It’s hard not to peruse the business section of the news or watch a newscast without seeing a story about the alleged “decline” of manufacturing. Inherent in all these articles are a number of burgeoning fears relating to lost jobs, the rise of foreign markets, and the end of American innovation.
But the state of American manufacturing is a lot more complicated than these reports would have you believe. Yes, there have been lost jobs, but there have also been seismic technological shifts that in some ways are making the domestic manufacturing sector more powerful than ever. With new advances in 3D printing and CNC machining, the modern machine shop has never had more tools at its disposal that allow it to adapt its offerings to any project, large or small.
That’s not to say there aren’t inefficiencies and other issues preventing machine shops from reaching their full potential. Getting a part or product manufactured at scale is still a terribly opaque process that ensures companies aren’t getting the best prices for their parts and that machine shops are wasting valuable time and money chasing down new customers. This is because it’s still a challenge finding the right partner to meet your specifications and required lead times at a price that is acceptable.
To understand the problems afflicting the modern manufacturing industry, imagine a small company that suddenly needs to produce a part or product. If that company has no prior manufacturing experience, it won’t know the most practical method or machinery needed to fabricate the product. The company has likely heard about new innovations in 3D printing and CNC machining, but it has no idea which is the most appropriate technology for the job. And because of this, it doesn’t know which manufacturer is best equipped to service it, and so it ends up calling local machine shops, engaging in lengthy back-and-forth emails, and then waiting up to a week for price quotes. The process is orders of magnitudes more complex if the item is actually (as most are) an assembly of multiple parts — each of which might be optimally manufactured using a different technology. There’s a good chance that by the end of the entire transaction, the company hasn’t received the best price available with the most qualified manufacturer, and it took months to get the parts delivered.
Now consider this same scenario from the manufacturer’s point of view. According to U.S. Census data, more than half of U.S. machine shops employ fewer than 10 workers, which means it has limited capacity in terms of the number of contracts it can take on at any given time and can easily get backed up with a single large job. While it may have a particular kind of equipment that’s ideal for certain manufacturing jobs, a shop may take on work to keep their machines running even if it isn’t optimized to perform it. And because most of its business is local, it’s dependent on the health of regional industries. What’s worse, it wastes significant time calculating price quotes for customers who ultimately end up going with competitors. And even if the vendor does manage to get the job, there’s often a long gulf between when it invoices the customer and when it’s actually paid, which makes it difficult to pay its employees and all the other various expenses inherent in any business.
So you have an industry in which both the customer and the service provider are unhappy because they waste valuable time and money performing tasks for which they aren’t well equipped. Because of the level of customization in manufacturing, it’s been difficult to emulate the efficient marketplaces developed by companies like Uber and Amazon.
Until now. Xometry, the manufacturing technology company I founded in 2014, recently debuted a new technology platform that allows companies to upload 3D CAD files that are then instantly priced and matched with the machine shops best prepared to complete the jobs. With our platform for on-demand manufacturing, we can substantially compress the time from design to manufacture, all while delivering a better experience for both sides. Here’s how:
No more waiting weeks to receive a quote. Simply upload your 3D model to our site and our platform analyzes the topology, geometry, and materials needed for the part being ordered and from there it determines, based on the history of previous purchases, what the market price for that part is. Our machine learning program continuously improves upon this system. With our new SOLIDWORKS Add-In you can even access our platform without leaving the CAD interface.
Delivering the right solutions
For any given product or part there can be upwards of half a dozen ways to manufacture it, but when you upload your design CAD file to Xometry’s platform it quickly determines an approach that will deliver the highest quality product at the most cost effective price. Once the order is placed, the platform will then only alert machine shops with the capacity to offer that solution.
No bidding for projects
The instant pricing is also favorable to the manufacturer because it’s not forced to bid for a project and instead can decide whether it can profitably complete the job for the predetermined price. Just as an Uber ride goes to the first driver to accept it, the first vendor to take the project gets the work. No longer will it have to waste hours calculating quotes for potential customers who end up backing out.
Eliminating regional barriers
A manufacturer’s success is no longer reliant on the health of the local economy. Xometry’s network is nationwide, meaning a machine shop that can deliver the best solution in California can deliver to a customer in Maine. This widens both the vendor talent pool for companies in need of manufacturing and the customer base for participating manufacturers.
Instead of forcing the manufacturer to wait between 30 and 60 days for customer payment, Xometry guarantees payment within two weeks after delivery and acceptance from the customer. Simplifying the payment process reduces the stress for vendors who struggle to make ends meet while waiting for their invoices to be processed.
Xometry employs strict quality control to ensure it’s only offering up the best vendors. When a manufacturer initially signs up to join the network, Xometry screens the company by giving it only one job to complete. Instead of shipping the product directly to the customer, it’s first sent to Xometry; our team then assesses the quality of the product and whether it meets our standards. Customers are also encouraged to rate their vendors based on their performance, and any manufacturers flagged for producing poor-quality products will receive additional scrutiny from Xometry.
With the rise of crowdfunding platforms and innovations in rapid-prototyping technology, it’s never been easier for an inventor or entrepreneur or Fortune 100 engineer to find a customer base for a new product, yet the current manufacturing ecosystem is so rigid and inefficient that getting the product to market remains a gargantuan task. It’s only with an agile and flexible manufacturing sector that we’ll be able to fully harness the ingenuity of our nation’s engineers and designers. If we truly want to see a renaissance in American manufacturing, we must create technology to provide our manufacturers with the opportunities to pair the best solutions with the right price. Xometry will allow them to do both.
Randy Altschuler is the CEO and Co-Founder of Xometry