Why purchasing agents and engineers hate each other! (Guest Post)



In general, purchasing agents have a good deal of disdain for engineers (and probably vice-versa).  This doesn’t have to be the case, but it generally is.  Below is a list of reasons why this often happens.  These two groups rarely work together in harmony, but with a little effort they probably can.

In my experience as a finder of hard to find metals, I get inquiries from buyers on a daily basis for metals, forms, sizes and quantities that are simply not available from US metal suppliers. Typically, the buyer has received a print from a client for a new widget designed by an engineer who has searched high and low to find “the perfect material” for his or her new design.

In the web age, material property data is easily available from sites like and others. Unfortunately, these sites offer almost zero information about a key property: availability. The perfect material is not so perfect if you can’t buy it and unfortunately, many engineers make their material selection decisions with blinders on. We have a name for this type of metal – “unobtainium“.

Whenever I mention that term, both buyers and engineers rarely fail to chuckle. Problem is, unobtainium represents a major problem in many ways.

First, it creates a further wedge between buyers and engineers. Buyers often think that their engineering counterparts are “eggheads” to begin with. But when a print comes down for unobtainium, it forces the buyer to waste time trying to run it down – frustrating to say the least.

Second, even if the metal can be located, the suppliers know that they have something pretty rare and will charge a king’s ransom for it.

Third, if the metal just can’t be had at all, the print has to go back upstream, ending up on the engineers desk weeks if not months after his or her work has been done and they have to start all over again, analyzing the part, stresses, environmental issues, applications, etc……to find a metal that will work AND is available. The cost of required engineering changes can be enormous and it never had to happen IF the engineer had taken the time to check availability before the material went onto the print in the first place.

Finally and possibly the most dangerous outcome of this problem is, that some machine shops/ fabricators will take matters into their own hands and make a substitution. Whether or not the metal they choose actually ends up working for the application is meaningless – the fact remains that the part will not have the mechanical properties, or chemistry of the material originally specified.  Nobody might find out about this, but maybe they will – like when the component fails in an Apollo fuel cell and three astronauts almost die as a result (check out these other posts on machinability and why to work with your machinists).

These are all situations that arise at my job where I try to help engineers and purchasing agents find the right materials for their jobs, but they are common to all sorts of sourcing issues.  Engineers and purchasing agents need to work together early in projects, and finding the right components during concept and design is critical.  These issues can usually be avoided with a little planning up front.

Alan Gamble
Metal Suppliers Online

Category: Engineering & Design, Online Resources, Technical Search

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One Response

  1. Al has really emphasized many of the core reasons we started It’s so important for engineers to make good decisions when they are first working on a project. Spec’ing the wrong component or material early in a design can be the difference between a successful product and a manufacturing disaster.

    Industrial Interface makes it really easy for an engineer to anonymously share a design problem or design decision with many relevant suppliers to ensure that the engineer finds the best solutions early on. This is always a free service for engineers. Create an account here:

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