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Dealing with Materials Houses and Long Lead Times


Dealing with Materials Houses and Long Lead Times

As much as we’d all like it to be different, lead times are part of the reality we have to live with. It would be so much easier for all of us if we could just design our parts, then have our computer instantly spit them out. However, other than prototype creation on a 3D printer, that’s really not practical.

Understanding Lead Times

Understanding lead times can be difficult at times. Often, it seems like the parts we want fabricated shouldn’t take any time at all. But yet, the fabricator comes back to us with a six or eight week lead time; and that’s on a rush order. What makes it take so long? Let’s look at the process and see where all that time goes.

  • Analyzing the Blueprints – What materials are going to be needed to make the component? What processes? Will it require any special tooling or programming of CNC machines?
  • Develop the Process – From the analysis of the blueprints, the actual process for fabrication of that part needs to be developed. This includes every step that needs to be done, selection of tooling and writing instructions to the production workers.
  • Order any Special Materials – If materials are needed which aren’t in the fabricator’s normal stock, materials will need to be ordered. Some of these materials, especially ones that aren’t common, have extensive lead times of their own.
  • Developing Tooling – If any special tooling needs to be created for the component, it will have to be designed and fabricated while the materials are on order.
  • CNC Programming – In cases where programming of CNC machines is necessary, the programs will need to be written.
  • Make and Inspect the First Article – The first article is like a prototype for the fabricator. It allows them to verify their process and tooling, ensuring that the finished parts will meet specifications.
  • Manufacture the Part Run – Once all those steps are completed, the parts order can then be run to meet the purchase order.

One thing that must be kept in mind through all those steps is that the fabricator has their own queue of work to do. They aren’t sitting there, just waiting for your blueprints and purchase order to arrive. If they were, they’d have to charge so much for their work, that the individual parts ordered would become unaffordable.

How can You Reduce that Lead Time?

Okay, now that we see all those steps which need to be done, what can we do to shorten the lead time and make it possible for the fabricator to make the order quicker? That’s a good question. Actually, there are a number of things which can be done, which will help to shorten the overall lead time, especially on first run orders.

All of these things are really part of the same thing: communicate, communicate, communicate. The better idea any supplier has of your needs, the better they are able to meet them. This means a combination of early forecasting and providing preliminary information about design plans. Let’s look at some specific action items to take.

  • Develop a materials forecasting system that provides suppliers with the earliest possible warning about upcoming orders. Even an inaccurate forecast helps them to have an idea. The most efficient companies use a multi-stage approach to this, where they are forecasting nine months out with 50% accuracy, six months out with 20% accuracy and once they get to sixty days out, the orders are firm. That gives your suppliers plenty of time to react.
  • Provide preliminary drawings of new parts and assemblies to fabricators. Even though they are preliminary, that provides the fabricator’s manufacturing engineers the opportunity to analyze the drawings and determine if new tooling, materials or programming may be needed.
  • As part of the preliminary drawing process, get feedback from the fabricator about the design. If a particular size vent slot called for in the drawing that is only 0.060” different than something they already have, a small change can save both time and money.
  • Have the fabricator make the prototype parts. A lot of companies use a specialty prototype house to make their prototype parts, and then send the production order to their normal fabricator. If the fabricator has the capability to handle prototype runs, it allows them the opportunity to use that prototype as their first article part. If the part doesn’t need any changes, that eliminates one step out of the process.
  • If the design is going to require a different material than the supplier normally uses, let them know early. Most fabricators have a standard materials list, which shows their normal stocked materials. If a design being contemplated is going to require material that isn’t on that list, early warning helps eliminate a delay while the material is sought.

As you can see, these are all about communication. More than anything, developing a strategic relationship with suppliers creates this opportunity for communication, reducing lead times and providing better service. At the same time, it makes things easier for the supplier, which can translate to lower overall costs.

Key Takeaways:

  • Lead times are a reality, but they can be reduced with good communication.
  • The earlier you can let your suppliers know what your expected needs are, the sooner they can start working to meet those needs.
  • By creating strategic alliances with your key suppliers, you can make them part of the team, working together to get your products to market. 

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