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Sourcing Metal Parts? Focus on Flexibility and Relationships

Check out what you should know and do before going it alone in sourcing parts from overseas suppliers or domestic brokers.

April 18, 2013
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Considering the multitude of options, sourcing quality metal parts at the best available price has become increasingly complex. Yet it is even more important for appliance designers and engineers.
 
Not only are there the traditional questions of which materials and parts forming technology are best, there are also new supplier issues such as specific experience, tooling ownership, delivery times, quality, total supplier responsibilities, and cultural differences—particularly if you are sourcing parts overseas.
 
When a buyer ponders all of the potential factors, sourcing a metal parts supplier today may well come down to two major dynamics: the flexibility of the supplier’s manufacturing methods, and the closeness of relationship between the supplier and customer.
 

Picking the Best

Sourcing parts successfully depends on the flexibility to choose the best manufacturing technique for the job, whether sand casting, permanent molding, die casting, investment casting, metal stamping or other technologies. Ideally, your supplier is highly experienced and is a one-stop shop that can change to a different parts forming technique, metal material or finish as needed.
 
This particularly applies to situations where the quantity of parts ordered may suggest that changing technologies, such as switching from sand casting to permanent mold casting, or vice versa. In these cases, dealing with suppliers that offer the flexibility of multiple parts forming technologies can be very advantageous in terms of cost and turnaround time.
 
Supplier relationships are another layer of supplier qualifications that can make or break a sourcing arrangement. In offshore sourcing, those include cultural factors, such as mutual understanding of communications, shipping methods, customs clearing services and even property rights including tooling ownership.
When it comes to customer-supplier relationships, the communications should be clear and immediate. This is important when a customer is dealing with overseas suppliers directly, or indirectly through a broker or primary manufacturer. The accountability should be comprehensive, and it should also be door-to-door, as if you were dealing with a local supplier.
 

One-stop Shops

Most of today’s one-stop metal parts forming shops aren’t literally “do it all” manufacturers. It would be economically unfeasible to provide the necessary range of manufacturing and finishing technologies to do all in house. 
 
The most flexible one-stop-shops are parts manufacturers that combine on-site capabilities and flexibility with established outside connections. They then use their experience and background to control, manage, and take full responsibility for the job and the quality of any parts outsourced. 
 
For example, although Engineered Shapes is a multi-technology domestic foundry, for the past 20 years we have outsourced to offshore sources in China, Poland and Mexico—when it benefits the customer. 
 
When the metal parts supplier goes offshore, he has to make certain to completely remove the worry from the process. That means the spectrum of quality and service requirements must be met, regardless of country of origin. Otherwise, you could encounter problems that not only cancel your savings, but could cost you customers as well. Having on-site inspection at those facilities is most critical.
 
Brokers or reps are another avenue for metal parts sourcing, but they are generally inexperienced in the hands-on intricacies of metalworking. These typically small one or two man operations have become much more numerous in the past 10 years. Some imply they do some limited manufacturing or maybe they did at some point, but they basically do not manufacture anything. Instead, they job it out.
 
A true multi-technology domestic foundry has many advantages over the broker. A manufacturer understands the entire processes and so is able to better direct people, products, and production. A manufacturer understands how to handle the inevitable problems or difficulties that arise, such as issues with the molds, handling off-gassing problems, controlling shrinkage and the like.
 
When outsourcing to offshore sources, experienced manufacturers aren’t going to be fooled by low quality work or other production issues. The foreign company is aware they are dealing with a foundry man, not a schmuck who’s giving out orders. On occasion, I’ve even had to advise them on how to solve problems they couldn’t figure out on their own.
 
Going direct to an offshore source is another option, though a highly inadvisable one. Many buyers don’t understand that when you deal with offshore companies it can be very difficult and that there are many potential pitfalls. It’s nowhere near as easy as it sounds.
 
Some of the potential pitfalls of doing business direct with an offshore source include:
 
Quoting Process
  • Misunderstandings regarding the requirements or specifications.
  • Quote is based on incorrect material.
  • Failure to disclose type of tools or dies you paid for.
  • Failure to disclose the expected life cycle of tools and dies.
  • As a new buyer you lack the rapport or the buying power.
  • It is easy to misinterpret written or verbal comments expressed by other cultures. 
Sampling  
  • Samples produced do not reflect production quality.
  • Rejection due to sharp edges.
  • Rejection due to finishing.
  • Rejection due to incorrect dimensions or tolerances.
  • Re-sampling and lost time.
  • Further rejection and more sampling. 
Receipt of Production
  • Packaging inadequate, leading to damage.
  • Packaging different from sample packaging.
  • Skidding inadequate, damage results in transit.
  • Parts do not meet approved sample dimensions.
  • Parts do not meet approved quality.
  • Parts have CHINA stamped or cast into part: This can be avoided.
  • Parts have labels with CHINA on them: This can be avoided.
Price Stability
  • Second run price increases can occur, as you were low-balled intentionally, or they underestimate due to misunderstanding of specs.
 
In addition, when selecting a parts supplier, what you really should be looking for is a project oriented partner that essentially delivers concurrent and parallel engineering with your team in the early stages of design and product development. 
 
Making the right decisions during the early phases is critical to a product’s success on the market and also provides sizable savings in time and money.

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