Thursday, August 20, 2009

Rocket parts and fruit

In spite of the whimsical picture and title this is a serious post.
I can make rocket parts, or I can buy rocket parts. I can grow my own fruit or I can go buy fruit.

I design embedded electronics as my primary profession. When I first started I built elaborate breadboards and test circuits, I even played with etching my own PCB's. Now I order pcb's from the prototype PCB vendor for everything. Even test circuits. What changed?
I'm much more experienced and my designs have a lot more experience behind them. I've learned what works and what does nott I can read a data sheet (including what is not in the data sheet, often the most important part.) I've also learned that spending the money getting a proper prototype PCBs and assembly is a more cost effective use of my time.

At home we have a peach tree, it grows wonderful peaches to the point that we are all tired of peach pie by the time it drops the last peach. There is a sense of satisfaction from growing your own. All the rest of our food we purchase.

When I started working on rockets it my attitude was more hobby and satisfaction from doing oriented. You can see from the old blog posts we built valves, gearoxes and even weird tanks.
As the project has matured and we've started actually doing work for customers I'm starting to realize the value in off the shelf stuff. My attitude is becoming more business like.

For a number of years now we have been sending drawings and material to thunderbird waterjet here in San Diego and having them cut out parts. We had the hemispheres for our tanks spun by AMS industries. Yet the vast majority of our parts have been fabricated by us for us. We don't generate elaborate 3D models and then fabricate the parts, we build a little, scratch our head and build some more. If we did not have in house machinging capabilities it would significantlyy impede our progress, having to wait for an outside vendor to fabricate every bracket and doodah would take forever. I think this lack of inhouse capabilities is one of the things that has slowed Masten down. Yet fabricating everything in house does not make sense either . Some things like the regen rocket motor I documented on this bblog were fabricated in house from detailed drawings. I think that was an error. I'm in the process of fabricating a new regen motor from stainless. I sent the drawings out for quote on MFG quote and was astonished at the price quote I got. The stainless part among the fruit is the first signifcant custom part we have not fabricated in house. Several more parts of that assembly are due soon. I can't imagine the nightmare of machining that part out of solid stainless, yet the vendor did a really good job for a very fair price. (I'll talk more about the vendor and ordering process when I get the full set of parts, so far I'm pleased.) One of the down sides is that our welder is going on vacation for 10 days and the ordered parts are going to just miss his departure, so we won't be testing much for about two more weeks.

Its not always easy to know what to build and what to contract out, I think its really important to have in house fabrication skills and equipment, but I also think we have erred in not sending more work out.

A final question for the peanut gallery, I'm 90% sure the vendor making these parts underbid the job. They had a couple of programming problems and probably scrapped more metal than their profit margin. As a business man I feel strongly in win win arrangements with vendors.
If the business is not win win then eventually the vendor won't be there next time you need him. Would you bring this up with the vendor and offer to cover some of their loss?
(Clearly by the terms of the quote I don't have to)


Carl Tedesco said...

I firmly believe in the win-win philosophy. I would talk to this vendor and let him know you're aware of his cost over-runs. Then perhaps offer to buy the scrapped parts at some discounted rate to help cover his losses. The scrapped parts may be useful for other prototyping, practice welding for your welder, practice machining for the regen passages, etc. I'm sure the vendor would be appreciative to get something for his errors.

Anonymous said...

The vendor may just want some good word of mouth, or some advertising perhaps, or just more work. Sometimes a vendor will do this sort of work to gain experience. Also, being involved with Unreasonable is a win-win as you guys are on a good development track.

David said...

MFG-Quote has a small but significant opposition community. They believe basically that there are so many companies out there, that someone is always likely to underbid. This in turn makes it impossible for good shops to earn business.

If you'd like to work with the shop in the future, I'd recommend at least striking up a conversation with them about the over-runs. Otherwise, you may find if you go back to them with more parts, you'll get a "no bid" response.

David said...

So is the plan for the regen motor to water-mill channels and weld a jacket, similar to the aluminum chamber?

James Jarvis said...

Hi Paul,

My little business ( has an in-house machine shop. CNC mill, lathes, fab, TIG & MIG welding capabilities. We build prototypes, but darn near everything else goes out to real machine shops. That is what I have found to be most economical.

BTW, the small machine shop we use the most is Accurate Machine Products in Janesville, WI. Tim has made some very nice stainless parts for us. He has CNC lathe with c-axis and live tooling.

-James Jarvis

Gaetano Marano said...

off topic but interesting...
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to know more, read my new article: "The $5000 idea that can save SEVEN astronauts"
do you think it's an interesting and useful idea that may save several astronauts lives?
well, if your answer is "yes" then just talk about/review it on your blog, forum, website
so, maybe... it will be evaluated, tested, applied to perform much safer Shuttle flights

Anonymous said...

There is a huge value of having your own CNC machine and all parts programmed so you can get one whenever you want one (ala Armadillo). Fabrication needs to be cheap if you want lots of testing and debugging. m2

Paul Breed said...

Tere is a big difference between having a CNC machine,(We have both a CNC lathe and mill) and one that can
hog out a solid stainless chamber in reasonable time with minimal pain.

One needs something like:

Timothy J. Massey (tmassey) said...

I have a story from the supplier side. We were providing a fixed-price solution and ran into a problem. After quite a bit of time and frustration, we offered to buy for them several thousands of dollars of software at no additional cost to them. When we told the boss this, he stopped, thought for a moment, and said, "No, I'll pay for it. I'm going to pay for it one way or another..."

And he was right. I already had in the back of my mind little areas where we regularly cut the client slack or reduced our bills where we could *not* do so in the future if we had had to eat the cost of the software.

In the end, we were able to make it work as planned, and nobody was out the money. Even so, the boss' offer has reduced the cost of most everything that we have done for them *since* then. We are comfortable with less markup because if something unforseen happens, they will deal with it reasonably.

By helping them out, I can see the same thing happening for you. You will likely get good quotes from them in the future rather than over-quoting, not only to make up for the loss, but also to give sufficient overhead to cover the *next* mistake--and which you'd pay every time you order from then out... :)

I think Mr. Tedesco's idea is a very good one: not just giving them more money (which might just make him think you'd be willing to pay more in the future no matter what), but purchasing something of value (at least nominally) to you.

Anyway, sorry for the long post. I hope my rambling story might encourage others to try to consider suppliers as partners, not just disposable cogs...

Anonymous said...

I have a different perspective than the other posts. The quote a company issues is based on their own knowledge of their skill set and experience. Even with due diligence, at some point the customer needs to make an evaluation of the vendor based on what they say they can do.

So how much consideration should be given by the customer if the vendor, having been provided all the information necessary to do the job, cannot accomplish the task within budget? The problem I have with this is that the customer ends up paying additional money to cover an error in judgment or experience by the vendor.

Regardless of what Paul does in this case, an issue like this is not usually an isolated incident, and a similar problem may be happening with other customers.

- The vendor did the professional and honorable thing and delivered without any additional charges. A very ethical businessman, and a great example to others.

- I would call the vendor and discuss the situation, providing more money if I felt there was any chance I did not describe the job and complexity well enough.

- In this conversation, have a frank discussion on the vendor capabilities, so that any future jobs can quoted accurately so I know my costs, and he can make a profit. Or, if the work is just hard and unpredictable, budget more of my own money realizing that anyone doing that would has a decent probability of scrapping parts and materiel.

Prevent the overbidding issue by having understanding his ability and agreeing to cover additional costs.

Dave W. said...

Sounds like the shop decided to eat the cost overrun (if any) in the name of goodwill... my take would be that the least you could do would be to send more work their way - especially if it gives them a chance to exploit the learning curve they went through with the first job! I also like Carl's idea of seeing if they'll sell you the rejects (perhaps at net raw material cost?) so you can use them for welding and machining trials.

Chris Hibbert said...

Another point of view here: It would be quite reasonable for the vendor to quote based on earning your future business. If he has to underwrite mistakes as a cost of learning how to do the particular kind of work you have, that's an investment (on his part) in your future relationship. I would let him eat his learning costs for the first few projects (unless he claims they were due to your lack of clarity in the specs) and expect that he'd be making bids that are profitable for him after that. Anyone who's going to survive in business has to learn how much to chalk up to the learning curve, when to sharpen the pencil with a new customer, and when to let a customer go because there's not enough room for mutual profit in the relationship.

Invertir en oro said...

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Invertir en oro said...

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pcb assembly said...

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