By definition, a prototype is a first, typical or preliminary model of something, especially a machine, from which other forms are developed or copied. Prototypes are absolutely critical because they’re the first samples created; they’re the proof of an idea of what the production units should be and much can be learned from these prototypes, from design to function. A program can’t be successful without first creating prototypes and should continue to build prototypes throughout the program until production, the goal being to get better with each build.
Demand for good prototype companies is at an all-time high. Currently, there are many companies out there who can perform prototyping of some sort, however, there’s limited capacity among them. This results with sourcing professionals being left with major challenges to locate and source capable prototype supply partners.
Too often, supply partners, across commodities, are chosen for the wrong reasons which are mostly due to timing and/or cost. While cost is usually not top of mind for prototypes, timing remains critical.
Before moving forward with a prototype supply partner, a sourcing professional must have a stringent supplier development process that ensures the following considerations are met and the results meet company goals. These considerations for choosing the right prototype partner include: capabilities, experience, quality, low minimum order quantities (MOQs), and lead times.
5 Considerations When Choosing a Prototype Supply Partner
The prototype industry has changed tremendously in the last decade. Prototype capabilities vary from company to company. Some focus on plastics, while others focus on alloys; some focus on tooling while others focus on 3D Printing. In today’s world however, it’s rare for a prototype company to only focus on one material and process. Most prototype suppliers do some form of value-adding prototype services such as assembly, welding, plating, heat treating, painting, etc. That being said, with more companies performing value-adding services, the game has certainly changed and that’s why it’s crucial for sourcing professionals to find the right prototype partner.
When considering the capabilities of a potential prototype supply partner, a sourcing professional must analyze and evaluate every offering that partner provides or has the capacity to provide. You must ask yourself, “Does this potential supply partner have the ability to meet all my prototyping needs, and then some, without the risk of problems at this point in the program?”
Below are some common, yet essential questions a sourcing professional should ask him- or herself regarding the capabilities of any prototype company that’s being considered for a program.
What Type of Services do They Offer?
It’s important for a sourcing professional to understand the many types of prototype capabilities that a potential supply partner can offer. This is not only helpful for your understanding of the supply partner, but may also save you on total timing and costs. If a certain variation calls for one type of design, but a supply partner could offer another that would significantly decrease costs and timing because its processes are more efficient, then it could make you look like a hero to engineering and your team when you bring this recommended process to light.
What Materials do They Work With and Suggest?
There are many different materials that prototype supply partners can work with including, but not limited to, plastics and alloys. Certain supply partners specialize in the different material types so it’s important to know not just what your potential supply base is capable of, but what it’s good at and specializes in. It’s also important for the potential supplier partner to understand all material variants and alternatives, this way they can recommend alternatives that could save on timing and costs.
What Tooling do They Specialize in and how Quickly can They Produce it?
It’s extremely critical for a sourcing professional to understand the tooling processes that a potential prototype supply partner has and the amount of time it takes to turn it around. Can they turn around a mold or tool in 2 weeks or less? Do they make their own tools, or do they receive them from outside suppliers? Do they have SLA, 3D printing, or laser capabilities where tooling isn’t always necessary? These are important questions to ask before making any sourcing decision with a potential prototype supply partner.
Prototyping, especially automotive prototyping, is an area where experience matters at both the individual and company levels. A sourcing professional must be assured that the potential prototype supply partner has sufficient experience to avoid short-term investments and future costly mistakes.
Ask the companies you’re considering about their knowledge as it relates to industry codes and regulations. For automotive companies, being knowledgeable, experienced, and certified in various ISO/TS standards is recommended, and in many cases required, for certain OEMs and Tier Is.
Be sure to have potential supply partners describe how operations have continuously improved over the years to be as efficient and safe as possible. Ask about similar projects they’ve completed and parts they’ve machined. Further, don’t be afraid to ask for references from past customers. A good prototype company will welcome this due diligence and should have plenty of customers who’d be willing to vouch for them.
4. Low MOQs
One of the most important considerations to keep in mind when choosing a prototype supply partner is their allowable MOQs. Most prototype jobs require low MOQs and any supply partner, in any industry, requires it. If this doesn’t align with your small, prototype volumes, then buyer beware. It’s important to work with a partner who’ll allow for quantities that meet your needs, so you can get your product to market sooner and more efficiently.
5. Lead Times
Lead times are another key consideration when sourcing a prototype supply partner. Time is likely not on your side and odds are that you’ll need parts fast, so the shorter the lead time, the better. However, this quick lead time can’t affect the quality of the part. Finding a prototype supply partner that can provide a constant and consistent supply of prototypes can make or break your company.
Creating prototypes is a standard, yet vital part of launching new products, and organizations should continue to build better and better prototypes until their programs reach production. Add to that the fact that more companies now provide multiple prototyping services and you’re faced with notable challenges to locate and source the right, capable prototype supply partner.
So, don’t think about your sourcing decision with a supplier mindset, and take short-term gains and cost savings off the table. Replace them with an emphasis on the big picture and think about, and approach, the decision with a supply partner mentality. This means considering potential prototype supply partners’ capabilities, experience, quality, MOQs, and lead times.
Leading procurement professionals have full awareness of these five considerations when implementing a supplier development strategy for a given prototype program, which helps them choose the right prototype supply partner every time, a critical element for long-term growth and product launch success.