Small run manufacturing question.
October 4, 2007 1:40 PM   Subscribe

A question about small scale manufacturing.

I've gone and created something that seems pretty popular. When I'm in public using my little contraption, people seem to have that "it's so simple, why didn't I think of that" sort of reaction. I'd like to make a few more of them and see if I could sell them.

The problem is my little contraption took me an entire weekend to make with the limited tools I have at home. Someone with access to a CNC machine and 5 minutes could precisely make all the components I need, and make a much better, cleaner product.

I'd like to make 10 contraptions. Are there places that will do something like that? Do I just find a guy who uses a CNC machine and hand him materials to work on during his lunchbreak? Is there somewhere I could email an AutoCAD file to and they just crank out a small run? Anyone have experience in this?
posted by sanka to Technology (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Even machine shops are online these days. Not an endorsement, just something I googled for in the past.
posted by fatllama at 1:44 PM on October 4, 2007

There are small manufacturing/CNC/build houses that will take small orders (a larger company may take a small order as well, if there is a good possibility of a larger order later). As I don't know the intricacies of your small device, I hesitate to guess about pricing, however. Depending on the kind of tooling that might be required to manufacture your contraption, an initial investment could be pretty substantial or could be just cost of labor and materials. I'd try talking to someone at a place like this or just googling "small manufacturing houses" and include your state.
posted by eralclare at 1:51 PM on October 4, 2007

having used E-machine-shop (see Sanka's post above) i can say they are good and cheap. I have also used QuickParts which specializes in more Rapid prototyping, but may suit your needs also.
posted by Wezzlee at 1:53 PM on October 4, 2007

The company I work for routinely gets custom single and small quantity parts made by local machinists. However, I don't think cost is usually an issue since the parts are needed either way. Cost may be an issue for you, depending on the complexity of the contraption from the machinists point of view and/or desire to do the work.

Personally, when I was looking to get machining done on a part for my motorcycle, I just posted on a local newsgroup and a few people got back to me. I did some back and forth with drawings and measurements with one of them, but ended-up going with an off-the-shelf solution instead of modifying the existing part.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 1:57 PM on October 4, 2007

For precision, small-run waterjet cutting, Toolmonger likes Big Blue Saw. Never used 'em myself.
posted by box at 2:03 PM on October 4, 2007

I don't know of any off hand, but I think what you might want is what they call a "rapid prototype" shop.
posted by Brocktoon at 2:05 PM on October 4, 2007

Here's RedEye RPM.
And here's a list of companies that do short runs and prototyping.
posted by Floydd at 2:06 PM on October 4, 2007

There are places that do fabrication online. Not knowing what this thing is, you may want to find a place locally, particularly if you're not 100% confident in your schematics.

I don't know what the situation is like in the rest of the country, but in the Northeast you are probably never more than a 20 minute drive from a machine shop of some type or description. I'd just get out the Yellow Pages and call around or stop by. (You'll probably be surprised at how many little machine shops and metal-benders are around, doing odd work like this; I was.)

Bring your prototype and see how much they want to make a few. It may cost a little more than somebody online is willing to do it for, but it may be worth your time because you'll be able to talk to the actual machinist and describe exactly what you want.

A while back I desperately needed some parts cut on a CNC water-jet machine, and I couldn't get it done locally in the amount of time I had. So I just Googled around until I found a guy with a machine in his garage who would do it, had the raw materials drop-shipped to him (from McMaster-Carr), paid him via PayPal, and had the parts a few days later. It worked out okay but it was a lot more logistical hassle than working locally.

Googling "online prototype manufacture" turns up a few places that seem like they could do what you want.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:07 PM on October 4, 2007

Oh, and this was the water-jet outfit I used. Cheap, competent, good quality, easy to work with. (It's called "DC Water Jet" but it's in Nevada.)

If working locally isn't an option I'd recommend it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:11 PM on October 4, 2007

Universities are always an option. I know my university does stuff for students and I believe that they do custom parts for other people. As long as they have an engineering department, it is worth a shot.
posted by Ctrl_Alt_ep at 5:13 PM on October 4, 2007

You could post a RFQ on CNC Zone. They've got everyone from guys with a home made dremel PCB cnc drills to full blown commercial shops stopping by. There is a lot of setup work in everything but the simplest project, especailly if it hasn't been designed to be cnc cut. A hobbiest is more likely to spend that time with you without breaking the bank.
posted by Mitheral at 7:56 PM on October 4, 2007

Check out the local engineering workshops - the smaller the better. A lot of them are experienced as small runs and may d a good deal if they think it is likely to lead to on-going business. What you are really seeking is a prototype - hope you have any patents etc covered because, otherwise, someone will steal your idea.
posted by dg at 8:11 PM on October 4, 2007

Are you sure it is something that needs a CNC? If the individual parts are not too intricate a old fashioned prototype lathe and mill guy may turn them out cheaper if it such a short run. One issue you will have is that the "inventor with a new idea" ranks down there with "guy who wants his gun to fire faster and quieter" and "guy who wants you to fix his car for a six pack" in the minds of many larger shop owners. If you send a well done cad file and make every effort to look professional ( realistic tolerances and common materials, no unobtainium, no missing dimensions) it will help. If you send different prints to different shops it will be harder for anyone to steal the idea.
Send out for bids to the online shops others have listed and ask folks at the local machine shop supply business if there is anyone that runs a small shop near you, my shop does not advertise at all and a lot of other small shops are the same way so finding a good one may take a little work
posted by Iron Rat at 11:18 PM on October 4, 2007

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