For an upcoming article, I recently visited Protofab in Petaluma, California. I wanted to learn how this small job shop got into micro-machining medical implants. It turns out the shop didn’t win this work because it had the right equipment or because it was knowledgeable about machining tiny parts. The equipment and the knowledge both came later. Instead, this shop got the work because it was willing to make prototypes—and it was willing to make these short-run parts quickly and economically while the customer went through iteration after iteration to refine its design. Once the development work was done and Protofab got the production work, the shop just needed a new CNC Swiss-type machine to be delivered in order to run all of these parts.
I have heard other shops relate similar stories—that is, the way that prototype and development work made them the logical choice to get the production work later.
Taking on prototyping can be risky. The challenges of these short-run parts are hard to anticipate. However, because of the way it puts you ahead of other shops that are vying for the production work, taking this risk might be one of the better investments your shop can make.