Tips on Selecting a Special-Fabrication Supplier

February 1, 2005
Dan Mathien

Volume 18, Issue 2

The bulk of a biopharmaceutical processing unit can be assembled with off-the-shelf components. However, special fabrications — especially fluid components — enable fabricators and manufacturers to meet critical construction deadlines and move projects forward with minimal or no delays.

The bulk of a biopharmaceutical processing unit can be assembled with off-the-shelf components. However, special fabrications — especially fluid components — enable fabricators and manufacturers to meet critical construction deadlines and move projects forward with minimal or no delays.

Dan Mathien

Now, manufacturers and system fabricators recognize the value of special fabrications for their processing systems. Although special fabrications are not needed for every job, many projects require complex configurations of fluid components using more than one-size-fits-all products at some point during construction. Oftentimes, special fabrications are simply a more cost-effective solution for process applications, especially if called out in the design phase. Special fabrications can help simplify system design, reduce system footprint, and minimize field welding and installation costs.

What distinguishes special from standard? Essentially, special fabrications are any product or fluid component that is configured to order or designed for a specific application. Special fabrications historically can range from simple alterations in dimensions for individual fittings to the production of an entire skid, as well as the engineering, design, and development of a complex configuration of valves, manifolds, tees, and other components. More often than not, they become necessary because of changes in design that come to light only during construction.

CASE STUDIES

In one case, a manufacturer required a 3-L cooling chamber to feed water to mechanical seals in a pumping system. The chamber required a 1/2-in. coil, a pressure switch, ball valves, sight glasses, a liquid level probe and a fractional pressure gauge. The special fabricator designed a chamber that was functional and reliable, and the installation was successful. To meet the buyer's specification, the custom-fabricated chamber was burst-tested to 200 psig for one minute at 150ºF (Figure 1).

Figure 1. This 3-liter cooling chamber was specially fabricated to feed water to mechanical seals in a pumping system.

In another case, a manufacturer required an inline strainer similar to a supplier's stock item but had limited space for installation. The supplier designed a custom strainer to fit in the space required with shortened back-up tubes and a full line of replacement mesh overscreens. The special-fabricated part worked so well that the manufacturer has placed more than 80 orders for the same custom part since the initial installation.

SELECTING THE RIGHT SUPPLIER

In both cases mentioned above, the special fabrication was successful because the supplier designed quality parts quickly. When evaluating special-fabrication suppliers, it is important to evaluate each competing company's track record to raise the odds for project success.

Because the need for special fabrications tends to occur late in the construction phase, many fabricators and manufacturers tend to make the ability to meet the construction deadline the only criterion for selecting a supplier. While it is imperative that a special-fabrication supplier complies with time constraints, other criteria are equally important. The wrong choice can lead to major problems, including quality issues, lengthy site delays and downtime, and validation difficulties.

Steps can be taken to ensure the selection of a special fabricator that meets a project's specific needs while maximizing productivity and efficiency. Price is not the main determinant of whether the supplier can provide the best solution for an application. The first step in selecting a supplier is evaluating the breadth of services they offer. Some suppliers offer limited services, while others provide comprehensive services that help ensure reliability, quality, and long-term performance.

The challenge is finding a solution-oriented supplier who can provide a level of quality consistent with the other installed products. For example, a fabricator may want a quick turnaround on a dimensional change to a fitting in order to complete a phase of a project. But a solutions-oriented supplier that offers a wide range of services may offer a more cost-effective solution that can be built — to your design — within the same time constraints. The result may reduce the dimensional footprint of the whole assembly or lower field welding costs.

CONSIDER ALL OF THE SUPPLIER'S CAPABILITIES

A supplier's structure can enable them to respond quickly, with a focus on quality and performance. One top-tier supplier, for example, has a dedicated group of engineering, design, and manufacturing staff working on special fabrications: welding, polishing, and machining materials; estimating the cost of products; and developing CAD drawings. Some suppliers put a premium on reliability, employing procedures and manufacturing processes that enable them to provide the same level of quality for special fabrications as they do for standard factory components.

Some services may be outsourced. For example, some suppliers don't have complete electropolishing capabilities, while others have dedicated welders and polishers just for special fabrication jobs. The more control a supplier has over the process, the better its ability to reduce errors, maintain quality, and avoid time delays. By thoroughly assessing a supplier's capabilities, a manufacturer or fabricator can make the best choice and get the maximum benefit from a special fabrication.

Here are some supplier capabilities that are important to consider:

Turnaround time. Quick turnaround of a special fabrication is typically the most critical element, especially when the cost of lost manufacturing time is considered. In the biopharmaceutical industry, a manufacturer can lose millions of dollars if a process line is down. It is important to determine a supplier's turnaround time for a quote as well as for product shipment. Some suppliers ship on a promised date and hold to it as if the special fabrication were a stock item. Also, some special fabricators are able to provide a drawing and a quote in four hours and delivery within three days.

Quality. Some suppliers have all capabilities in-house, enabling them to maintain stringent quality control, while others need to outsource certain services. Evaluate whether the special fabricator can complete the electropolishing necessary for biopharmaceutical process equipment in-house. Also, determine whether the supplier offers a repeatable process that will provide the same quality standards for future projects. In general, think long-term for maximum efficiency and cost savings. Labor may be cheaper in the short-term with a subcontractor, but it can cost more down the road because of quality issues.

Validation and third-party inspection. Determine whether the supplier's cost includes documentation, weld logs, and inspection. Some suppliers have special fabrications inspected — in accordance with ASME-BPE standards — by an independent third-party inspector before shipment. This service can help end-users reduce time and costs related to on-site conformance inspection and validation.

Flexibility. Review to what degree special fabrications are part of the company's core business. In addition, determine if the company has dedicated resources for special fabrications in design, assembly, welding, and polishing. Most likely, a supplier with special fabrications expertise will offer a smooth, efficient ordering process. Evaluate how rigid a supplier's special fabrications offerings are. If the supplier employs a "you dream it, we will build it" attitude, the manufacturer will not need to reconfigure its design to make the special fabrication work.

HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT

Do your homework before and during the process of selecting a special fabricator to avoid downtime, delays, and quality issues. Choosing a supplier who can provide the desired products and services for both the present project and future needs saves time and money. Find a supplier who can deliver a quality product made to specs and on time. And, carefully consider flexibility and resources such as third-party inspection to reduce the time and costs related to on-site conformance inspection.

Dan Mathien is a sales manager at Swagelok Biopharm Services Company, 107-111 Goundry Street, North Tonawanda NY 14120, 800.255.4111, fax 800.523.4165, Daniel.Mathien@Swagelok.com