Are you ready to launch your metal project? Are you trying to find the perfect manufacturing partner to get the job done? Below are five important questions you should ask any prospective metal supplier. The benefit of working with a qualified, experienced contract manufacturer is that they have a wealth of knowledge to ensure your product is best produced. Guess what? They probably know more than you do. And that's the whole point.
What types of equipment does your facility have, and what are the limitations of this equipment? How does this affect quality inspection? How much of the inspection process is manual vs. automated? These questions are extra important when it comes to inspecting components with tight tolerances. It's possible that your manufacturer will have to subcontract some processes or highly technical inspections. Ask about this up front so you know exactly what's happening, where it's happening, and who is monitoring each step.
This may seem like a silly question to ask, because chances are you decided long ago which material would be used for this part. But here's an important thing to remember: different supply chains do things, well, differently. This is especially the case for offshore operations. Raw material and technical specs vary from country to country, meaning your 1020 carbon steel may become a Q235 steel in China (unbeknownst to you). While most metals can be closely matched, there's a chance that chemical properties may differ slightly.
Before talking with your prospective partner, review international metal equivalents and plan to adapt to your new supply chain, rather than forcing your material requirements into a mold that's shaped, well, differently! Find a manufacturer with strategic sourcing expertise, and you should have no problem meeting your original spec.
Your supplier will ask about the project's scope – basically, how many do you need produced? Scope will play a key role in determining which manufacturing process is best, whether that means machining, sandcasting, diecasting, forging or otherwise. Subprocesses such as finishings, treatments, plating, painting, polishing or sandblasting can either be done in-house at your primary supplier or can be subcontracted. It's important to know where each process will be executed, as any risks associated with involvement of a third party should be recognized and assessed early on.
As you likely know already, metal parts are rife with regulatory concerns, from product safety to material compliance. Partnering with a seasoned supplier who understands applicable compliances is the only way to go. This is an area where you don't want to cut corners, as you could quickly find yourself in not just hot, but boiling water. The moment your so-called-qualified supplier unknowingly sources tin from the Congo (in violation of the Dodd-Frank Act / Conflict Minerals Policy / 3TG) is the exact moment you cannonball into that scalding hot spring.
An example: A supplier can claim to make your product RoHS-compliant, but without proper knowledge of the intricacies of this regulation, you could find yourself in an unfavorable position. Let's take zinc-plated (galvanized) steel, for instance. Per RoHS, a trivalent chromate conversion coating is compliant, while a hexavalent chromate is toxic and, thus, non-compliant. Simply proving that the raw materials are acceptable is not sufficient in this case since the process (rather than the raw materials themselves) can send you into non-compliant territory. Therefore, parts must be tested post-production to ensure compliance. This level of knowledge and attention to detail is what you should be seeking out in your metal supplier.
Do everything in your power to learn as much as possible about your supplier, from company history to product array to financials. If you're considering going offshore, finding a competent, trustworthy contract manufacturer is all the more crucial. If sub-suppliers will be involved, get familiar with them as well. Forging deep relationships is the best approach. Ask about planning a visit and touring the facilities. Establish a clear communication path to the support you'll need – this should include direct access to management, as well as technical support.
Of course, there are other questions you should ask before jumping into production, but these five will ensure you're dealing with a metal supplier that can handle the complexity of your project and understands the wider scope of a sophisticated, global supply chain.