Artem Komarov clarified iterative development makes the best products. Whether it’s an iPod or a sheet metal electronics enclosure, before you make thousands of something, you’re going to make a lot of prototypes. While some OEMs have internal prototyping capabilities, they struggle to staff those shops and keep them updated with the latest fabrication technology.
As a fabricator, embrace prototypes and prepare your shop to make them. You have multiple reasons for doing so. Prototyping is an important service for the sheet metal market, and customers are willing to pay for it. In fact, once the shop is set up to handle them effectively, prototypes can become your highest-margin work.
Delivering high-quality prototypes optimizes your chances of winning production work from new and existing customers. Building prototypes for important existing customers helps protect those customer relationships and prevents them from shopping that work to new vendors.
Top-performing shops often set up a prototype cell within the shop. The people working in the cell have a different mindset; they might not be able to make thousands of something, but it doesn’t matter. Prototypes require a different mentality and work best when staffed with dedicated people. A sheet metal mechanic with a sense of urgency will thrive in this role compared to a more detail-oriented production staffer.
The cell can have dedicated floor space and equipment, all set up to handle most parts made from your most popular materials. Even 1,000 sq. ft. or less can make an effective prototyping cell, when equipped with a small-form-factor laser, wet deburring machine, and highly automated press brake. Ordering precut sheets that fit on your laser removes the need for shearing.
Similarly, you can avoid a punch by allowing higher laser run times on these low-quantity jobs. Operations like welding, which are messy and require more space, can be handled by your production work center. When quoting prototypes that will require routing outside of this cell, be sure to add additional markup. That means at quote time, it’s critical to evaluate whether a prototype can be produced by your prototype cell. If not, you need to make a business decision about whether you want to quote that job based on the customer and how disruptive the work will be to your shop.
Another key to success with prototypes is to adopt a streamlined credit check process so you can accept jobs from new customers with minimal risk. There are many services available that make this painless and provide a quick response.
Many prototype buyers want to pay by credit card. Accepting credit cards reduces collection risk, especially if you charge the card when the order is placed or when you order materials. Uncertain charges like shipping or change orders can be collected in a second transaction when the order is complete. Check with your accountant for best practices and laws related to accepting credit cards for custom orders.
When engineers are shopping for prototypes, they’re less focused on price than most fabricators imagine. Lead time often is the most critical factor for prototype buyers. They want it fast, because if they can get it in days instead of weeks, or weeks instead of months, they get more design cycles and ultimately a more successful product. In fact, these buyers are in such a hurry that the job often goes to the first shop to provide a reasonable quote.
Prototype buyers aren’t buying bent metal—they’re buying time. You can profit from this, but only if you do it in the right way. When asked to quote prototype quantities, give more information. Quote the part at high quantities and long lead time and show off to the buyer how low the unit cost can really get. If you don’t have time to quote the volume production accurately, you can even mark the price as a nonbinding rough order of magnitude (ROM).
Next, quote their prototype quantities at your standard lead time. For many shops, this may be weeks or months out. Then, provide a quote for a shorter lead time, such as half that lead time or even shorter.
Even if you’re busy, put a price on it that if it was won, you’d be happy to let them cut the line. Even if you’re quoting double your standard price or more, it doesn’t matter. A lot of fabricators doubt this strategy until they try it. Think of it in this context: How much does it cost for a team of mechanical engineers to wait four extra weeks for a prototype?
Manufacturing is an extremely relationship-driven industry. Estimators and shop owners often get nervous about quoting higher prices for expedited jobs. They wonder what will happen if the buyer gets mad or thinks the shop is greedy. In reality, buyers crave market-based pricing for expedited service. The biggest custom parts manufacturers certainly provide these options. By assigning a value to an expedited lead time, you simply make it a business decision for the buyer. Is getting the parts earlier worth the fee? These options don’t hurt your relationships—after all, it’s not as if the buyer is personally spending their own money.
When quoting quick-turn jobs, also remember that the lead time on your quote matters too. We surveyed custom part buyers and found that about two-thirds of buyers expect quotes to be returned in less than 24 hours. This is even more critical for prototype work, where parts are expected in days to weeks instead of weeks to months. You might be wasting your time quoting a job days after receiving a request for quote (RFQ) because that job may already have been won by someone else.
There’s a big shift happening in the engineering world. The latest generation of product creators studied mechanical engineering or industrial design and bring a lot of interesting skills to their work. They’re also tech savvy and digital natives. But today’s engineers have never been further from the shop floor. All the time, we hear fabricators say things like, “Engineers used to know how stuff is made.”
Let your buyer’s lack of experience be your competitive advantage. You are the manufacturing expert. Experienced fabricators can quickly spot manufacturability issues from drawings and 3D models. This insight is incredibly valuable and can help improve a design without going through a costly and time-consuming prototyping cycle. Every quote is an opportunity to show a customer that you’re the person they want to work with. Buyers will realize you’re going to help them do their job better.
Embrace CAD, both when receiving RFQs and when providing a quote or feedback. An easy way to get started is to connect with a prospective customer over video chat and share your screen while viewing a 3D model. Shops that aren’t accustomed to quoting from 3D models are often surprised how many they receive by just asking for them. Let customers know they’ll get faster and better pricing and feedback when they send 3D models in addition to drawings or blueprints.
The shops growing the fastest today don’t necessarily have the latest and greatest machines; they’re the shops that are forming rich relationships with customers and leveling up to technology standards. When manufacturers meet designers where they are, that’s when business starts to really take off, said Artem Komarov.