Startup Manufacturing in an Automotive World

By Adam Leeb on April 30th, 2013 / Comments

After bench prototyping your product, at some point it becomes necessary to start reaching out to manufacturers that can translate your prototypes to production hardware.  Operating in Michigan, or even better, the metro Detroit area, your business is literally surrounded by thousands of contract manufacturers capable of making anything from textiles to stamped sheet metal to food products.

We benefit from the density of manufacturers due to the automotive ecosystem here; however, there are also some specific challenges when trying to sign up a contract manufacturer for your project.

Find a manufacture not heavily focused in automotive. An automotive supplier might be fully capable of making your part but it might be outside their comfort zone to work with a startup.  Ask them how much of their business is automotive and if they say anything above 75%, it will probably be very difficult to get them to change direction for you.  Even if you are looking to make an actual automotive part, manufacturers that only work with the big auto companies have a very specific process that you won’t be able to follow.

Find a champion for your startup. The most important aspect of choosing a manufacturer is to find a champion within their company.  Finding your way through the production process, even if you are an engineer, can be a real challenge.  Inevitably there will be problems that arise during development or production and you will need someone within the company to push through those problems and sort out the solutions.  It can be your salesperson, the owner of the company if they are small enough, or a project manager.  It doesn’t matter so much what their exact role is as long as they care about seeing your project succeed.

Expect the timeline to get stretched. When working with a new manufacturer, their existing relations are always going to take precedence.  It can be frustrating to fall down the priority list even when they promised to start production on X date.  Business with a startup is always suspect compared to a reorder with an existing customer.  Compared to a few years ago during the recession, the automotive suppliers are no longer as willing to pick up smaller jobs because their core automotive business is picking up.  They also are more reluctant to use their last 10-30% of capacity because they want the flexibility to scale if one of their larger customers’ requests additional runs.

Pick your battles! This concept extends far beyond working with a manufacturer but the practice becomes very important here.  Given the reluctance of manufacturers to do small production runs, it is important to try to make the process of working with you as smooth as possible.  Making custom parts involves thousands of minute decisions on details that could lead to an argument: gap width, size of seam, color, strength, texture, interoperability, cost, and the list goes on.  Determine your critical specs, don’t ever waiver on those, and then continue to remind yourself that if the other characteristics have to change, they have to change.

When we were injection molding the caps for our bottles, we did hundreds of trials to get the fit with the bottle just exactly right.  We also ensured that there wasn’t any flashing and the parts were generally attractive.  When it came to choices about color, I knew that I wanted a reddish orange to match our branding, but the reality was that having a specific pantone color matched would have added 3-4 weeks, a load of cash, and added one more step to the process.  Instead, our manufacturer had a red colorant he had in stock for another project that we adjusted to get to a desirable output.  We made a slight compromise not using a custom color but the result was a more seamless process that helped expedite the manufacturing process.

While it may be tempting to manufacture your products overseas, following these steps should help make your process of working with a local manufacturer more successful.  Aside from saving on transit costs, building locally will speed up your time to market and allow you to work through any changes through face to face communication.

Photo via WIN Southeast Michigan.

About the Author

Adam Leeb

Adam Leeb is a Detroiter, mechanical engineer, former Investment banker and Founder of SunDaily , a premium brand of nutritional supplements focused on Vitamin D. He recently went through the process of finding contact manufacturers in the Detroit area to make SunDaily’s custom square bottles and caps.