Time to read: 6 min

The manufacturing industry is a system that’s incredibly difficult to navigate. Engineers are continuously trying to wade their way through the complex landscape of manufacturing capabilities to find the right partner to bring their product to market.

One of the biggest challenges here is that the best manufacturing partners are often:

  1. hard to find (you have to know a guy), and
  2. over-booked and hard to attract (they’re hustling to manage and grow a business of their own

As an engineer I’ve experienced this challenge and frustration first hand. Finding and vetting the best partners requires a lot of time, often a good reputation (and bankroll), and once you find a great partner they’re invariably time-constrained.

Enter: Big Manufacturing Players

To solve for some of the inefficiencies in finding a manufacturing partner, an increasing number of large companies, what I like to call machine farms, have popped up in the last few years. These companies invest a ton of capital in warehouses full of machines that can fulfill demand, often across the entire product development lifecycle (3D printing, CNC, Injection Molding).

So where smaller, time and resource-constrained manufacturers are often backlogged, these larger companies always have machines available. And where small manufacturers are hard to find, these big companies have deep pockets to spend on marketing and customer acquisition for global visibility.

These big players have an advantage when it comes to capital and resources, but where they fall short is around speed and quality.

This is where local manufacturing shines.

Local Manufacturing is Positioned for Speed

When ordering from a large manufacturing company, parts need to navigate through their complex system and then be shipped from the machine warehouse direct to the customer, increasing lead times.

From an engineer’s perspective, when you’re in the prototyping and ideation stages, time is everything and even a 1-2 day loss from a 3PL (third-party logistics player) matters significantly.

What’s important to consider here is that in manufacturing, things can and will go wrong. So when remote manufacturers inevitably have to manage errors, there’s a lot of complexity to deal with: 3PLs, large organizational layers, communication issues, and ultimately lost time.

This is very evident in overseas mass manufacturing, which is why companies put engineers as close to the source as possible. It’s amazing how few companies consider the same principles during the early prototyping stages of a product when time is everything.

The beauty in working with smaller, local manufacturers on the other hand, is that parts can be picked up as soon as they’re ready or delivered via same-day courier, saving you the 1-2 days of shipping. In addition, if things go wrong (they always do), smaller shops have more agility, fewer organizational layers, and in general can respond more quickly compared with their larger counterparts.

Small Manufacturers Have the Best Quality

In my experience, the larger companies just can’t compete when it comes to quality compared with small manufacturers who love their craft. The big guys are playing the volume game and quality often gets lost in the mix.

When I’ve vetted manufacturers in the past, I tend to look at layers. How many layers are there between the sales guys and the technician operating the machine? Manufacturing is all about communication so as layers increase without the proper systems in place, quality is the first thing to go out the door.

As customers search for solutions to optimize for speed and quality, paired with the right tools I believe small businesses have the greatest advantage and opportunity. The remaining challenge is in figuring out how to optimize a small shop’s operations to give them their time back and allow them to focus on the reason they started their business in the first place: craftsmanship.

Based on my experience, here are the top 3 areas small manufacturing businesses need to focus on to meet growing customer demands and compete with the larger companies:

3 Key Focuses for Successful Small Manufacturing Businesses

1. Quality

Quality is one of the biggest differentiators between small manufacturers and larger companies and should continue to be a focus and priority.

Consistently high-quality parts builds trust and loyalty with your customers and will turn customers into ambassadors for your business.

At Fictiv, quality is a major focus for our platform and we vet all of our local manufacturing partners for quality in four ways:

  1. Machine inspection – machines should be well-maintained and in top shape, with all the necessary tools to repair machines if (when) they fail.
  2. Facility inspection – a manufacturing facility should align with safety and quality standards, with the correct room temperature and the right equipment for cleaning and packaging parts.
  3. Background review – we look for a basic level of education in machine operation that shows skill and expertise.
  4. Test part assessment – we run a set of test parts on each new machine to ensure it can produce consistently high quality results.

There is a wide variance when it comes to quality across different manufacturers and if a small shop can develop a system for producing consistently high-quality work, that’s a clear advantage.

2. Specialization

While the larger companies are focusing on diversification, small manufacturers should actually do the opposite: embrace specialization.

I see a lot of small shops try to diversify their offerings in order to increase revenue, but most often I’ve found this strategy to be counterproductive. A 3D printing shop that focuses on FDM, for example, will be excellent in that area, but usually not as skilled in SLA or Polyjet.

Instead of trying to be a jack of all trades, I tell our manufacturing partners to focus on what they do best (which is usually what they love most), and I’ve seen great success with this strategy.

For example Moddler, a 3D printing shop in the Bay Area, is renowned for their high-resolution 3D printing for model making. Their Eden 500, which prints primarily in VeroWhite, is almost always at capacity because their skill in this area is unparalleled and customers seek them out for their expertise in this specific area.

Small manufacturers should be proud to be specialists and I’ve seen this to be a successful strategy for growth.

3. Automation to Increase Efficiency and Capacity 

Efficiency and capacity are typically the two areas where small manufacturers have less advantage compared with the larger players.

This is the problem we’re solving for at Fictiv. A significant portion of small manufacturers’ time is spent educating users, quoting parts, dealing with orders, and managing shipping logistics on top of maintaining and operating machines. We believe that manufacturers should be given the freedom to focus more on their craft and less on administration, which is why we built software to reduce the complexity typically involved in running a manufacturing business.

Our platform is also built for distributed manufacturing, which means small manufacturers can compete where capacity is concerned. This means small shops never have to turn away new business because they can’t fulfill lead times. Fictiv’s software ensures a manufacturer stays at capacity and leverages distributed manufacturing fulfillment so everybody wins; engineers get their parts on time and small shops optimize their capacity.

With automation that manages and streamlines quoting, job scheduling, and shipping logistics, the partners we work work are able to operate with smaller, leaner teams, resulting in more profits and more time to spend on what matters most: excellent craftsmanship.

The manufacturing industry may be rapidly changing, but we believe small manufacturers will continue to be the cornerstones of an ecosystem for lean hardware development. With the right tools and partners, small manufacturers can achieve the economies of scale that typically only larger companies are able to realize and meet growing demand for fast, high-quality hardware development.

If our vision resonantes with you, as either a builder or a manufacturer, create an account here to join our community.