Thousands & Thousands of Tiny Robots.

Considering Total Landed Cost

By: Modular Robotics

A requirement for ball bearings hit Supply Chain’s desk recently. Tens of thousands of them…of the 3/8″, nickel-plated, carbon steel variety.  There are literally hundreds of steel ball suppliers in the world, located in any region you like.  So where should we go to source this type of component?

It turns out that the best unit price in the world is in China at roughly half a cent per ball, certified lead- and contaminant-free.  Done and done.  Problem solved!  On to the next challenge.

But the deal didn’t feel right and I couldn’t quite place it.  Weeks went by, and then one morning it hit me.  Tens of thousands of steel balls are heavy, requiring an enormous amount of packaging material and fuel and people and time to transport them here.   After accounting for the logistics cost, the balls were closer to three cents each.  There must be a better way.

A little more searching turned up a couple large American distributors that bring over tens of millions of balls at a time, completely filling a shipping container and transporting them by sea and by rail more efficiently than we ever could.  As an added bonus, we caught one of the distributors during a free shipping promotion and ended the exercise with a landed cost at just over a penny, and it was a better solution.

In supporting our robot factory here in Boulder, there will always be components that we source overseas.  But it feels good to make a modest effort to source domestically whenever possible, and add to our growing list of US-based suppliers.


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