ASK THE EXPERT: Why some subcontracting is best brought back inhouse

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By Kip Hanson 

We all know the sick feeling when a batch of once perfectly good parts comes back from the plating house scratched and dinged. “We’ll run the next batch for free,” they offer, seemingly oblivious to the fact that you now have to order more material, schedule machine time to remake the now scrapped parts, and worse, call the customer to tell them what happened. 

Sound farfetched? Maybe I’m the only one who’s gone through this painful experience (more than once), but I doubt it. The sad truth is that subcontractors care far less about your parts than you do. Adding fuel to the fire is any shop’s drive to reduce costs wherever possible, which often means going with the lowest bidder. Granted, there are some excellent subcontractors out there, filled with people like you who take their responsibilities seriously, and it’s only in rare circumstances that such unpleasant events occur. But still, they do occur. 

So what’s the answer? It’s pretty simple, actually: go vertical. Bring the plating and passivating in-house. Hire some welders (or buy some robots if the welders can’t be found). Invest in a heat-treating furnace, a CNC grinder, a paint booth, or an assembly line. Be the master of your shop’s manufacturing destiny and never again hear the awful words, “sorry, but there’s a problem with your parts.”

Okay, it’s not as simple as I suggested just now. Some readers might be shaking their heads right now, thinking, “this guy doesn’t have a clue.” Yes, reducing our lead times and cutting subcontracting costs would be awesome, but we can’t even find workers for our CNC lathes, lasers, and press brakes. How are we expected to staff a plating and painting department?

Fair question, but as with bringing in the shop’s first five-axis machining centre or multitasking lathe, becoming vertically integrated is just another learning experience, albeit one writ large. The good news is there are plenty of providers out there who are willing to hold your corporate hand and guide you and your team through the experience.

And as indicated earlier, there’s automation. Robotic welding is a well-established process. Droids do quite well at painting, grinding, laser marking, and numerous other tasks you might currently be sending down the street. Why not start your shop’s inevitable automation journey here, learn from the experience, and then expand into other processes? 

The alternative? Begin by automating the shop’s existing equipment, whether that’s loading and unloading a horizontal machining centre or tending a stamping press. Doing so would free up a few skilled people and allow them to pursue new, possibly more interesting tasks, like setting up the shop’s first heat-treating furnace. Or maybe they could investigate services or capabilities your business doesn’t currently offer, such as 3D printing.

Finally, there’s the A-word: acquisition. If you don’t have the time (or stomach) to tackle a new manufacturing technology, buy a business that has already mastered it. And if it’s the plating house that just scrapped out the big job we were talking about earlier, so much the better. It’s time to get vertical. SMT

TECHNICAL EDITOR KIP HANSON has more than 40 years experience in the manufacturing industry. He is the author of Machining for Dummies and Fabricating for Dummies and has written over 1500 articles on a diverse range of metal manufacturing topics.

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