Noteworthy Fabrication Services
Manufacturing as a service is by no means new, but it has evolved significantly in the last 5–10 years. I work in Silicon Valley, typically developing hardware prototypes for 3D printers, robot cars, and everything in between. This post is a quick list of my favorite places to get parts fabricated.
Before jumping in, it is worth noting that many of these services have changed the way teams big and small operate. There was a time when running your own machine shop was normal. Now, many startups just have basic tools such as drill press and workbench while sending parts out for fabrication.
The trend is starting to become common in larger companies as well. I recently visited a large multi-billion toy company that switched almost all 3D printing to outside job shops. The cost to run the machines just was not worth it, and the ability to scale production was the big advantage.
For many technology companies in the Valley, moving to a lean machine shop model provides both efficiency and scalability. When considering all the options it can be a bit overwhelming, so I will try to unpack the pros and cons below with each of the services.
Protolabs has been around for a while and although they are by no means a budget service, they do provide consistent quality and very quick turnaround on manufacturing. If your team has money and very little time, this is probably a good place to start.
Over the years Protolabs has grown to offer more and more services and now provides sheet metal, as well as CNC machining, 3D printing, and soft tool injection molding (aluminum molds 10,000 units or less). Like many of the services on this list they also have a powerful online tool for uploading designs and ordering.
The last thing to mention about Protolabs is that they run all the machines which are used for manufacturing, where other serves will often contract out to a network of fabricators. Protolabs is also great at customer service and answering questions about fabrication, drawings, tolerances etc.
Next on the list is my personal favorite which is 3D Hubs, a service based in Amsterdam that contracts out to a global network of fabricators. Sometimes parts are made in Pennsylvania, sometimes they get drop shipped from Shenzhen China.
3D Hubs has a wide range of services from 3D printing to Injection molding, but the CNC machining service is difficult to beat when it comes to price. Typically the part prices drops significantly when making 5–10 units as tooling is a separate fee. The online quote generator is also phenomenal.
As part of the ordering process, you can also upload a drawing and request a specific surface finish. 6060 aluminum, bead blasted, then anodize with Pantone #BF1932 being an example. Parts usually arrive in a couple weeks, and with impressive quality. Worth taking a look at if cost is key.
As you will see there is no shortage of places to get things made. Many times the decision is based on cost and turnaround time, but also the security of IP. If you have ever worked on military or government contract, you will be familiar with ITAR, which is a set of regulations for keeping IP secret.
For these types of projects, it is often not the best to go for the cheapest services, as you don’t always know where your parts are being made. In the last few years a number of options have surfaced which provide another layer of security. If this is your application, Xometry may be a good place to start.
Like others on this list Xometry offers sheet metal, CNC, 3D printing, and urethane casting. The prices are a bit higher, but often with quicker turn-around times and the ability to work with tighter security requirements, which is why the service is used by military, space, and automotive.
As mentioned before there are many services that do the same thing, and it is typically just a matter of finding a company that does what you need. An interesting service that has popped up in the last few years is Fictiv, which offers fast turn around, and competitive prices.
Like others on the list, Fictiv also offers Urethane casting, CNC machining with various coatings and materials along with 3d printing. They have machine shops in the US and overseas. What is unique to Fictiv is quick turn around, but also an NDA and anonymizing feature that makes it attractive for security reasons.
Fictiv has an amazing interface, and one of the most diverse sets of fabrication options. The customer service is also top notch which makes this one of the best on the list for all around value. The best thing to do is probably upload your part to each service and see which one is best for you.
As many of you know, 3D printing has grown into many different domains in the last 5–10 years. Now you can print in not just plastic, but metal, wax, rubber, precious metals and more. Cheap 3D printers can be used in the home or office, but many are still large and prohibitively expensive to own.
One of my favorite services for 3D printing is Sculpteo, which has some of the best prices on SLS, or (Selective Laser Sintering). You upload your design and can quickly do price comparisons on everything from basic white plastic to laser fused titanium. They also offer a laser cutting services worth taking a look at.
Where Sculpteo shines is the interface for uploading and quoting, which is one of the best I have seen. Before checkout you can also add services such as part painting which is great for when you are prototyping projects that need to look professional.
Shapeways is one of the older services for 3d printing, and started off mainly catering to the hobby and maker community. Shapeways runs and maintains their own printers, but also contract out when they are at capacity. If cost is you main concern Shapeways is usually a good place to start.
When it comes to 3D printing I typically do a cost comparison between Shapeways, Sculpteo, Fictiv, and 3D Hubs. Some of the newer printing technology like carbon fiber nylon SLA printing is cheapest on 3D Hubs. For others such as HP’s new Multi Jet Fusion, Sculpteo is best. Shapeways is often best for jewelry and basic SLS prints.
Shapeways is also unique as they have various integrations with services such as Shopify. If you want to design your own 3D printed jewelry then sell in on Etsy, Shapeways can help you get everything setup. They also have an API, which enables you to integrate with apps for all sorts of fancy custom solutions.
Big Blue Saw
This is one of my favorite services on the internet. The interface is clunky, you often need to add a multiplier factor to compensate for some weird bug in the file up-loader, but the service is amazing. The company is named Big Blue Saw and all they do is cut things with water.
Waterjet is a magical technology if you are new to it. Water gets pumped through a small ruby nozzle at high pressure which is also mixed with fine grained sand. The jet can cut through stone, carbon fiber, tooling steel, plastic and more. Big Big Blue saw has a nice material catalog and decent prices.
Parts always arrive on time and if speed is an issue you can order parts with expedited shipping and different levels of surface finish. Components are always wrapped in plastic, often still with a bit of sand on them from the print. I mainly use the service for plates of aluminum and polycarbonate.
Out of all the services on this list, laser cutting is one of the few that you can often afford to bring in-house instead of outsourcing. Companies like Glowforge make amazing little printers, and if you need bigger and more powerful printing options, Full Spectrum Laser, and Epilog have a wide range of options.
Surprisingly there are not that many laser cutting options online. Sculpteo and Ponoko are two of the best that I have found. Ponoko is known as more of a hobby platform, but with that said, they offer quick turnaround and the quality of the parts generated is usable for most professional prototyping work.
Both Sculpteo and Ponoko offer basic materials such as acrylic. Ponoko has a wide range of craft materials such as leather and paper. Sculpteo has a wider selection of engineering materials such as aluminum and sheet metal in various thicknesses.
CNC Routing with LMNOP Design
I have worked on a number of projects that require CNC cut plywood. There are not many fully automated online services for this, as typically you find a shop in your area and get a quote. The cost of shipping can be prohibitively high, so finding a service near you is ideal.
If you are in the Bay Area, I highly recommend LMNOP Design, which has a computerized router which can quickly do very high quality cuts. For makers and hobby users, a ShopBot is probably the best machine for the money, but many professional shops like LMNOP use Laguna CNC machines or similar.
Unlike the other services on the list, you will need to submit drawings and design files for a quote. Many shops can also source materials and work with a local lumber yard to supply Baltic Birch or whatever material you need for your custom project. Quote to finished project is typically around two weeks.
Proto Cafe is one of many services which do a bit more than just make parts. Typically these firms are hired to build very high quality prototypes, often with glossy surface finishes. In the bay area there are plenty of firms such as Protocafe, each offers a slightly different set of services.
If you are going into production, a service such as D2M or Design to Matter (http://d2m-inc.com/) may be a better fit for you. Another might include Mind Tribe ( https://mindtribe.com/). Typically this is for building prototypes intended for production, but they can work on many levels.
If you are at the concept stage, there are plenty of design firms which can help you go from napkin sketch to prototype as well. In the bay area, IDEO (https://www.ideo.com/), and FROG (https://www.frogdesign.com/) are both good places to start, especially if you don’t have the internal team to design and build.
Final Thoughts / Honorable Mentions
I deliberately skipped over some of the big players in the manufacturing service space and focused on smaller services that we use in the Valley to get parts made quickly.
For instance, Stratasys Direct, (which is owned by one of the biggest 3D printing companies) makes all the 3d printed titanium rocket nozzles for SpaceX. If you need large expensive stereolithography parts that are coated in special high tech paint, this might be the place for you.
If you want to get parts made out of carbon fiber there are services that can do that, powder coated steel tube frames, large scale injection molding, thermoforming, molded fiberglass. The list goes on and on. www.MFG.com is a good place to find unique services like this.
The last bit to know about manufacturing services such as those listed in this article is that you need to be very comfortable with design files. STL for 3D printing, STEP and IGES for CNC Machining, and typically DXF for 2D (laser, waterjet). This all falls under the umbrella of CAD or (Computer Aided Design)