Consultants have been around in the additive manufacturing (AM) landscape for decades now. It started with companies revolving around a renowned expert like Terry Wohlers or Greg Morris (though Morris Technologies applied their expertise to become a service provider rather than a consultant). From there it evolved into consulting arms of large ecosystem players and even stand alone consultancies like AMpower. To understand when, how and to what end do companies engage with consultants, I spoke with Kristel Van den Bergh, Director of Innovation at Materialise, who conceived, started, and now manages Materialise‘s new Mindware consulting arm and with Nicolas Dill, a veteran AM consultant from EOS‘s Additive Minds consulting arm. Additive Minds was founded in 2015 and since then “we help customers understand when and why AM makes sense for them, including when it does not make sense, which is no less important. Our role is as trusted advisors with experience in over 300 projects – we help them avoid mistakes we already made in the past and guide them in their AM adoption”, says Dill. Mindware was launched in 2020 although its team has been consulting and co-creating with Materialise customers years earlier – Van den Bergh says Materialise has been co-creating for 30+ years now and co-creation is something she’s passionate about. Thanks to her passion and market analysis, she convinced Materialise’s top management to launch this service and even conceived the name Mindware – as in: software, hardware, mindware. Van den Bergh sees consultants as translators and strategists that sell guidance and clarity. “The first step is to sell customers clarity on their problems.”, she explains, “but we don’t stop there, we also accompany the solution and its execution based on our experience and Materialise’s in house experts”.
Pull the Trigger
So, where to start? Dill: “Usually, companies come to Additive Minds at the beginning of their AM journey with the question “can I print this?”. We start with the question where can the benefits of AM be applied to the most advantage”. For example, start by finding the appropriate problem and potential solutions rather than spending time in the narrow discussion of what AM material replaces what traditional material. “The key is to have both a strong technical solution for an existing engineering problem at the same time as a promising business case – if either one is not fulfilled it’s very likely that you will not succeed in additive”, he adds. For example, in some hydraulics blocks if you just reduce the weight it does not give you a clear benefit. It only works if the redesigned part also increases efficiency by 10-20% which provides a benefit to which you can attach a tangible monetary equivalent.
Off They Go
Van den Bergh sees the prime client for consulting as a company that might be overwhelmed with all the possibilities of AM or lacks some expertise and needs guidance and consulting in all or part of the AM journey. The potential clients roughly fall under one (or more) of the 3Es in Mindware’s Triple E model: Explore, Experiment, and Enable. Explore often includes co-creation like in the case of Hyundai Lifeboats where exploration showed that they had a process problem with aligning lifeboat doors that was very costly in both time and money when misaligned. Co-creation resulted in 3 jigs that helped in measuring and aligning the doors as they were assembled (see 3d plan of jig above). This prevented misalignment, leaks, and repeated assembly and disassembly. Experiment is about finding the correct combination of technology and application that solves an engineering problem – for example, for Hyundai Automotive, Mindware were able to suggest an allumide alternative (top) to a metal tool that met all the requirements and yet had a better surface finish and was much lighter making it easier to use. Enable is about enabling series production including all the fine tuning needed. “We need to fine tune the process: choose the 3D printers, tune them exactly, and make sure the whole process is fixated for the specific application.” explains Van den Bergh. Either way, like Dill, she thinks it’s important to think if something is appropriate for AM and if AM is up to the particular challenge. “The devil is in the details in Additive and also in every product development that is really innovative.”
Wait, Wait,… Run!
For Additive Minds, the key is using as many AM benefits as possible and that means quantifying secondary value-adds. One of the services Additive Minds offers is quantifying secondary value-adds including general ones like supply chain costs, as well as specific ones like energy processing improvement in an inductor, for example. Some value-adds are very hard to quantify: what is the value to the end customer of shortening a manufacturer’s supply time? This value is very dependent on the specific part and where it’s used – if it’s a part or tool that is necessary for a manufacturing line to work, for instance, then there is great value in quick fulfilment from a digital supply chain. In such cases, it even makes sense to create an AM emergency part that is used until the regular part arrives. COVID has really shined a light on the importance of such offerings and consultants can help in figuring these solutions out in a timely manner. Dill claims that an AM adoption that can take a company 12-24 months, depending on the project, can take just 3-9 months with consultants. Once companies see early wins, like emergency spare parts (or some call them bridge parts), they may also start producing short run parts with AM. Emergency spare parts and tooling applications create successes and trust that facilitate wider AM adoption.
Van den Bergh mentioned CNH, an agricultural (and construction) equipment manufacturer that was stuck during COVID without a key part, usually produced by a Chinese supplier, who was needed for their product assembly. Materialise reverse engineered the part for them, and supplied it in a timely manner, no other solution could have guaranteed on time delivery and the alternative costs were very high. This got CNH thinking that they weren’t ready for future supply chain failures – prompting a project with Mindware of digitizing their inventory of 1.8 million(!) different parts. This illustrates how a close relationship with your consultants and really opening up your challenges to them can lead to breakthroughs and innovative solutions.
Whether you’re looking for clarity in the overwhelming array of possibilities, or for a time saver, or for a solution to a specific problem, consultants can help jump start and/or leap forward your AM adoption. It isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly worth considering as part of an AM adoption process.