Friday, August 14, 2009

Occasionally people will ask me (when I give tours of the lab, or when I'm talking to highschoolers/undergrads), "Miss Outlier, is there anything you wish you'd known during college?" Or, a variation on this question, "What advice would you give to engineering students?"

There are many things it would have helped me to know in college. Most of these things, I would have ignored if someone told me. I generally don't give much advice, because I learned mostly by figuring it out myself, as students have done for many generations before me, and will for many generations after me.

But there are a couple things I know now that I would have sold a kidney on the black market for when I was taking engineering classes.

One of these: the existence of a site called

This is a site that lets you upload blueprints, or drawings, or CAD files, or I'm guessing even a hand drawn sketch if it gets across your meaning. For instance, I recently put up this part which I needed machined from aluminum:

I only use this site for machining, but you can also do stamping, extrusions, injection molding, anodizing, even FABRIC WEAVING if you so desire. Whatever it is you need manufactured, you specify what you want made, and send it out for quotes. Manufacturing places from all around the world (and I do mean literally, from every country you can think of - I would stay away from Tanzania, personally) can then give you a price quote for your item. You specify how soon you want the quote, and when your delivery date for the part is. Obviously, the sooner you need it the more expensive it might be.

Then you take a look at the companies and job shops offering to make your part - the rating of the company, the price they bid, and any other factors you find relevant - and award the job to someone. There is no minimum order - if a company doesn't think it can make money off of one part, they simply won't bid.

Shortly thereafter, your parts show up on your doorstep.

This, my friends, is game changing.

This allows anyone who can design a part to have it made. I am no longer constrained by my own machining abilities (which are above average, but obviously I'm just a student) or by the tools I have available (I actually now have state-of-the-art machine shops at my disposal, but I certainly did not in college).

And even if I have a part that a) I could machine myself, and b) I have the tools to make, this allows me to trade my time for money. In college, sometimes I simply did not have 10 hours in a week to make something. I would have gladly paid someone in China $30 to do it for me, but I didn't know I had that option.

Having the option is key. I don't use this all the time, because making things is actually my favorite part of research, but in a crunch it's a lifesaver.

And for the record, China is hella cheap and I have always gotten good quality parts (I throw out the bottom 10-20% of bids, because I suspect those would be poorly made). One time, a job shop in China submitted a picture of my part that they had ALREADY MADE with their bid to tell me how much it would be. I nearly spit my coffee onto my laptop when I saw that. Like, "There's my part! Right there! Sitting on a table in China! And they don't even know yet if I will accept their bid!?" For the record, I did go with that company, because their price was fantastic. Also, talk about a fast delivery date - shove that thing in the mail and send it on over here!

This whole concept in general and the site in particular is, I think, a stunningly efficient combination of the global market, the power of the internet, and direct communication between end user and manufacturing producer.

So I suppose when asked "If you could tell yourself something five years ago, what would it be?" my answer would have to include:

Outsource your job to China.


  1. Thanks you very much for the tip, it will come in very handy during my industrial engineering bachelor and also, for a few personal projects I have in mind :)

  2. Ooh, thanks, that could be hella helpful for my senior design project!