Inside 3ERP's machining shop. (Image courtesy of 3ERP.)
The journey from an idea to a finished product has become much more roundabout in recent years: a single assembly can incorporate parts coming from dozens—if not hundreds or even thousands—of suppliers. Moreover, the combination of online ordering and expedited shipping means that engineers need not be restricted to the job shops in their own backyards.
China has a reputation as the go-to region for high-volume manufacturing, but it’s also possible to find Chinese companies that offer rapid prototyping and low volume manufacturing services, potentially at a lower cost than their Western counterparts.
Take 3ERP, for example.
With 11 years in the industry and 26,560 projects delivered to more than 400 customers, 3ERP aims to be the one-stop shop for product development, from one-off prototyping to mass production. The company is well equipped to do so, with manufacturing capabilities that include:
Given the diversity of its services, it should come as no surprise that 3ERP has worked with engineers, product designers and entrepreneurs from a wide range of industries, including aerospace, automotive and medical devices.
Engineering Lady Gaga’s Shoes
(Image courtesy of 3ERP.)
One of the company’s more esoteric projects involved 3D printing a pair of custom polycarbonate shoes for Lady Gaga. Strange as it may seem, this is no mean feat of engineering.
Each shoe was made by CNC milling polycarbonate plastic, which was then wrapped with carbon fiber for added strength. In order to make the heel both thin and strong, 3ERP’s engineers wrapped carbon fiber layers around a titanium tube, with a tip turned from stainless steel. The golden figures were made using selective laser sintering (SLS) in polyamide with a chrome sputter finish.
Ultimately, making this unique pair of shoes called for CNC milling and turning, carbon fiber layering and selective laser sintering—all capabilities offered by 3ERP.
Chinese Manufacturing Quality
There’s a tendency in the West to take the ‘Made in China’ label as an indicator of low quality, but 3ERP is changing that perception, starting with the company’s name. The ‘3E’ stands for ‘Excellent, Efficient and Economic’ which the company’s Founder and General Manager, Ronan Ye, says reflects the primary concerns for customers of on-demand manufacturing: quality, lead time and price.
In-process inspection at 3ERP. (Image courtesy of 3ERP.)
When asked about the priority of these values, Ye said, “Ninety-nine percent of the time, quality comes first, but we have had some rare cases where the parts are not perfect and we offer to remake them—but the customer decides to accept them because they’re still within tolerance and they need the parts urgently.”
Of course, 3ERP’s commitment to quality goes beyond mere branding, as Ye explained:
“First of all, we are an ISO-certified company. Although most Westerners consider Chinese manufacturing cheap, we want to show the world that we can offer superior quality. I think more and more people my age are realizing that it’s better to offer higher quality instead of a super-cheap price.”
(Image courtesy of 3ERP.)
In terms of inspection equipment, 3ERP’s capabilities include x-ray material testing, in-process inspection for CNC machining, an optical comparator and coordinate measuring machine (CMM). From incoming material inspection to final testing and certification before shipping, 3ERP’s quality control system covers the entire manufacturing process.
As manufactured goods become increasingly more sophisticated, the contract or on-demand model for manufacturing makes ever more sense. Whether you’re a young start-up looking to produce a few prototypes to show potential clients or an established job shop that needs some short-run tooling, choosing a company that specializes in rapid prototyping and low volume manufacturing makes good sense.
Both of these cases involve clients who know what they need, but even if you aren’t firm on the details, companies like 3ERP can help. “Most of our customers know exactly what they want, including materials and surface finishing,” said Ye. “However, some of them do need our input to move forward.”
X-ray material inspection at 3ERP. (Image courtesy of 3ERP.)
It’s not hard to imagine that on-demand manufacturing could one day become the norm, especially given the pressure to bring products to market as rapidly as possible. Ye agrees: “It is important to launch products fast nowadays, otherwise you might lose the opportunity to get the best margin. That’s why people are looking at different kinds of rapid manufacturing instead of normal mass production.”
Taken together with the speed at which parts can be shipped these days, the choice of on-demand manufacturing need not restrict engineers and entrepreneurs to companies in their immediate vicinity. For example, 3ERP offers global delivery in as few as ten days.
So, unless it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight—which, let’s be honest, only happens when someone really screws up—ordering your prototypes or short runs from China really is a viable option. It’s a brave new world that has such manufacturers in it.
So, if you’re looking for rapid manufacturing on demand—whether you need one part or more than 1,000—request a quote from 3ERP.
3E Rapid Prototyping has sponsored this post. All opinions are mine. --Ian Wright