Connections to precision manufacturing

Hi, I am Thomas from team 5740, we are located in the Cranberry Township area outside of Pittsburgh. We do not have many resources in our school for our team. Is there anyone who knows/has connections to precision manufacturing (like water jet, laser cutter, CNC) and manual fabrication (mill, lathe) around the Pittsburgh area for our team in the 2019 FRC season and beyond? You can contact me at [email protected]

Hi Thomas,

There are many easy methods of getting local fabrication sponsorships.

The first step in any of this is to evaluate if your team currently has the CAD abilities needed to facilitate advanced manufacturing.

Next step is to evaluate if your team’s current fabrication and build processes would allow for the time it takes to have parts sent out for machining.

With these items set aside, obtaining local sponsors is quite easy:
1) Google search “machining near me” “waterjet near me” “fabricaton near me” etc.

  1. Check the websites of multiple local vendors. It is good to see what kinds of resources they have under facilities and their capabilities list.

  2. **Call during business hours **and ask to speak to a shop manager or owner if possible. Shops are busy, so don’t worry if you have to call a few times.

  3. Explain that you are a local educational robotics team that is interested in learning about manufacturing in your town.

  4. Have a conversation with the owner or manager, explain that you want to learn and how expanding your knowledge of manufacturing will benefit your team.

  5. Ask if they would be interested in allowing a small group of students and mentors to tour their facilities.

  6. Ask if they work with the CAD packages you are familiar with and if you could potentially get parts machined by them.
    7a) BE SPECIFIC - explain what types of raw materials you typically use, what types of parts you might want to make (are they flat, are they 3D, are they high tolerance, aluminum (6061, 7075), what specific machines do you think you would need them to use).

Be as specific as possible and make sure you tell them that you understand their time is valuable, so you will obviously advertise them on your site, shirt, banners, etc. Machining sponsors are highly valuable, so treat them as monetary sponsors.

Ask if you’d have to supply materials as well, and in the summer or Fall, test run your processes with the machine shop by creating parts for them to machine. You will use this time to learn how to properly create parts for them to machine and how to properly create drawings for manufacturing. You will also learn what their turnaround times are. You will also learn how to design parts to be quickly machined.

Machine shop relationships are very important to keep strong, so be patient, and remember that they are giving you their time and time is money.

Last bit of advice - always have multiple machine shops on deck and ready to make parts for you. Shops can get busy without much notice and your parts may not take priority. Be ready with backups and spread out your parts to multiple shops if possible. Keep in mind that not everything needs precision machining, so design your robot with your in house manufacturing in mind first, outside manufacturing should be used if it really is more beneficial and something can’t be bought off the shelf from the variety of FRC part vendors out there (VEX, Andymark, REV, etc).

Remember, always call, be polite, and remember that they are people who do have a priority of making a living. Don’t take it personally if someone says no. Say thank you, and ask if they’d still allow you to tour.

As a quick example - here is a waterjetting service you can call near you.

Adding on to this great advice. Try to contact some small run/custom manufacturing companies too. Things like Waterjets and laser cutters are fairly affordable for a lot of small companies these days, I’ve seen success in the past getting sponsorship from custom store shelving companies, armored car retrofitters, small construction equipment manufacturers, limousine/ambulance builders etc. Even 148’s robots are made by a server rack manufacturer. A common mistake is only pursuing large multi-level companies for sponsorship, these companies often have far too much bureaucracy to work through in order to reach the right person unless you have some sort of personal connection within the company.

I’d also avoid pursuing machining sponsorship from Colleges. We had 3 one year and somehow it still took 2 weeks to get a couple parts cut. Things kept breaking due to operator error and maintenance issues. A real shop looses money for every minute a machine is down, that’s what you need for FRC.

I think IFI is “just” a bit more than a server rack manufacturer.

I mean sure, Rack Solutions and IFI are more or less the same. Fact of the matter is the manufacturing line 148 uses is primarily for making server racks. Very little of the VEX robotics stuff is even made in the USA.

Definitely agree with Marcus, I’ve had good luck with companies who fabricate their own products such an small metal carts and appliances back in Jersey and Philly.

Akash’s post is great. Some additions/addendums from my experience on building/maintaining these relationships:

[li]I cannot emphasize enough: outsourced precision manufacturing of a good chunk of a robot’s parts is something that is orders of magnitude more accessible to the average team than nearly everybody thinks it is. I very often hear about teams like 148 and 118 in terms of “oh that’s the IFI/NASA team, so they have the IFI/NASA shop,” as if it’s purely a factor of circumstance that these teams have these tools, and it’s hopeless for others. Even the OP speaks of looking for “people with connections” as their priority. While these things are helpful to have and a nice boost if you happen to have them, this could not be further from the case for how a vast majority of teams acquire these resources. In most cases, it is small local companies, approached cold, with owners who think getting involved in this kind of project is super cool, who had no idea that you or anything like you existed. [/li]

[li]Related, companies with these kinds of tools are more common than most people think. In your personal life, you’ve probably never had particular cause to look into local machine shops, so you don’t have a great frame of reference for how many are around you. In FRC, they seem relatively rare. In fact, they’re all around. Open up your paper phone book and write down every single name, do a google maps search within a driveable radius. [/li]

[li]One side-note. In FRC, “sheet metal” almost universally referrs to companies with laser cutters/turret punches/CNC press breaks. In industry, it can refer to this, but it can also refer to manual ventilation duct work. The latter is pretty much non-applicable to what we do, but will often be listed together. Each field is more or less unaware of the other’s existence. Learn to tell the difference. [/li]

[li]In fact, they are so common, that you should be prioritizing your approaches somewhat. Learn about the companies. Some green flags for increased likelyhood of sponsorship that I have observed from browsing company websites, both general, and specific to machine shops:[/li]

[li]Historical sponsorship of anything. Especially if they proudly mention this on their website. Look at local university projects for sponsor logos, they’ll point you in the right direction. [/li][li]General appearance that they’re doing well. New tool purchases, new location, etc.[/li][li]Large amount of effort spent on developing a professional web presence. Companies which do this are interested in finding new ways to get exposure. [/li][li]Personal feel to the website. Things like profiles on the owners, etc. Cold, no-nonsense business facing companies aren’t always the most generous. [/li][li]Any material which basically boils down to “look at all these awesome parts we make, aren’t they cool? Check out this giant new machine we just got, crazy huh?” This correlates with owners who got into the business because they genuinely enjoy making a variety of cool things, and what’s cooler than giant robots built by high schoolers?[/li][li]Specialty in small production runs and fast turnarounds. Look for the phrase “Job Shop.” In industry, production with the quantities/varieties involved in FRC is considered “prototype” work, even if it’s final production parts for us. Lots of shops are set up to crank out thousands of a single part over the course of weeks, and don’t do well with the FRC time scale. [/li][/ul]

[li]I’ve actually had pretty good success just dropping by companies in person. Bring students, a portfolio about the team, and brief them on how to do these kinds of meetings/pitches. [/li]

[li]Do your homework before approaching the company. Browse their websites, and know what tools they have. Read up on the tools, learn their capabilities. Don’t ask them for things they can’t do or which push their resources too much, remember they’re the ones being generous here. [/li]

[li]Be willing to let their capabilities drive your designs to a degree. They will be used to customers bringing rigid, inflexible designs to them which need to be produced exactly as drawn, this will be refreshing. For example, with sheet metal, you probably don’t actually really care precisely what bend radii your parts have, so pick something which works with their standard tooling. There will be bunches of things like this, which seem like trivial or arbitrary choices to you, that end up having gigantic impact on how tricky the parts are to make. Work with them to learn how you can design parts which require the least effort on their part, and keep them in the loop throughout the robot design process. Related, if you can get a company that does something somewhat unorthodox, like wood laser cutting, take full advantage of it. Just because something’s been niche or rarely seen on your robots, doesn’t mean it has to stay this way when you have a company to help with it. [/li]

[li]Learn to create good prints, and proper GD&T practice. Everyone will appreciate it. Have someone with the responsibility of signing off on your production runs to ensure everything is quality. [/li]

[li]Try to release parts to them in as few batches as possible, so they can plan their production out. Take common-sense steps like reusing duplicate parts as much as you can, so they only have to be programmed once. [/li]

[li]Ask if there’s anything you can do to help make their lives a little easier. Things like creating full sheet layouts of your parts and giving them those ready to go. Makes their lives easier, and gives your students learning opportunities about how these shops do their work. [/li]

[li]Even outside the season, find ways you can help each other. We’ve had students do intern work for sponsors, and organized an earth day cleanup of a location on their property where people dumped a bunch of trash. [/li]

[li]Find unique ways specific to the company to recognize their work. Every company on our team was on the shirts/vinyl panel on the bot. Only our laser cutting company got to carve their logo into prominent spots in the sheet metal. [/li][/LIST]