It used to be, buyers would think nothing of waiting a week for a part quote, and lead times of a month or two were no big deal. But times change. In today’s “I need it now” world, people expect everything to be lightening fast. This is just as true for buyers of sheet metal products as it is for those idling in the drive-thru at the local fast food restaurant, waiting for a cheeseburger and fries.
Fortunately, an increasing number of manufacturing and fabrication shops are catering to these near-instantaneous gratification needs. With automated quoting software and a high level of skill and organization, some shops return quotes within minutes and oftentimes can ship parts the next day.
Of course, this quick turnaround feat is made easier by the fact that these shops employ CNC laser cutters, which require no fixtures or tooling to set up: Just slap a sheet of metal on the table, upload a part program and get to cutting.
One company leveraging these capabilities is Xometry. Director of applications engineering Greg Paulsen says his company does far more than make parts quickly. It helps companies of all sizes find the ideal manufacturing solutions for their jobs.
“Our website puts most of the key manufacturing technologies in one place,” Paulsen says.“All you need to do is create a login and upload a 3-D CAD file, and you can instantly receive a price, see the impact of using different job quantities and materials, or try different manufacturing processes. If you like what you see, enter your credit card information and order the parts. It’s that easy.”
Uber for manufacturers
As with the others interviewed for this article, those manufacturing processes go far beyond laser cutting. In Xometry’s case, the company offers nine manufacturing services “and counting.” These include 3-D printing, machining, urethane casting and, of course, sheet metal fabrication – laser cutting of sheet stock up to 53 in. by 121 in. is available as well as waterjet and plasma cutting, bending, hole punching, welding and more.
“Say you’re designing a sheet metal part and need to understand the key cost drivers,” Paulsen says. “You can see the price using copper, aluminum and steel, for example, but you can also dive into the design details. So you can see the cost at the laser cut stage or after you’ve added inserts, tabs, holes or after painting or powder coating. It’s all very transparent. You change a feature and the price updates. We also have plug-ins for CAD software like Solidworks, for example, which makes it quite easy for our customers to interact with our system.”
If you’re envisioning some huge production floor with a bunch of machines sitting around waiting for you to place an online order, think again. Xometry has its own equipment, but its greatest asset is the manufacturing partner network it has developed. Paulsen says the company works with “hundreds of manufacturers all across the United States,” each of which goes through a rigorous vetting and approval process.
When a new job comes along, it’s matched to whatever manufacturer has the capability and available capacity to process it. He’s quick to point out, however, that Xometry isn’t a brokerage.
“Our sourcing algorithm sends work to partners that are the best fit for the job based on their capabilities, capacity and history,” he explains.
Some might be skeptical about what appears to be a vending machine approach to manufacturing. Where’s the human interaction? What if I have a question or concern? Paulsen assures potential customers that design for manufacturability (DFM) feedback is provided with each quote and that a human is always available for questions.
So, too, does Kyle Adams, regional director of Quickparts Solutions, the on-demand manufacturing arm of 3D Systems. The advice the company offers often saves its customers considerable amounts of money and, of course, time.
“With all the different resources we have available to us, we might look at a part that somebody sends over to be CNC machined and tell them, ‘Hey, it’s a flat disc. Why don’t we just laser cut it and you can save yourself a lot of money?’” he says.
“We find ourselves doing that regularly, especially with customers that want to 3-D print metal parts,” Adams continues. “A lot of times, those jobs are less expensive to machine. Again, we’re able to advise customers and be more of a consultative service compared to shops that say, ‘We do sheet metal or injection molding and that’s all we do.’”
This one-stop shop approach leads Adams to call Quickparts Solutions the “Home Depot of parts,” in that the company tries to be all things to all people. It comes close. The company offers a full gamut of 3-D printing services, as well as injection molding, CNC machining and sheet metal services. Its business model is similar to Xometry’s. Parts can be uploaded to the website or emailed with quotes supplied to the customer within 24 hours or less.
Quickparts relies on its own on-site capabilities as well as those of partner suppliers, most of which are based in Asia. Despite the need to ship parts across the Pacific Ocean, however, Adams says the standard lead time for sheet metal parts is still quite fast – from four to seven days – with sizes ranging from “a small washer or bracket to midsize enclosures for home appliances to large airplane wings.”
Unlike Xometry, though, which boasts quantities from a single prototype up to 10,000 production parts, Adams says Quickparts’ niche is more tightly focused.
“Most of our customers are looking for lower volumes,” he notes. “These are usually prototype quantities or delivery of bridge parts until production stamping tools can be made ready. A typical order is no more than 100 pieces, but they’re needed in a hurry and at a fair price. That’s what we do.”
A more traditional – though no less speedy – source of sheet metal parts can be found at Dalsin Industries. This family-owned fabrication shop was started by Dick Dalsin and his wife Eleanor just after World War II. Since then, it has prospered while keeping current on technology. Today, it’s a full-service contract manufacturer with an international customer base.
“We’re very much a medium- to high-volume, repeat production metal product manufacturing solution provider,” says Jayson Olson, the company’s outside sales manager. “Our typical customer is in the renewable energy, transit or medical equipment industry and wants to establish longer term contracts and blanket orders, usually with Kanban-style delivery.”
What makes Dalsin quick-turn? That depends on how you define the term. Olson says that, to them, quick-turn is all about rapid product development and prototyping, followed by achievement of full-scale production quickly and ahead of schedule.
“We’re not making same-day parts for our customers,” he says. “But, we are making prototypes in a week or less with established key customers and prospects. And because we develop the process using our actual production equipment – rather than in a prototype department – we’re able to ramp up quickly without any surprises down the road.”
That production equipment includes four tower-fed Mitsubishi laser cutters with power up to 4.5 kW, a Trumpf TruPunch 5000 with a Stopa 54-shelf material management system, and automated panel bending and forming using Salvagnini P4 technology.
Dalsin also prides itself on its DFM capabilities, which helps customers reduce product costs while improving part designs. It has eight degreed engineers who work with account managers and estimators to develop improved design options for customers to consider. That might be a matter of improving product performance or using more readily available materials to get it to market faster.
“We call it high-velocity manufacturing,” Olson explains. “That means coaching our customers on our manufacturing process with the goal of minimizing work in process, reinforcing DFM principles to reduce or eliminate certain operations, and incorporate as much automation as possible.”
Olson doesn’t think his employer fits into the rapid prototype or “e-machine shop” category, but says they offer something many other shops don’t: scalability.
“A customer might have a product that will one day reach significant volume. If so, we’ll be there with them from prototyping and pre-production, helping them along with soft tooling until they’re ready to migrate up to hard tools and progressive coil stamping, if appropriate. It’s a journey, and whatever their ramp schedule looks like, we’re able to help and scale with them as that product grows. That’s the hurdle a lot of our customers have faced, trying to select the right supplier that can do just that.”