An Online Metal Service for Fab Shops

We built our sheet metal service to meet the needs of shops, contractors, and engineering companies. Here's how we've changed, and where we are going.
Caleb Chamberlain - CEO, OSH Cut
18 Feb 2022

OSH Cut's first online ordering service launched in November, 2018. It was functional, if not ideal. Our app provided pricing for single parts in any quantity and any of our stocked materials, but it quickly became obvious that it had some limitations.

The first problem was that it only allowed a single part to be uploaded at a time. I remember watching our server logs in mix of embarrassment and horror as a customer uploaded over 200 parts, one at a time, over the course of almost an hour. Then, because our first system didn't allow customers to change the material after a part was added to cart, the customer repeated the process again to price a different material.

Uploading parts one at a time is fine if you are ordering two or three widgets for a hobby project, but it's terrible workflow for anyone doing serious fab work. Any quoting service worth its salt should make it easy to upload and quote any number of parts.

Job-Level Quoting

That motivated our first and biggest change - we set up our service so that customers could upload any number of parts, all at once, and get batch pricing.

Job-level costing
Figure 1. OSH Cut's online sheet metal service allows any number of parts to be uploaded and priced at once.

Even now, this capability is fairly unique. No other online fabrication service has a mechanism to upload and quote multiple parts at once, and quote at the level of the job (as opposed to individual parts, priced as if ordered separately).

Another related need was for fabricators to upload pre-nested parts. Sometimes jobs are created as kits and are ordered all at once, with individual parts pre-nested in a DXF. Our workflow for quoting pre-nests was tricky. We had to manually identify individual parts, count them, and split them out of the nest so we could track them in production. And our system needed a way to figure out the box size for shipping. Yet pre-nests were a common need from our serious business customers.

One of our next big additions was to automatically identify pre-nests, count parts, and split them out for the customer. This process allowed our experienced customers to upload a single file containing a complete kit, with our system doing the heavy lifting.

Pre-nested uploads allowed
Figure 2. Our quoting engine automatically identifies individual parts in pre-nests, counts them, and reports what it finds.

Automatic, Instant Nesting

One of the most challenging aspects of quoting instantly and accurately was figuring out material usage. It's easy enough to quote small jobs, but our fab and production customers needed competitive pricing for jobs of all sizes, not just small prototypes.

For months, we were in the habit of validating material requirements and making phone calls; "hey, we can actually make these for you for a lot cheaper than our system estimated..." That wasn't ideal. What good is an online quoting service if you can't trust that prices are accurate and competitive?

This was a tough problem to solve. A precision sheet metal shop will usually hire a CNC programmer/estimator to import and prep customer parts, set quantities, set up available raw materials, and run software to create nests and cut times. When you submit your files to a traditional fab shop, that's exactly what is happening behind the scenes.

Nesting is relatively easy, if time-consuming, for a person quoting jobs manually. But doing it online without human involvement was extraordinarily complex. It was nevertheless important. An online fab service can't be taken seriously if it isn't nesting jobs to get accurate material prices.

Our version 3 system does full nesting during the first step of checkout, to ensure that our prices are always accurate and competitive. Material savings can sometimes be quite dramatic.

Nesting discount
Figure 3. OSH Cut's software nests your parts to obtain an accurate material price. Shown above, nesting a job in 1/2" stainless steel plate yields savings of almost $4000.

Nesting is an indispensable component of sheet metal quoting. Yet no other instant fab quoting service offers fully nested quotes on jobs of any size. Again, that may not be a problem if you are ordering a couple small parts in cheap material. But for any serious fabricator, engineer, or business, nesting is an indispensable part of obtaining competitive prices.

Instant Design Feedback

Whether you are a business owner, an engineer, a fabricator, or a hobbyist, you have a plenty to do. Grappling with your vendors shouldn't be one of them! We set up our instant quoting engine to provide as much feedback as possible, as quickly as possible, so that you don't have to wonder how your parts will turn out (or if we can even make them for you).

Our DFM checks watch for potential issues during laser cutting, like narrow features overheating or blowing out. Most significantly, it automatically analyzes bends in your sheet metal parts to make sure that we can make them with our tooling. If there are problems, our system tells you right away so that you can either modify your design, or start hunting for other vendors who might be able to meet your needs.

We keep track of the number and types of parts that we can't make with our tools, and we work to continuously expand our capabilities to do more of what you need. In the meantime, our software tells you right away what we can and can't do, so that you don't waste time.

3D Model Support

If you've designed a sheet metal part in CAD, prepping it for production can be a big job. We've simplified that step by adding 3D model support to our automatic quoting system.

Sheet metal design developed in CAD
Figure 4. CAD software allows bending parameters like bend radius, k-factor, and bend relief to be configured during design.

This is a bigger deal than it may seem. When you create your 3D model, you have to take into account fabrication parameters that will differ from shop to shop. Bend radius depends on tooling, and designing for one process might significantly change the design if another vendor with different capabilities takes over. Additionally, creating the flat pattern again depends on how the part will unfold. A flat pattern created based on one shop's parameters likely won't work for a different shop if accuracy matters.

OSH Cut helps alleviate these design and file prep issues by allowing you to upload your 3D models directly. Our software automatically unfolds your 3D model to create a flat pattern, and modifies your bend radii if needed to match OSH Cut's capabilities. No need to prep a flat, no need to go crazy trying to match our design parameters exactly. And if you do want to match our processes during design, all of our manufacturing details bend bend radii and k-factors are published in our material catalog.

Guaranteed Same-Day Shipping Options

In mid-2019, we stopped and asked ourselves, "what could we offer our customers that would be truly outrageous? What could we do that is so abnormal it would make people stare in disbelief?

Same-day guaranteed shipping immediately got our attention. In an industry where 1 in 4 shops take more than five days just to quote, could we guarantee same-day shipping of sheet metal parts?

Frankly, at the time, the answer was definitely "no." There were many reasons, most of them related to our internal processes. But we decided to aim for that goal and figure it out. A handful of months later, we provided the option for same-day shipping during checkout, and customers loved it. Three years later we still get phone calls from disbelieving customers - "this says you'll ship today... is that real?" Yes, it is!

Sometimes you need parts yesterday, and we can help you with that (everything short of actually building a time machine, of course). But sometimes, you need parts reasonably fast at a good cost, and that's why you have the option during checkout to pick your lead-time. Need parts to ship today? Sure thing. Is next week OK? That's fine, too, and you'll save some money.

What's Next?

We are hyper-focused on improving your experience. So far, that has involved major changes to our software to add features customers asked for early on:

  1. Job-level quoting and easy upload of multiple parts, because if you need anything more than a couple widgets, uploading one part at a time is clunky and slow

  2. Support of pre-nests, because sometimes it's easiest to order a full kit with a single upload

  3. Instant design feedback, because you shouldn't have to wait hours, days, or even weeks to get enough feedback to finish your design.

  4. 3D model support with automatic unfolding and radius adjustment, because creating flat patterns and dimensioned prints is time consuming, prone to error, and dependent on the shop making your parts

  5. Fully-nested online quotes, because no serious fabricator is competitive if they aren't nesting your jobs

  6. Selectable lead-times, including guaranteed same-day shipping, because sometimes you need parts yesterday, and sometimes you'd rather wait a bit longer for a better price

We recognize that we can't offer everything you need yet. We need more bend tooling, a better press brake (with more flexible back gauging and a bigger open height for deeper bends). You need tapping, reaming, counter-sinking, forming, hardware insertion, and powder coating operations, and that's all on our radar. We are also on a quest to offer perfect parts, parts that you'd be proud to send direct to a consumer. That's going to take better finishing equipment and improved processes, and as of Feb. 2022, we aren't there yet. But we will be.

Stay tuned! We are in this for the long haul. We've done a lot in three years. Imagine what we'll do in thirty.