid Prototyping, Rapid Manufacturing and 3D Printing as a service to others.  As of this writing, Wholers Associates lists 98 around the world. That list does not include the smaller providers or companies who offer RP services as a side service.  It certainly does not include the hundreds of people with low cost 3D printers who will make parts for people. 

With so many choices, how do you pick the right one?

Well, the obvious answer is you just pick PADT to be your service provider.  That makes it easy and you can stop reading now.

Didn’t Work? Damn. Well it was worth a try.  So, taking off the PADT marketing hat and putting on the design engineer hat and engineering manager sweater, here is how I recommend that you make a logical decision:

Why are you Making a Prototype?

Before you do anything you need to ask yourself this question and get a good answer.  Sometimes, the real answer is because it is cool and you want to impress your boss or customer. That is OK. Just keep it in mind when you pick a vendor.  Somebody cheep and fast that delivers so-so quality may not be a good choice.

An important part of the question is also what will you use it for?  Most prototypes are made for visualization – a 3D image.  But many are also made to check fit, form, or function. How you plan to use your prototype should impact the technology you use, and the material choices you make for that technology.

Does it need to look like the production part? Does it need to perform as close to the production part as possible?  If the answer to either question is yes, then you need to really look at what post-processing (sanding, surface finish, texturing, painting) your prototype will need and which providers can supply it.

In fact, if your potential RP service provider does not ask what you want the prototype for, you probably are working with the wrong provider.

Establish what is Important to You

Every customer is different, and often every project is different.  A good place to start is to look at these typical priorities, grouped into three classes, and rank them for your company:

  • The Basics:Image
    • Cost
    • Speed
    • Quality
  • The Interaction:
    • Location
    • Responsiveness of Staff
    • Effort Required to Work With
  • The Capabilities:
    • Technologies Available
    • Material Offerings
    • Knowledge and Experience of Staff
    • Post Processing  Available
    • Down Stream Services Available

Too many customers that we see at PADT who have worked with other service providers, and who have had a bad experience, just look at the first two priorities – cost and speed.  The reality is that there are a lot of things that impact the overall effectiveness of your prototyping effort.  Once you know how you will use your prototype, you can better determine what is important to you.

So rank your priorities and evaluate your potential vendors on the important ones.

Assessing the Basics: Cost, Speed, Quality

Cost and speed seem very easy to obtain. You just send your part file to the potential vendors and get quotes with cost and delivery time. But, you have to look at what you get for the cost, and what the total cost and time are.  Do you need to post-process the part yourself?  Will the quality, surface finish, and material strength meet your needs?  A part made on a low cost 3D Printer may only be $50 versus $500 on an SLA machine.  But if it breaks during your test, how much will that cost?

If you have not worked with a provider before, quality can be tough to determine.  Ask for a reference.  If they are local, go see their shop and look at sample parts.  It might be good to have all of your potential vendors make a simple and inexpensive sample part for you so you can compare all of them before you go off and order $12,000 worth of prototypes.  After you get parts from a vendor, make a note of the quality. If you work for a larger company, maybe share that with purchasing so they know who delivers high quality, and who does not.  We all know that a purchasing person will simply go on the transaction cost if you do not give them other factors to work with.

The Price of Interaction

Manufacturing consulting meetingThis is by far the most difficult set of priorities to define and quantify.  This is the fuzzy stuff that deals with the time, money, and emotional capital that is invested by you during the process of getting your prototype quoted, purchased, made, and delivered.  I wish there was a formula, but you just need to make a gut decision on this one.

After you interacted with a vendor, ask yourself if you found the interaction enjoyable and productive?  Did you get the information you needed quickly and efficiently?  Did they call you back or respond to your email in a quick manner? Did you feel that you were working with them, or was it a bit of a battle? 

I consider this important because what we are talking about here is Rapid Prototyping. It is not “I’m way ahead of schedule, have plenty of budget, and can wait to get my part whenever –prototyping.”  You are doing RP because you need a part fast, you need it right the first time, and your whole product development schedule is probably being held up by it.

If your RP partner is hard to work with, when you get into those stressful I-need-it-tomorrow situations, you can not afford the emotional and financial cost of battling our coaxing your provider to help you out. You need to know you have someone on your team that will step up and come through for you in a pinch.  Never under estimate the importance of how hard or how easy it is to interact with your Rapid Prototyping service provider – keep it in mind and let it weigh heavily in your decision.  It will pay off when you get to crunch time.

What does your Vendor Bring to the Table? Capabilities

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Novices in the world of 3D Printing or Rapid Prototyping usually start of with the thought that they just “need a prototype.”  What they have yet to learn is that there are literally hundreds of different options – combinations of various technologies, materials, and post-processing steps.  Picking a service provider based upon capabilities is actually easy:

  1. They need to have most of the major technologies available (SLA, SLS, FDM, Polyjet).
    A provider that is focused on only one or two technologies will fit your needs into what they have. They only have a hammer, so whatever you ask for, you will get a nail.
  2. They must offer a wide range of materials for each technology they have in house.
    This is a big one.  Often customers can get a part that is the wrong stiffness or strength because they use a vendor that just does not offer the full range of materials.
  3. They can offer the post processing you need for your prototypes planned usage.
    A vendor that has to go outside for detailed sanding or painting is just not going to work. They need to be able to give you the part, looking like you want it to look, when they are finished and without running around and counting on other providers.  If they tell you that it is easy and you can do it yourself, walk away.
  4. The engineers on staff understand the strengths and weaknesses of each technology, material property, and post-processing option.
    All of the other capabilities are useless if you can not talk to someone who understand them. You need to be able to call or email someone at your vendor, tell them what you want to do with your prototype, and have them give you reasonable options on how to get there.  If they just have people processing your order through a piece of software, you will get burned in the end.

Cliché’s Exist for a Reason: Don’t be Afraid to Shop Around, Ask Questions, You Get What you Pay For

In conclusion, we should all remember what our grandmother probably told us a few times. I know mine did: Don’t be afraid to shop around. If I put my service provider hat back on I cringe at this. We would like all of our customers to stay with us forever and never stray.  But the truth is that it is a competitive market out there, and if you do not shop around, then you may not be getting the best product and we may not be as focused on making sure we keep you as a customer.  So in the end, we all benefit.

And another thing she said: “Eric, ask questions. It doesn’t hurt anyone to ask questions.”  So do that. The answer may not be as important as how a potential provider answers the question. Does it show they can listen, that they know their stuff, and that they care about you?

Lastly, and most importantly: You Get What you Pay For. There is not need to elaborate on that one.

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This is a short list, and there is a lot more to think about. Do not hesitate to contact us at PADT to ask more questions and to learn more about how to pick the right Rapid Prototyping service provider.

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