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Unleashing the full potential of additive manufacturing

13 March, 2020

3D printing /additive manufacturing is enabling manufacturers to overcome many of the limitations of traditional manufacturing processes – from phasing out physical inventories to bringing batch-size-one customisation within reach of a greater number of companies. Yet, with these new opportunities come new threats that must be eliminated if manufacturers are to unleash the full potential of the medium, says Lee-Bath Nelson, Co-Founder and VP Business of LEO Lane.

seems to bring news of some technological breakthrough or other that has been made possible as a result of 3D printers and additive manufacturing (AM). Take, for example, the recent announcement by the US army that, in addition to using AM for maintenance, it is now planning to use the technology to produce spare parts on demand, including in combat zones.

Certainly, with new frontiers constantly being pushed, few would deny that the opportunities presented by 3D printing/AM are aplenty. These include possibilities around virtual inventories and even on-demand manufacturing – just as the US army is doing – advantages that can deliver cost-savings, increased responsiveness and flexibility to customers. And without the need for huge investments. After all, the weak link in any supply chain is the physical inventory; it has no benefits and is a burden for companies that pay enormous amounts of money to maintain it.

Adopting these digital models may seem like a no-brainer, but they carry risks that are untenable if they are not eliminated. For example, how do the big brands seize such opportunities while protecting their intellectual property (IP), maintaining consistency and quality – and ultimately upholding brand integrity?

Sizing up the opportunity

If you consider some of the issues around spare parts in the industrial manufacturing world, it’s easy to see how a virtual inventory model enabled by additive manufacturing offers many benefits to brands and their customers.

We’re working with one major manufacturer who has almost four million different spare parts – clearly way too many to maintain a physical inventory. Here, the ability to quickly 3D print an ‘emergency’ spare part and get it to the customer so they’re back up and running presents an immediate win-win. The manufacturer can solve the customer’s problem (and charge a premium price for doing so) and the customer receives a part in a few days, as opposed to a few weeks, resulting in minimal impact on the production throughput.

Another example is general spare parts for the automotive sector. Once these can be produced using AM, then clearly the ability for the major brands to produce on-demand from a virtual inventory eliminates many of the costs associated with storage and transport costs.

Avoiding the pitfalls

However, simply moving to virtual inventory and a wider digital supply chain opens some serious pitfalls. Think about it - sending an STL file instantly creates issues around security of the file itself and IP protection. Basically, if your IP isn’t protected then the file can be intercepted and the part vulnerable to change or leakage. This is a direct threat to the brand’s reputation.

Another danger is the threat to part consistency and quality. This could potentially lead to the part being produced in a sub-standard or incompatible way (e.g. cheaper material or inferior 3D printing technology) than it should be to perform to expectations. Just like traditional manufacturing, AM is susceptible to production inconsistencies that can occur unintentionally because of human error. Although one would expect most brands to have rigorous quality control procedures in place, the reality is that it is relatively easy for consistency to be hurt or compromised, even by mistake.

The wrong material could inadvertently get loaded onto a 3D printer, or the settings on that printer accidentally mis-set. Now imagine the part in question is being created for a car, or even an aircraft. Should such an eventuality occur, then it could potentially be a company’s reputation ruined or their brand threatened – something no business in the world would welcome.

Crunching numbers

As well as the need to ensure the right part is printed in the right way, there is the issue of quantity. Once a company moves to a digital or virtual inventory, they need to ensure that the digital files/assets can’t be printed multiple times without limits or even just tracking and reporting. Imagine an aerospace company that has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in developing a crucial final part for an aircraft. What would happen if it was accessed then printed, not only in the wrong material, but also in large numbers? It would be catastrophic. The simple fact is that, despite the sophisticated processes employed by the major global brands to safeguard their digital assets, if an employee wants to print an extra item, then nobody will ever know if there is no enforcement software in place. This is even worse if it is an outside supplier’s employee.

These are critical issues that large companies worry about – and rightly so. Regardless of whether such scenarios arise by accident or not, brands cannot afford to produce defective parts that will ultimately fail. Even if those parts are being produced via an intermediary, it’s ultimately the brand itself that is at risk.

The good news for companies seeking to use AM for end parts and to enjoy the benefits of on-demand manufacturing or virtual inventories is that there are solutions available. There are forward-thinking Software as a Service (SaaS) providers out there who have developed automatic and seamless mechanisms to address the problems I’ve outlined.

The even better news is that the issues mentioned above can be avoided with minimal disruption, without presenting a headache for supply chain managers, the procurement process, and even the IT organization. No installations, no change in procurement policies and no fuss. This is crucial because, in my opinion, most procurement managers don’t particularly care if a part is produced via AM or injection molding; to them it’s irrelevant. They just want to be able to order it on their ERP system like any other part.

Right now, I think there are many brands that are using AM to centrally produce small quantities of parts that are then shipped to where they need to be. What some are not yet doing is scaling additive manufacturing in the true sense, because ultimately, when they do so their existing model becomes untenable, as we would expect.

To scale quantities with AM raises the very issues I’ve outlined above, but that shouldn’t stop companies from enjoying key benefits like cost-savings, increased responsiveness and flexibility to customers. These benefits are achievable while protecting the company’s manufacturing knowhow and designs – and ultimately its brand image and reputation.

A bit of research into such SaaS solutions is time well spent for any company seeking to deploy trouble-free AM anywhere and at any time. It can also help the person doing the research to shine in the next presentation to top management, addressing their concerns in an insightful way.

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