When selecting a Prototype Company or Engineering Firm to work with it is very important to evaluate your role and experience in the development process. Understanding how much control you want to have over the design is crucial before selecting the Prototype Company or Engineering firm that is a the right fit for your project. Some firms are built for producing exactly what you give them while others can develop a product from a verbal idea. You want to find a firm that can deliver what you need while making sure you are spending your budget appropriately. If you are going to be doing a lot of the work yourself you can use a firm that creates parts right from your files or detailed specifications. If you are looking for someone who can take your idea and run with it or develop new solutions to a problem you present then you are looking for a different category of company. Making the right selection can save you time, money and prevent undo frustration.
Companies specialize in different areas. Most companies tend to offer a broad array of services but they still tend to specialize in certain areas. All companies tend to evolve as the times, marketplaces, technology and circumstances around them change. Most companies offer a blend of services which also evolve. The size of the company is also a large factor in terms of the services that are offered but the talent of individuals who perform those services is always the key to success. It is very important if possible to meet the individuals that you will be working with to assess whether their skills and competency are a match for your project.
When I look at product development companies I tend to group them into one of three categories. These categories are: Service Bureau, Industrial Design Company and an Engineering Firm. There certainly can be a lot of blending of these categories and some firms say that they are all three. It's hard for a company to be all things to all people. You will be much better served with a company that knows it strengths and weaknesses and is open and honest about it.
I consider a Service Bureau a company that prints parts from a file you provide, or fabricates a model from prints you provide. These companies typically have rapid prototyping equipment like SLA machines, FDM machines, or SLS machines and they print parts on those machines from your files as is. Some service bureaus may offer other services including some design or engineering support and finishing or assembly work but the focus of a service bureau is to make parts from your design. If you are taking on the majority of the design work yourself this can be a good fit.
Industrial design firms tend to be focused on product development but from more of a styling, human interaction and ergonomic vantage point. When product design work moved offshore, many of the larger Industrial Design Firms transformed into consulting firms that help business find the voice of the customer and help them change their business, facility or product to make a better customer experience.
A product engineering firm also develops product from an initial idea but focuses more on solving mechanical problems and design for manufacturing. There can be a lot of crossover between an industrial design firm and an engineering firm. Both can develop a product for you without much being required from your part except a project brief or description and input and interaction along the way. You need to consider the needs of the project to determine the right fit.
Our company began in 1985 as a "model shop". This was the old school service bureau. We would make a prototype of a provided design per that design but we did it by hand without today's modern equipment. As we grew we added a design department and offered Industrial design services but our focus was more on the prototype building side. When this type of work moved offshore we started focusing on design for manufacturing and eventually evolved into today's engineering firm where our specialty is mechanical problem solving. We do have an FDM machine but we rarely print from other peoples files. We use that machine to prototype what we engineer. We do have Industrial designers on staff and offer those related services but most of our customers today come to us for mechanical solutions.
As you can see companies do change and evolve in this industry. What a company specialized in at one time they might not even do at this point. You really need to match up your current projects needs with the current specialty of the companies that you are looking to work with to find the right fit for your project.
How do you match your projects with the appropriate firm?