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Consultant’s Corner: Time for a Service Bureau Consult?

You bid for and win a big project. The first feeling is euphoria: Yay, we did it! But the second thought may be: How are we going to deliver, given the mountain of work we’re already doing? Dread sets in as you ponder your options. Or maybe a project is taking longer than you thought it would, and you’re behind. Or perhaps you discover that you’re missing a key skill—like simulation—to bring your design to life. What to do? You can beg for an extension, look for a new hire—or you can explore your options with an external engineering and design service bureau.

A service bureau can supplement your team with a trained designer or engineer who steps in as needed, bringing skills and experience. What should you look for as you think about working with a service bureau?

Making a Match

First, make sure they have the skills you need. You’ll have to do some work to bring your temporary partner up to speed—after all, you know the project best—but they should come with a basic skill set that complements the task. At a minimum, they should have performed a similar task before, using the tools you have. You want to teach them about the design project, not the toolset you use. You might look for certifications, check references and examine project portfolios to determine specific competencies.

Speaking of tools, some service bureaus have their own licenses of critical software and others expect you to supply them. Make sure you understand who is paying for what, what versions are being used and how data will be handed over.

When you work with a service bureau you are paying for their expertise, so use it wisely. Share as much information as you can to let them fully explore design options. You may want to consider a legal framework to protect intellectual property but, once you’re comfortable, share everything. You are paying a service bureau to create the best possible design; to do that, they need to fully understand it.

Learn from Service Providers

In the case of simulation, small- and medium-sized businesses often work with subject matter experts at service bureaus because of their domain knowledge and access to expensive technology. Depending on how their business is structured, simulation service bureaus can offer a variety of services, ranging from letting you run simulation on their software licenses (and their hardware setup, on-premise or in the cloud), taking your model and doing an analytical workup on it, or offering more complete consulting that helps you optimize the design. Understand your limitations, but think ahead: If you have aspirations to perform simulation in-house, use this as a learning opportunity. See if the outside provider is willing to let one of your team members shadow the service bureau staffer; you might eventually be able to bring that expertise in-house.

One more great reason to work with a service bureau: Try out technologies before you invest. We see this a lot in 3D printing, which is becoming highly useful so quickly that it will soon be a major part of many companies’ plans for inventory management and order fulfillment, as well as jigs, fixtures and prototyping. But are you an expert in the material science and the product redesign needed to make it truly useful? Perhaps not. In this case, a good service bureau can help you explore the options available today, in materials and printer technology and help you figure out how to optimize part designs for this new type of manufacturing. This is a much wiser approach to 3D printing than buying a cheap desktop printer and winging it. Yes, you’ll get a 3D printed part, but it likely won’t be of production quality, won’t use the materials you’ll want in inventory and may take far longer than a costlier machine to print a part. You’ll get the wrong impression about how 3D printing can affect your business. Instead, work with a knowledgeable service bureau to get it right. This strategy applies to CAD, CAE and other technologies too—try it before you buy.

Look at service bureaus as an extension of your in-house staff: They are there when you need them, valued for their specific expertise, with access to specialist tools. Make use of the experience of others in order to make the right choice for your business.

About Monica Schnitger

Monica Schnitger is president of Schnitger Corporation.