Rapid reshoring

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by Kip Hanson

Toolmakers beware; the Chinese have rapid prototyping too

Author Nigel Southway is passionate about bringing manufacturing back to North America.

He also knows a lot about additive manufacturing. Put the two together and you’re in for a lively chat. “I came back from Shanghai just last week and I can tell you, there are more rapid prototyping shops in China than we’re ever likely to see here. We can’t differentiate ourselves with this technology without looking at our overall business tactics.”  

As an independent Lean consultant and chair of the Toronto Chapter of SME, Southway keeps a close eye on manufacturing trends. Rapid prototyping is one of these. He explains that interest is high. “SME has a community of people focused on this technology. We have a lot of experts involved, both equipment manufacturers and end users alike, and our members get together regularly to share knowledge. We’re very plugged into it.”

Despite the current excitement over additive manufacturing, a.k.a. rapid prototyping, Southway says the technology is nothing new. R&D has been ongoing for decades and commercially viable additive manufacturing machines began appearing in the mid-2000’s, yet North American manufacturers have been reluctant champions. Rapid prototype shops have been labeled “service bureaus” and manufacturers have declined to embrace cradle to grave product lifecycles in favour of high volume comfort factors. The result is that foreign competitors, especially the Chinese, are eating our lunch. 

“The Chinese are already using this technology. They are acquiring the best machines, the latest and greatest CAD systems and, more importantly, their government supports their endeavors.” It’s this last point that especially irks Southway, who says that the only way to win the war on global manufacturing is through efficient government funding as well as fair, not free, trade practices. “Their government is probably five times faster than ours in terms of putting money where it makes the most sense. We will not win this war unless our legislators become interested in manufacturing and re-learn how important it is to our economic health.”

The result is that a product developer sitting in Ontario can send a CAD model to China and three days later the part is sitting on her desk. She will then solicit quotes for production tooling only to find it’s much cheaper and faster to source from China. One of the reasons for this, Southway explains, is that our toolmakers are far more traditional than their Chinese counterparts. “We tend to quote twelve weeks for delivery, whereas the Chinese will do a quick and dirty tool in a of couple weeks. They’re also very clever at hiding the costs of that tool in the piece price, making up for it in the annual volume of the part. They’ll definitely play the game to capture your business much more than our guys will.”

For those who scoff at Chinese quality, Southway says think again. “Depending on the business sector maturity and technology, I would argue they’re capable of being just as good as us, quality to quality. You have to realize there are just as many competent toolmakers in China as there are here, probably more now. So with equivalent quality, as well as faster, cheaper tooling, there’s no reason for people to bring products back home after prototyping.” The moral of the story is that we must compete on prototyping and tooling, otherwise we won’t even get the chance to make the products.

Southway isn’t suggesting that we give up, only that we change tactics. Government support is certainly a big part of that strategy, but that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. Until then, manufacturers need to adjust their approach. “The key here is to embrace additive manufacturing. For starters, I challenge our toolmakers to do some real benchmarking against Chinese competitors.”

“There are few strategic relationships and benchmarking being pursued in the toolmaking world – we need to send our toolmakers to China, to understand what’s out there and try to get inside it,” continues Southway. “We have to stop playing catch up and use all the available technology and resources to our advantage, not only for prototyping, but also for rapid tooling development. That’s where I think we must develop leverage. It’s not all about making one-off parts for mad scientists, so to speak, but about embedding rapid prototype, tooling and Lean thinking into our overall manufacturing process. Using all of these things together, that’s our play.”  

Southway’s final word is this: “We have a lot of people in government and the board room who tend to think of any new technology as a magic pill that will instantly improve the game. It does not work like that. We must integrate technology strategically into all the other things we are doing and do them all well, with a passion for continuous improvement. Only in this way will we achieve a better outcome and a competitive edge.” SMT

Kip Hanson is a contributing editor. [email protected]


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