Lao Tsu said “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”. Still, that first step is perhaps the scariest or as Dr Martin Luther King, Jr aptly put it: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” These days, taking the first step on additive manufacturing (AM) is less a leap of faith than it was a few years ago but still, it’s important to get, from the very beginning, a sense of where you’ll be going towards. Therefore, initially you need to decide on your general strategy and top applications.
What we mean by general strategy is the general approach to AM: are you planning to develop all AM capabilities in house? Are you planning to develop partial AM capabilities in house but collaborate and use service providers for the AM production? Are you planning to outsource all AM activities to a turnkey provider? This is similar to a buy, partner or build decision. In the first 2 cases, even if you have some in house experience with 3D printing or prototyping, consultants as well as service providers can be very helpful with the process and have helped many companies navigate AM adoption in the past. Still, there are companies that opt for going total YOYO (You’re On Your Own) and chart their own course. Typically, the more independent the strategy the bigger the investment budget needed up front but also the more flexibility and control you have over costs and processes down the line. You can always switch strategies – so I often recommend dipping your toe with a trusted turnkey provider before committing to large capital equipment and personnel expenses. This applies even more to smaller organizations with strong resource constraints. Now, with your strategy at hand, the next step always starts from identifying the applications of AM that are most beneficial to your organization. If you’ve chosen a turnkey provider or a consultant, they can help tremendously in this step as they have experience from other cases. Service providers can give some suggestions as well but will be less involved initially.
Feel the Need
It all starts with the needs and challenges the organization faces. However, there are so many of those that it can sometimes be overwhelming to look for the best ones to start with. When you start collecting needs and problems it’s important to look at many categories: manufacturing issues, time to market issues, supply chain issues. It might be a good idea to bring in someone from a different discipline who is open minded and innovative to look for needs as often the people stuck with a problem create an inefficient solution or workaround and may believe there is no other solution for their problem. It’s also important to think holistically and so it is useful to have people you can speak with in various departments in your organization such as: product, manufacturing, supply chain, finance (especially with proficiency in costing and/or control), and innovation (if you have such a function). This will enable consideration of problems that may not come to the surface as much. For example: if a bottling plant has 7 bottling lines but at any given time only 6 are running (either manufacturing or finance might bring this one up) – that is a problem. It may initially seem like this problem is irrelevant to AM but upon further inspection, at least in some cases, it turns out a lot of this idle time is the line waiting for a replacement part or replacement tooling for a part that broke. Now that’s something AM can potentially help with.
In essence many companies have similar set ups so applications that have worked for another company may be the best place to start so reading about what applications others chose is very instructive. Over the years we’ve covered many applications in the #AMapplications series on this blog. Based on that, I’d say that first and foremost among those is tooling. Tooling comes in many flavors: 3D printing molds to save time and money or to accommodate geometries that are hard to produce; 3D printing jigs and fixtures and being able to change or customize them easily and frequently, if needed; 3D printing emergency tooling upon breakage until the permanent tool arrives to keep the manufacturing line or assembly line running; etc.
In second place, an application to check is aftermarket parts, especially for those parts that are obsolete or difficult or costly to manufacture in their current form and demand volume. In addition, in this category it is worth checking with the product organization to see if there are any parts with special geometries they are struggling to manufacture and therefore put aside – AM is classic for these cases. That is the old school common wisdom, however COVID-19 has taught us that there is another sub category to consider: parts for which the supply chain is vulnerable (some would argue these are all parts nowadays) and where enabling an alternative part when they fail will be highly valuable to the customer (and therefore lucrative for you). If you are prepared in advance you can do much more than reacting live when the failure already happened (as happened in the COVID crisis in the US, for example). In this case, it is important to correctly cost the part in its current form for the case where the supply chain fails before comparing it to the AM part. More detailed costing will be in the next step but for this sub category it’s important to have a ball park of the emergency supply chain cost as it stands today.
This leads directly to the 3rd category: items with expensive supply chains for whatever reason. It doesn’t have to be expensive due to supply chain failures, it can be expensive because the item (tool/part/assembly) needs to get to remote locations quickly when it is needed and those locations find it hard to store things. A classic example is an offshore oil rig – space is at a premium so an inventory is costly and yet if the rig is out of commission due to a missing part the part is needed ASAP. Another example, is when there is a mandate to have at least a certain number of spare parts available (or available for a certain period) which causes significant obsolescence at the end of the period. This will be exacerbated by the Right to Repair regulation. Again, as with the emergency parts, being able to analyze (or get the finance person to analyze) the current cost correctly, including all supply chain costs, is crucial. It is also important to consider (on the AM side) the cost of any re-certification that might be needed.
Finally, I would like to give one last application category that is gaining momentum in recent months: sustainability (also see here). AM is a great enabler of sustainable design as part of DfAM (Design for AM) and we’ve seen several examples of how it can be used to reduce carbon footprint, decrease material waste, and strongly decrease obsolescence and waste. This is an emerging category so seeing what others are doing can be even more valuable.
For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates. Photos: up top Norway 2010 photo by Lee-Bath Nelson; 3D printed gears by Graphite AM; mold by Stratasys and Worrell Design Inc; Aidro additively manufactured HD3-AMES valves.