In the past weeks, we wrote about the various advantages of implementing Additive Manufacturing (AM) in production, the financial and environmental benefits, the simplification of logistics and keeping inventory. Many people balk at trying AM for distributed production because of the inherent loss of control that this entails – your files are sent to many places and you can’t be sure that they will be produced correctly and in the appropriate quantity. That is not necessarily the case! Here, as promised, is a simple guide to launching a distributed additive manufacturing pilot safely and under control.
Benchmarking – Your Frame of Reference
As we’ve seen in many other posts, there are many benefits to distributed AM. Pick the goals of your pilot and measure them as they are at the moment. For example, if your goal is to cut costs measure the total cost of specific spare parts (manufacturing and shipping costs, but also the cost of holding it in inventory for X months/years including storage, handling, and loss/obsolescence). If your goal is to improve service and lower time to customer, measure current time to customer of several specific spare parts (from the moment of the customer order until they are received by the customer). These are your benchmarks for comparison of the pilot results. Keep these benchmarks handy (see below).
Determining Which Product or Part Should be 3D Printed
Not all parts and products should be additively manufactured – products that are produced by the billions (e.g., water bottles, toy parts, standard nails) will continue to be produced using other techniques. However, even one part in an assembled module can bring efficiency gains and other benefits to your production line. Since this is a pilot program, the disruption to your organization should be minimal: 1-3 products or parts to start with will do. We will continue using the example of parts but everything applies just as well to products. Ideally, the part you choose needs to be kept in inventory but demand for it isn’t very high or consistent – something that you would like to produce on demand. Experiment with a functional yet not critical item. Daimler Trucks, for example, started from parts for older truck models that were hard to get in the market. Some examples of parts they chose are covers, spacers, spring caps, clamps, mountings and control elements. If you’re piloting products, consider a new product you want to introduce to market quickly and affordably or one that would be adapted to the customer or location. The parts/products you choose shouldn’t be too big – AM cost is dependent on size.
Creating the File
Usually, a company already has 3D files of the parts to be produced. Your file might be compatible with other production methods such as injection molding – in that case, it will need to be adapted to additive manufacturing. This is a one-time effort. The resulting file should be checked to make sure it is 3D printable. There are many guides on that online, here is one.
Setting Manufacturing Parameters and Attributes
At this stage you can 3D print the part on various 3D printers, inspecting the design of the file as well as the right way to manufacture it. There are many AM methods to chose from, some examples of the possibilities were outlined in a previous post. Both during the pilot and later during ongoing production there is no need to purchase an industrial 3D printer, you can easily outsource the production to service providers. It is natural to hesitate about providing a third party access to your files – however, when you use LEO files and the Make it LEO service, your sensitive information is protected and you can feel comfortable with this route.
Producing and Tracking
The next step is to manually order and then produce several parts from several locations and record the results (costs, resulting parts, time to customer, etc). If you use LEO files, there is a dashboard for easy tracking of when, where and how your parts have been manufactured – this provides you business insights and allows quickly reacting to market demand and problems. You can monitor your files online or integrate it into your ERP system. You can also custom integrate with an existing portal, once the pilot turns into production mode – but first make sure that you are choosing a solution with a quick integration (a few days not a few months). Notice that this approach causes minimal disruption – no need to notify people in your supply chain, the integration is invisible so your customers will continue to order and interact directly with your portal, in the same way they were accustomed to. It doesn’t matter if your portal is built for direct customer purchase or if it’s geared for distributors or in-house company workers. Your platform remains the same, your IT policies and procedure are maintained, the process of additive manufacturing and ordering becomes a feature within it. During this entire process, track metrics (cost, time to customer, etc – based on step #0) for each spare part.
Comparing – Sharpen Your Virtual Pencils
In order to evaluate the success of the pilot, it’s important to compare its results with the benchmarks you created in step #0. After the pilot period, compare your pilot metrics to the benchmarks you prepared. This will show you in which parts and/or locations there is marked improvement and those parts and locations are your best candidates for continuing into production.
Let it Run
Congratulations! Your successful pilot has matured into production. In some cases additional integration will be warranted first but often the pilot can be released and continue in production from there. Your cost savings and other benefits, like tracking, will only become more valuable as more and more parts are added in production.
Who’s it for?
Distributed additive manufacturing implemented under control and safely is ideal for several different company types, usually larger sized, and for a variety of reasons. For example:
– Companies selling internationally and not in one geographical location
– Companies that produce products with potential for high variability
– Companies that produce individualized products (for example hearing aids)
– Companies providing spare parts
– Companies that face inventory and logistics problems
– Companies that want to produce parts that are only possible to manufacture with AM due to their complex geometry.
Easy as 1-2-3
Perhaps you are already further along in the process: if you know the benefits to your company and are ready – you can skip to the head of the class and go straight to production. If you have questions on this, Idan Cataife can help you.