As a purchasing agent, sourcing the best-priced steel tube components that go into creating a product is your job. However, an experienced agent knows it takes more than accepting the lowest bid from potential tube manufacturers to get what the engineer needs.
Below, we’ve compiled 10 of the best questions to ask to get the critical information you need. Each comes from lessons learned and relationships built over the 45 years we’ve been in business as a steel tube manufacturer.
1. What type of industries do you typically work with?
According to IndustrySelect, an industrial research database, there are 414 steel tube and pipe manufacturers in the US to choose from. Most of these companies are relatively small metal foundries and are likely to have a highly-targeted focus on a family of products or niche industries.
It’s important to know where their experience lies. The oil and gas industry happens to be one of the major consumers for many of these manufacturers. Still, as a report from Grand View Research suggests, other industries also rely on tube manufacturing.
Knowing what industries and applications a manufacturer regularly produces tubes for will speak directly to their skill.
2. What type of tubes have you produced?
Every foundry will also have certain expertise based on their most frequent customer tube request. Finding a foundry that’s produced the type of tube you need regularly means they’re easily set up for it.
And experience in manufacturing tubes similar to your own means there is no costly learning curve, and communication will be clear.
Andy Ruble, a Metallurgist at Spuncast, advises purchasing agents to find a tube manufacturer that has the experience needed but also the capacity to be flexible.
“Because we produce tubing for so many different industries, we often have a die or a mold that will work on-site, and if we don’t have the exact length they’re after, we may be able to use the dies we have and cut off the extra,” he said.
It’s that type of flexibility that is especially important for creating tubing where there is a tight budget but still very specific dimensions.
3. Is there a minimum order quantity?
Steel tube manufacturers balance and prioritize their production runs. And some require a minimum order quantity (MOQ), so you’ll want to make sure your order sizes can get their highest level of service.
Greg Whitman, VP of Sales and Engineering at Spuncast, cautioned against using a tube manufacturer who isn’t able to handle small orders.
“Regardless of whether or not it’s a hundred-piece job or a one-piece job, at Spuncast, each tube has an individual serial number and it still has to go through each operation individually,” Greg said. “We’ll give the same level of detail to each cast product.”
Spuncast has no minimum or maximum order quantity and is often budget-friendly because of the efficiency of the centrifugal casting process.
4. Do you provide quotes, and what is included?
The purpose of a request for a quote (RFQ) is to make sure the solution can be bought within your budget. However, with a specialized service like steel tube manufacturing, there are more things to consider other than the price. Consider offerings such as:
- Value-added services
- Certified metal testing
- Reliable, on-time delivery
- A solid, parts warranty
The consequence of an RFQ that doesn’t take into account the entire project including the items listed above can’t truly deliver to your specification.
Ensuring the manufacturer knows exactly what you want is the best way to get an accurate price quote.
Many manufacturers ask you to provide an initial RFQ to get the ball rolling. They are looking for information like:
- Project/part description
- Finishing sizes
- Alloy grade
- Type of casting
That will give the engineer enough information to put together some options. From there, they should then contact you for further details so your quote will be accurate and specific to your project.
5. Where’s the material from, and what is available in-house?
While 11% of all manufacturers import raw materials, this percentage jumps to 21% for steel tubes and pipe makers.
It’s an important consideration because, with ongoing disruptions to the global supply chains, including steel tariffs, there is an increased cost for imported raw materials. A manufacturer who gets their material domestically offers some real stability.
They should also provide a large and varied selection of readily available materials. If they don’t have a reliable way to do that, delays and mismatches are inevitable.
“It’s important to our customers that we’re able to meet their material demand, which is why we have over 30 national raw material suppliers that we can rely on for sourcing nearly all steel grades, cobalt, and nickel base alloys,” said Greg.
Finding a foundry that can accommodate your material selection and in some cases even suggest cost-saving alternatives maximizes efficiency and shortens the supply chain.
6. What is the turnaround time?
A tube’s turnaround time may vary depending on your part’s application requirements. Therefore your manufacturer must be able to work directly with your engineers and know what it takes to keep the project moving forward.
Direct questions to ask a potential manufacturer about this include:
- What is the standard turnaround time for similar projects?
- Can they put a rush on certain projects? If so, how?
- How do they communicate status updates?
The right responses help you plan your project and strengthen the partnership between you and your tube manufacturer.
“Look for your tube request being delivered anywhere from four weeks for fairly straightforward requests up to around 12 weeks for those requests that are more involved,” Greg said.
He said the timing relies on a few things including:
- Amount of setup required
- Material availability
- Engineering involvement
- Part complexity
- Testing requirements
- Secondary processes requests
7. What value-added capabilities do you offer?
Some steel tube manufacturers provide a complete turnkey solution that includes value-added services your part may need.
Turnkey manufacturing is ideal for projects with highly-specific requirements that must be carefully monitored for overall quality. It’s why onsite secondary treatments like heat treating and machining are such a benefit.
Most tube manufacturers can provide additional processes to meet the overall finishing requirements of your tube part, but often the tube is taken off site.
A tube moved from one facility to another can mean more expense and possible disruption to your schedule.
“Our secondary processes allow us to achieve the type of mechanical properties, corrosion resistance, and tight dimensional and surface control that a tube needs,” Greg said. “And with it all available in-house, we can save our customers the hassle of working with another vendor.”
This video shows the efficiency of a new CNC machine and the importance of keeping up with the technologies to produce a better product.
8. Do you offer certified metal testing?
You may already know what grade metal you need for your part. But to ensure your direction is followed and your choice is accurate for the application, it’s often advisable to have it tested, especially if the manufacturer is new to you.
A material test report (MTR) provides traceability and assurance that the quality of your material and the process used to produce it is what you have requested.
A MTR typically includes:
- ASTM and/or ASME standards compliance
- Specific size, shape, and/or diameter specifications
- Chemical and physical properties specifications
Knowledge of metallurgy and materials plus an understanding of the overall need of the material itself is essential. This is why a qualified metallurgist should do the test.
9. How do you ensure quality control and industry standards?
If quality is your focus, then you’ll want to have a nationally located manufacturer. Overseas suppliers may have competitive prices, but they are usually low for a reason.
Because steel tubes and pipes are products that need to meet strict performance requirements, adherence to industry standards and quality control is critical.
At a minimum, check for an ISO 9001 certification which should be listed on their website. It’s a standard that represents a strong customer focus and stresses a process approach with continual improvement.
Beyond that, experienced tubing manufacturers will have a range of certifications that can be checked. Look for ones like:
- ABS (American Bureau of Shipping)
- PED (Pressure Equipment Directive)
- ANSI (American National Standards Institute)
- AISC (American Institute of Steel Construction)
The better tubing manufacturers will also continually invest in new equipment, training, and development and not shy away from shop inspections. You’ll want to ensure:
- They’re using the latest CAD/CAM software
- Their machinery is clean and well maintained
- The engineers are up on the latest metal standards
- Initial and in-process inspections are in place
A tube manufacturer’s investment in those areas can enhance precision and further quality assurance. It’s also an indication that they are committed to staying up with the latest requirements of their industries.
10. What type of warranty do you offer?
Most manufacturers stand by their work, but many don’t talk about a warranty. For you, it should be a crucial consideration because if an issue develops after your product has left the manufacturing facility, you’ll want to know there’s some type of recourse.
It’s typical for a manufacturer to guarantee the material they produce against defects. Such defects are usually found upon receipt of the product or during secondary processing.
However, a warranty for your steel tube part should apply beyond that and speak directly to the application where it will be used. For example, if the part will be used in a bridge structure you’ll want a tube that can hold up to the weather – corrosion resistance, wind adherence, etc.
Look for a lifetime warranty that offers you the assurance that the manufacturer takes your product as seriously as you do.
Don’t Forget About Customer Service
Your project goal will always focus on the accuracy and functionality of your design. But, regardless of the quality of the design, you need a manufacturer who understands your industry and can provide the customer service you deserve.
At the very least, you should expect:
- Frequent visits from a knowledgeable engineer: as opposed to a manufacturer rep that only visits twice a year and has no real tech knowledge.
- Low or no-cost prototyping: this can ensure your design has true repeatability and will perform as expected.
- Ongoing communication and accountability: your relationship should start from the moment you make an inquiry and continue throughout the lifetime of your part.
When you’re ready to meet a manufacturer who has the answers you need for your product, and can offer you the service you’re after, we’d love to hear from you.
We’re specialists in centrifugal casting – the methodology that consistently delivers steel tubes with strength, purity, and cost-efficiency.