Cloud manufacturing is a new approach to manufacturing that combines easy-to-use, online, self-service software for uploading design specifications and managing projects with state-of-the art prototyping and manufacturing services. Cloud-based manufacturing eliminates the delays, errors and frustrations common in the traditional email-and-wait experience.
The old approach to electronics manufacturing is overly complex, time consuming, and intimidating for small businesses and makers. That’s because even low volume orders are funneled through the same process as the one used for high-volume mature products and many large electronics manufacturers won’t even take any order unless it’s in the 1000s or 10,000s. Cloud manufacturing, on the other hand, is designed specifically to make it easy, inexpensive, and quick to produce prototypes and small batches, allowing designers to iterate, improve and deliver on time.
A good analogy is Amazon Web Services. Software companies leverage Amazon to deliver their products to customers. Amazon owns and maintains all of the servers and network infrastructure so that the software providers can focus on what they do best. The cloud approach to manufacturing does the same for hardware designers. You focus on finding a market need and developing a product to support it. You upload your designs through an easy-to-use online interface and your manufacturing partner brings your vision to life, giving you instant visibility into the progress of the project with online reporting.
The traditional manufacturing process is fine for large organizations that need to produce hundreds of thousands of products for the lowest price possible. But it is not at all well suited for small businesses, entrepreneurs, engineers or hobbyists. This new approach to hardware manufacturing opens up avenues previously out of the reach of these constituencies.
Small and growing businesses often don’t have the demand required to get reasonable pricing from large scale manufacturing outfits. They also are usually under financial pressures that make large inventories out of the question, and just-in-time delivery a necessity. Cloud manufacturing supports the needs of small businesses by making small quantity runs affordable. The best solutions also offer storage and shipping services, complete with APIs to automate order fulfillment. When a customer orders a product, it is shipped without any additional effort on the part of the business. This creates an excellent customer experience, reduces costs, and frees employees to focus on more strategic business needs. For small businesses, cloud-based manufacturing can be the key to accelerated growth.
Kickstarter and other similar services have changed the playing field for fundraising and early stage product sales. You no longer need to know somebody, who knows somebody, who is a venture capitalist to bring your idea to market. But an idea is one thing, a completed, high-quality product delivered on time is quite another. For a long time, manufacturing was too high of a hurdle and many great innovations languished in basements. Not anymore! Because cloud manufacturing supports both final product delivery and prototyping, today’s entrepreneurs have an inexpensive and timely way to bring their ideas to life.
Even for large institutions tinkering with new product ideas, manufacturing prototypes has always been an obstacle. Large-scale operations aren’t interested in your order of one unit, even if you’re Google or Apple. Manufacturing in the cloud solves that problem. Cloud manufacturers are happy to have your order of one and will be delighted to help you iterate until you have the result you want.
The Maker movement has energized amateur inventors, designers, and creators across all the generations. 3D printing has spurred countless new and innovative ideas. Similarly, cloud manufacturing helps hobbyists take their projects to the next level by making it possible to automate the assembly of their latest creations.
Not all cloud manufacturers are the same, so it is important to find a partner that has all of the futures that are important to your business. It is a good idea to find out if they have done work for similar companies or produced PCBs or electronic devices that are in the same ballpark as the work you want done. It you can, it’s smart to visit the manufacturing floor and have a look at the production facility and warehouse.
With cloud manufacturing, you don’t have sit around waiting hours or days for a quote via email. Instead, you can find a manufacturing service partner that offers real time quotes online. It is as easy as uploading your design documents and specifying the parts you’d like. Before you make your final decision, it ask your potential partner for a demonstration of the custom PCB management and quoting and management software.
Prototyping and iteration are traditionally difficult parts of the product development process, but it doesn’t have to be that way. With cloud manufacturing, PCB prototyping should be fast, inexpensive and seamless. Although traditional manufacturing vendors often turn prototyping and other one-off orders away, cloud-based solutions welcome this type of work and are happy to help you get your project off the ground.
Modern manufacturing services take it upon themselves to identify the best sources for parts and negotiate significant discounts with the buying power of their entire customer base as leverage. This turnkey service saves you time and hassle, and also helps keep your costs down.
With cloud manufacturing, you get complete visibility into the status of your project. You are able to make changes and review results at any time. As you evaluate vendors, keep in mind that reporting should be powerful, simple to use, and available on any device.
Not all cloud electronics manufacturing service providers offer discounted house parts, but we recommend looking for one that does. House parts programs offer discounts on popular parts. Allowing you to get volume discount pricing even if you only need a few items.
For a truly seamless experience, it makes sense to choose a cloud-based manufacturer that can also handle your electronic device assembly when you are ready to put your PCBs to work. Having one partner perform both functions reduces shipping time, extra costs, and unnecessary risks. It also simplifies your product lifecycle and saves any number of headaches.
Speaking of keeping it simple, some cloud manufacturing companies also offer inventory storage and management services. Once your product is built, your partner houses it for you until it is ready to be shipped. You don’t have to worry about warehousing space and you can keep track of your inventory from afar.
If your cloud manufacturing partner is handling your inventory, it may as well take the product lifecycle the last mile by shipping the product directly to your customer as soon as it is ordered. You never have to box or ship a thing. The manufacturer can once again leverage their total business volume to secure discounts from shipping carriers.
The best players in custom turnkey PCB manufacturing and assembly offer an application programing interface (API) that makes it easy to connect their cloud manufacturing software with the applications your customers use to place orders, such as your eCommerce or ERP system. This means that you don’t even need to click a button or send an email to trigger your partner to process a shipment.
It is no longer true that the only way to get product assembly accomplished at a reasonable price is to do it offshore. Now, there are many options right here in the United States that are affordable, reliable, and offer quick turnaround times. Save yourself the added complexity and risk associated with shipping your PCBs around the world.
As you can tell by the list of features, one of the most important benefits of cloud-based manufacturing is lower cost. This matters if you are working on a single Kickstarter project or trying to rapidly build an electronic device business. Of course costs go down with high volume, but small orders and prototypes can now be done for reasonable prices.
By choosing one partner that will work with you during the entire production lifecycle, from the development of your first prototype PCB all the way through to the delivery of your end product to your customers, you will reduce the possibility of missed communications or misunderstandings, eliminate shipping expenses and risk, and ensure high quality results. Of course, by choosing a single partner, you are putting many eggs in one basket, so it pays to do your homework.
By streamlining the entire process with easy-to-use online tools, instant quoting, and rapid prototyping, you can get your products into the hands of customers faster. By simply uploading your design documents and Bill of Materials you can get your quote in seconds. Sourcing is off your plate because your cloud manufacturing partner takes care of that, even passing along steep discounts from parts suppliers. Because turnaround times are so fast, you can iterate as often as you need without delaying product delivery. Taken together, this means that your product gets into the hands of your buyers as quickly as possible.
The reason that businesses outsource non-core functions on a regular basis is that they want to keep their focus tightly on their method of adding value and let someone else get really good at all the ancillary stuff. You probably don’t want to get really great at parts sourcing, inventory management, or order fulfillment, so why not partner with a cloud manufacturing firm that does?
At MacroFab, we believe that anyone with a great design should have access to a manufacturing partner who can take them from concept to customer. You focus on design and marketing, we take care of the rest. Cloud manufacturing represents the future of how things will get made, and that’s a good thing for hardware developers and consumers alike.