Defense Metal Fabrication Sourcing: 10 Qualifying Questions for Vendors

Businessman and welder examining blueprints on workshop floor.

Sourcing and procurement teams often have their go-to metal fabrication vendors, those whom they’ve come to know and who have delivered consistent results time after time. However, the need to seek out potential new partners might arise for a number of reasons. When that time comes, it’s important to brush up on your interview skills and ask the right questions.

Metal fabrication sourcing and qualifying can be time consuming up front, but it can also be very productive, significantly reducing time, costs, and headaches in the long run. 

Get answers to the following questions when engaging with a prospective metal fabrication partner. 

1. Are your welders and facility NAVSEA certified?

One of the first credentials to look for is whether a metal fabrication company is certified to perform work for the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA). This indicates they can meet welding standards for the U.S. Navy’s fleet of ships, combat vessels, and submarines. Knowing that a manufacturer has gone to the effort, expense, and time to become NAVSEA certified can demonstrate how serious they are about defense work.

Ask about the number of weld procedure qualifications, how many of their welders are certified, and the types of welding codes and standards they comply with. The more NAVSEA qualifications they have, the more significant the achievement and the more likely they’ll deliver on their promises.


2. What defense projects have you worked on recently?

It’s one thing to be NAVSEA certified; it’s another to have actually put those certifications to use. Has the company completed projects for authorized defense contractors like Raytheon, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Leonardo DRS, and others?

Inquire about the complexity of projects they’ve completed as well. Did they produce items like watertight doors and hatches and electrical enclosures with extremely tight GD&T tolerances? Or were they simpler projects that didn’t require as much precision? Also request data indicating inspection results and flow-down requirements. Ask the hard questions regarding the greatest challenges they faced and how they overcame them. When appropriate, request references and follow up on them.

RELATED: The Complex World of Defense Industry Electrical Enclosures


3. What are your on-time delivery and defect rates?

In other words, can the metal fabrication company deliver what they say they will when they say they will? Most fabricated components are part of a much larger project, and failing to get them to their destination on time according to specifications could bring production to a standstill. Ask for specific data regarding recent on-time delivery rates and ask how they’re addressing any supply chain issues.

Return rates due to defects or poor workmanship are metal fabrication KPIs that also need to be considered. Though harder to measure in custom metal fabrication where fewer components are produced, it’s still important to gauge the data. Ask about recent returns and defect rates, but understand that the data may be skewed due to low-volume orders.


4. Are you experienced in compiling Quality Data Packages?

While the skillsets of welders, painters, engineers, and machinists are often scrutinized when vetting a metal fabrication facility, the capabilities of those who compile Quality Data Packages (QDPs) also need to be considered. This compilation of reports and documents details flow-down requirements, weld mapping, certifications, and procedures in addition to Certificates of Conformance, inspections, and a host of other data.

This extensive documentation can exceed 1,000 pages and requires an acute attention to detail to ensure that every line item is exactly as it should be. QDP packages are labor intensive, and not every metal fabricator has what it takes to deliver accurate documentation


5. How involved are your engineering and project management teams?

A true precision metal fabrication company will do more than simply take purchase orders. They should have a team of engineers and project managers who are involved from the initial inquiry to address any potential issues early on

Engineers may review drawings and documentation to ensure design for manufacturability (DfM) and make recommendations based on their knowledge of the metal fabrication industry. At times, they might suggest potential cost savings by identifying over-engineered components. Don’t minimize the project management team’s role in the success of your project either. They’ll likely be the main point of contact who will keep things running smoothly, and you want to ensure a good working relationship and transparent communication.


6. Do you have in-house painting and finishing?

Custom metal fabricators that don’t have their own in-house painting facilities and equipment add unnecessary risks and liabilities when they have to ship out pieces to be finished. This not only introduces the potential for damage and for pieces to shift during transport (meaning they’ll no longer be in compliance), but it can add costs and potential delays. Ask them to walk you through the finishing process based on your project’s requirements.

RELATED: Guide to Custom Metal Fabrication Finishes


7. What cybersecurity protocols are in place?

The highly sensitive nature of defense projects require robust cybersecurity protocols to protect data privacy and national security. Inquire about a vendor’s policies surrounding data security including employee training, controlled environments, and audits

They should also demonstrate their proficiency with Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (DFARS) security requirements, NIST standards (National Institute of Standards and Technology), and Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) requirements. Cybersecurity protocols for metal fabrication continue to come under scrutiny and need to be evaluated prior to establishing a working relationship.


8. Can you demonstrate your financial stability?

Recent global events and their repercussions have disrupted many industries, including precision metal fabrication. In fact, some defense contractors are exploring new metal fabrication companies to expand their pool of vendors to address potential disruptions.

Background checks and a review of the company’s Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) scores are a start. There are other financial considerations to evaluate their creditworthiness, like debarment searches and merger activity. Many of these inquiries can be conducted without the vendor’s knowledge. A conversation is in order, however, to talk about their billing procedures, vendor scorecards, and staffing which can all be indicators of a company’s fiscal health.


9. What equipment and machining capabilities do you have?

When a company invests in its infrastructure and has state-of-the-art equipment and automation, it can position their team to achieve a project’s goals. Talk with their team about their tooling, CNC machines, laser cutters, painting operations, and other equipment. What capabilities does it provide? What are their maintenance schedules? 

A critical aspect of equipment maintenance that is sometimes overlooked is calibration which helps ensure accurate measurements and documentation. Just as important as a piece of equipment is its operator. Discuss the tenure of personnel who will be working on your project to help determine their experience and ability to deliver results.


10. When can we schedule a facility tour?

One of the final stages of vetting a potential vendor is meeting their team in person and taking a tour of the facility. Getting to know the project management team and others you’ll be working with can provide a sense of how dedicated they are to quality and your project. When touring a facility, also ask about their inventory control system and observe how clean and organized the shop floor is. Is it climate controlled? This can indicate added care for employees which can translate into higher quality results. If you can’t make an in-person tour, inquire about a virtual tour 

Establishing rapport with a potential vendor is a critical aspect of any working relationship. These questions can help you start the conversation and determine just how qualified a metal fabricator may be. At Fox Valley Metal-Tech — a top metal fabricator in Wisconsin — we hope to be on the short list of potential partners and are happy to answer any questions, so don’t hesitate to reach out

Another step in the process is issuing RFQs. There are additional considerations when submitting RFQ proposals, so we’ve developed a helpful checklist outlining several factors that sometimes get overlooked. Access your copy below.

Metal Fabrication RFQ Guide