Low Volume Manufacturing Buzz Words – How to define low volume manufacturing? Well, depending on what industry you are in or what part/product you are making you may have a different definition or opinion on what qualifies as low volume manufacturing. Put simply low volume manufacturing is the fabrication of sellable or usable parts/products, using low volume rapid tools (ProtoTool) used in injection molding or stand alone part/product fabrication technology, such as 3D Printing, CNC Machining and Vacuum Casting.
If you are in the Automotive world, low volume manufacturing might be fabricating a rapid tool that gives you 50,000 – 100,000 parts. If you are in the specialty, high value medical field, it might be a rapid tool that gives you 1000 parts. If you are at the prototype stage of a new product it might be a rapid tool, that delivers you 50 – 100 parts. CNC Machining and 3D Printing are also becoming more and more relevant in the low volume manufacturing world as the speed in which these technologies can fabricate parts increases. Vacuum Casting is also a great low volume manufacturing option that requires tooling at very low costing. Whether your low volume manufacturing needs are 50 parts or 50,000 parts here are some low volume manufacturing buzz words that you may encounter on your journey
Speed to Market (Retail Example) – Speed to Market is a phrase that you will hear from retail buyers and a phrase that you should be working into your sales pitch to retail buyers. If you can deliver your product fast, then you have a much stronger chance of winning retail orders. Fabricating a 100,000 shot low-volume rapid tool, in say one third of the time of a high volume tool, may be the difference between winning a retail order or not. This rapid tool can also be sold to retail buyers as a bridge or a temporary solution before the high volume roll out of your product. The key is that by being able to deliver product faster by use of a rapid/bridge tool you are giving the buyer flexibility, which the buyer may need to push your product into the high volume category. For example, they can do a regional test market, or online store only campaign to prove to their buying committee the value of having your product as a high volume item. This helps to mitigate the buyers risk and potentially make the buyer look like a hero if the product is successful. With, of course, the added benefit of delivering you much needed early revenue.
Save Time & Money (Automotive Example) – Automotive tools can be some of the most expensive tools out there. High volume, tight tolerances, specialty resins, these are all characteristics of a lot of Automotive tools. Automotive tools can be complex and with complexity comes added cost and extended tool build times. With the added pressure of one bad tool having a knock-on effect of stopping or slowing down a project, where 100’s of tools need to work in harmony, to deliver a high value ticket item to the market as scheduled, getting an Automotive tool right is very important. By introducing a low volume rapid tool (or several) into your Automotive tool package, one can more quickly realise and validate designs. Plus identify/fix any design flaws early in the product development process. For example, Automotive suppliers will use rapid tooling when they are introducing a new part design into an existing overall design, or changing a parts surface finish. When you can validate designs early and identify problems early (at a fraction of the cost of a mass production tool) you will ultimately save time and money in the long run. A rapid tool may look like an additional cost on a spreadsheet, but if it actually saves you money then it is the cheapest cost you will ever have.
Design Flexibility (IoT Example) – Your design is perfect, right? It might be, it might not be. The problem is that to truly have your design validated you need to sell 100,000 + pieces to start. If you are not a multi-national, that is already completely vertically integrated, the chances of high volume sales of version 1.0 of your product are pretty slim.
Low Volume Manufacturing will give you the design flexibility needed to improve on version 1.0 and the early revenue dollars needed to ramp up for mid to mass production of versions 2.0 or 3.0, ect. With IoT products (not unlike specialty medical device products) you are often offering a new retail product, tool or technology that the market didn’t even realise it needed. Because of this you will likely need several low volume production/prototype versions to test market and focus group before you can even consider mid volume or high volume production. CNC Machining, 3D Printing and Vacuum casting are great options that don’t require metal or aluminum tooling dollars (Vacuum Casting does require tooling, but it is very cheap, low volume, silicone tooling) to create great parts/products that can be sellable units if done right. Being able to sell early, or test multiple iterations of your design is essential to gather the feedback necessary to improve your design, and hopefully early revenue dollars that stops you from dipping into your capital reserves. No or very low tooling dollars offers you design flexibility, don’t wait, try 10 different designs.
Rapid Tooling (Injection Molding) – Low tooling dollars required. Same part quality, and characteristics as parts from a high volume injection mold tool, but delivered in a fraction of the time when compared to high volume tooling. Ability to quickly test several resins to help determine best mass production option.
CNC Machining – No tooling dollars required. Parts can be incredibly robust with a massive range of quality surface finishes to choose from. Tight tolerances and ability to repeat results as well as increase capacity is easily possible with the right supplier. Great for Form, Fit and Function testing. Fast turnaround.
3D Printing – No tooling dollars required. Great option for complex parts that may not be manufacturable using traditional methods. Typically used for Form and Fit review, sometimes Function depending on 3D Printing method chosen and design. Fast turnaround.
Vacuum Casting – A master and very little tooling dollars required as investment. Which many consider negligible when compared to Vacuum Casting benefits. Self colouring options available. Wide range of surface finishes available. Wide range of plastic materials available. Fast turnaround.
With these buzz words in mind, when you think low volume manufacturing, don’t think added product development time and cost. Think quicker design verification, leading to earlier revenue dollars that funds improved designs, that wins mass market penetration. All with minimized risk to your vital project capital.