"One Perfect Part at a Time"

What Will It Cost Me?

I receive such requests from designers or just people with ideas, asking if I can make something complicated for them. Most of the time I say no, because I have enough projects of my own on which I would like to be working. There are also some designs that are beyond my means, usually because it is too large or requires special tooling and materials. (I wish I could charge the designer for the new tools!!)  Some of the designs also suffer from knowledge of how things are made on machine tools. The sketches and drawings show holes where they can’t be drilled or unnecessary and difficult areas requiring multiple setups.

These requests show that there is a demand for prototyping services. These inventors and idea people have problems turning their ideas into one off products because they do not have their own shop and skills.

But prototyping is not as simple as sending out a proven design for bids.  I am talking about solicitations from hobbyist and small time inventors who have never worked with a prototype or even in a machine shop. A good design is one that can also be made as inexpensively as possible on standard machines and tooling. That seldom happens on the version #1 prototype from a newbie designer.

What I am saying is the folks who approach me don’t realize their design may require a lot of cooperation (face time) between the designer and the maker. Of course I am not talking about a bar of aluminum with two holes drilled into it. The designer can do that himself. I see the hard stuff, like machining threads on a very thin tube and the tube is thinner than required for the thread depth. (Yes, I have seen this.)

Outsourcing any prototyping is not inexpensive. Building a prototype may cost 100 to 1000 times what a design will cost in production. That’s why prototyping is done mostly in-house. The first thing that alarms me is the requester is seeking the lowest cost.

I imagine a hobbyist designer with a new retract gear design for a model airplane would drop dead if I quoted $3,000 to build the working prototype and $100/hr for consulting. Time is a BIG part of prototyping cost. Making special tools and fixtures also greatly adds to the cost. So all this has to be considered in the design, time and cost it will take to make the first one.

Most professional designers wisely choose to do their own prototyping. I sell the small machine tools suitable for hobbyist type work when the project is of a very small size. The problem may be… the designer will have to develop machining skills by trial and error. So the invention design stage is only a small part of the item cost, ninety percent if not more is getting the idea built.

I have been in several nuclear science labs at prestigious universities and I was surprised and pleased to see that they have their own fully equipped machine shops. They are used for design and construction of their specialized apparatus for nuclear experiments. The large components they have built (at very high cost) by outside shops but a lot of the small chambers, brackets and guides are built by the students themselves in their own machine shop.  The reason is cost and to have the ability to quickly make changes.

The reason I enjoy my hobby is I can do everything for myself. It is called design build in the engineering world. I am free to make changes anytime and in any way I desire. I may throw the whole first start away and start over with an improvement. The hobby is often called model engineering rather than amateur machinist.

The requirement is including this kind of time and material freedom when you are estimating cost for a fixed budget. That $2,000 quote may turn into $4,000 real cost if there is a single “do-over”. The reality is the customer must understand part of the prototype cost is for first time mistakes and such do-overs. I seldom make the first part perfect if I have never done one before. I often build prototypes of my own designs (sometimes in wax) just to discover the problems and techniques before I attempt the real component.

In development of a new design as I mentioned above, it is often wise to make a concept version from cheap materials, maybe to see just how it fits with something else. There is still a large investment of time. However, making the ”good part” is now not the first attempt. See my point?

Design, specify, build on a prototype is a very risky venture for both the designer and the out-sourced builder. It may not be a good relationship builder for either as the cost goes up. What’s needed is a mutual rather than an adversarial relationship. “You told me you could make it for $25.00. Now you say the real cost is $250.00” is adversarial. No one wins. A designer should never bid a prototype for the lowest cost. No one will be happy at the end.

Competitive bid is the way to go when you are going to make say, 1000 items all the same and the prototype already proves (provides) the method of manufacture. The per-unit cost to make a fixture for one part is now one thousandth the cost of making it for the prototype.

The hobbyist designer with the $6000 retract gear prototype cost can spread that cost over 1000 items ($6.00/item) If the retracts sell at $300 a set, the prototype is now 2% of the cost. Yes the prototype cost $6000 to build the production unit priced at $300.00. Those are the facts my friends.

Hiring “one-off” parts built for your own enjoyment is something the very rich do for their antique car collections or if you are a silly hobbyist like me and do it just for the enjoyment of creation.

This also shouts out there is no financial reason to custom making something that is already mass produced. A hobbyist may just want to because he can, but that is not a good business decision.

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