In traditional manufacturing, raw materials are collected, assembled and fabricated in large centralized factories where they become finished products that are then moved to the customer. Distributed manufacturing is an alternative approach where the materials and methods of fabrication are decentralized. The goal is to complete the manufacturing of products very close to the ultimate customer. This is achieved by replacing much of the material supply chain with digital information.
Distributed manufacturing combines online, self-service software for uploading design specifications and managing projects with modern prototyping and manufacturing services. Distributed manufacturing eliminates much of the complexity and wait-time associated with old-fashioned manufacturing processes.
When it comes to electronics manufacturing, in particular, the traditional approach is overly complex, time-consuming, and often out of the reach of small businesses. That’s because even small volume orders are pushed through the same process as the one used for mass-volume, mature products. Many traditional large electronics manufacturers won’t even agree to produce an order unless it’s in the thousands or tens of thousands.
Distributed manufacturing, on the other hand, is structured on purpose, to make it easy, inexpensive, and fast to produce prototypes and small batches, allowing designers to iterate, improve and deliver on time.
The traditional electronics manufacturing process works well for large organizations that want to produce hundreds of thousands of products for the lowest price possible. But it is not as friendly to small businesses or newly developed products. The distributed approach to hardware manufacturing improves the process and makes it possible for more innovators to get products to market.
Small and growing businesses with few products on the market don’t always have the demand required to get reasonable prices from traditional manufacturing outfits that are designed to churn out high-volume production orders. They also generally look to avoid large inventories and view just-in-time delivery as essential. Distributed manufacturing supports the needs of these businesses by making small orders and prototyping affordable. The gold standard distributed manufacturing solutions also offer inventory and fulfillment services and have developed APIs to integrate the customer’s e-commerce or ERP system. When an end user orders a product, it is shipped from a nearby facility without any additional effort on the part of the business. This reduces costs, and frees employees to focus on more strategic business needs, gets products to customers more quickly, and results in an excellent customer experience. For small businesses, distributed manufacturing can lead to faster growth.
Even for large organizations working a new product idea, traditional manufacturing can be a roadblock. Those operations aren’t equipped to handle your small order or prototype, even if you’re working for a huge corporation. Distributed manufacturing helps address that problem. Because they leverage cloud-based technology to digitize much of the process, these manufacturers are able to accept prototyping orders, help with iteration and produce small batches.
Not all distributed manufacturing services are the same, so it takes some effort to find a partner that has all of the capabilities and business practices that are important to your business. We recommend making sure that they have done work for similar companies or produced printed circuit boards or electronic devices that are similar to what you would like to create. Here are some of the features and services you should look for.
With today’s technology, you should not have to engage in a bunch of back and forth emails to get a quote for your devices or PCBs. Instead, you can find a distributed manufacturing service partner that makes it easy to get real-time quotes online. All you have to do is upload your design documents and select the parts you’d like. Before you engage with a partner, ask the service provider for a demonstration of their quoting and management solution.
Prototyping and iteration have always been challenging phases of the product lifecycle. Fortunately, it no longer needs to be that way. With distributed manufacturing, device and PCB prototyping should be quick, reasonably priced and painless. Although traditional manufacturing vendors often reject prototyping and small batch orders, distributed manufacturers welcome these orders and are happy to help you get your product ready for market.
Some distributed manufacturing services take on the task of finding the best sources for parts and negotiate significant discounts by leveraging the buying power of their entire customer base. This turnkey service saves you effort and time and also helps keep your costs as low as possible.
One of the great things about focusing on data is that you get on-demand visibility into the status of your project. You can make changes and review results any time from anywhere. As weigh your options for service partners, insist on reporting that is powerful, easy to use, and available on any device.
Some distributed manufacturing service providers offer “house parts” programs that pass discounts on popular parts along to all customers.This way you can get volume discount pricing even if you only need a few parts.
In order to keep costs low and avoid manufacturing delays, it is smart to look for a distributed manufacturer that can handle both printed circuit board assembly and electronic device manufacturing. Having one partner perform both functions helps you reduces shipping time, avoid extra costs, and eliminate unnecessary risks. It also streamlines your product lifecycle and makes your life easier.
While one of the goals of distributed manufacturing is to keep inventories low in favor of just-in-time production, some inventory is often necessary. You can find a service provider that addresses the whole cycle from concept to customer and offers inventory storage and management services. Your devices stay at the manufacturing location until they are ready to be shipped to the buyer. You don’t have to worry about storage space and you can keep track of your inventory from an online portal.
Lean leaders know that unless a baseline is established, improvement can’t be measured. Standard work makes this possible by define the exact current process for each task that will be consistently replicated by the people who do the work. In order for Standard work to be effective, it must be complete, accessible, and current.
If your distributed manufacturing service provider is handling your inventory, it makes sense for them to take the product lifecycle to its completion by shipping the product directly to your customers as soon as it is ordered. You never have to box or ship a thing. The partner can even leverage their total business volume to secure discounts from shipping carriers.
The leading players in custom distributed PCB and electronic device manufacturing and assembly offer an application programming interface (API) that makes it easy to connect their manufacturing management software with the applications your customers use to place orders, like your eCommerce or ERP system. When an order is placed, the service provider is electronically notified, and the product is shipped without any effort on your part.
Distributed manufacturing is all about creating products as close as possible to the customers who will use them. It was once the case that the only way to get electronics product manufacturing accomplished at a reasonable price is to do it offshore. But with the rise of distributed manufacturing, now there are many options right here in the United States that are cost effective, reliable, and fast. On-shore manufacturing saves you the added complexity and risk associated with overseas operations.
You may have noticed that many of the capabilities of distributed manufacturing lead to reduced costs. This is a key driver for small businesses and others trying to bring products to market on a tight budget. You do get lower costs at higher volume, but it is absolutely possible to pay reasonable prices for prototypes and small orders.
By working with an onshore partner that supports the entire product lifecycle, from prototype PDB development through shipping to buyers, you lower the risk of missed communications or misunderstandings. You reduce the opportunity for shipping errors and delay. And you gain confidence in the resulting product quality.
By smoothing the whole manufacturing process with user-friendly online tools, instant quoting, and rapid prototyping, your distributed manufacturing partner helps you get your products into the hands of customers faster. You’ll get a quote in seconds by simply uploading your design documents and Bill of Materials. You don’t have to worry about sourcing because your manufacturing partner takes care of it for you, and you even get steep discounts from parts suppliers. Because turnaround times are so quick and prototype orders are welcome, you can iterate as often as you like without running into big delays. All of this means that your product gets into the hands of your buyers more quickly.
Businesses outsource non-core functions all of the time. Why? Because they want to keep their focus tightly on how they add customer value and let someone else get really good at everything else. You probably don’t want to become an expert in parts sourcing, inventory management, or order fulfillment, so why not partner with a distributed manufacturing partner that already has?
We are convinced that anyone with an innovative design should have access to a manufacturing partner who can take them from concept to customer. You focus on your invention and your key business functions, and we take care of the rest. Distributed manufacturing is the future of how products will be produced and delivered. That’s good news for hardware developers and consumers alike.