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Securing, certifying and increasing production with additive manufacturing

04 November, 2020

Thanks to its recognised efficiency-enhancing benefits, additive manufacturing is a technology increasingly integrated within the production operations of companies around the world. Lee-Bath Nelson looks at how, with the right software solutions, manufacturers can enjoy safe, repeatable and trackable production while also ensuring that fundamental certification requirements are adhered to.

Be it due to a breakage or malfunction of tooling or a part, if you’re a manufacturer, you will likely acknowledge that it’s not unusual for one or more production line(s) to be down, waiting for a replacement item at any given time.

Fortunately, with additive manufacturing (AM) / 3D printing, there are ways to minimise this downtime, especially, but not only, when the culprit is tooling. Depending on the industry, the cost of an idle line is very high. In the food industry, the costs can be hundreds of thousands of pounds a day, while in the automotive industry the number is close to £17,000 a minute per line. That’s over £1 million an hour. No wonder manufacturing managers will go to great lengths to get lines back up and running quickly. In extreme cases, they may fly someone to get a spare part and return with it on an additional purchased seat. The reliability, consistency, and predictability of tools and spare parts is key for avoiding such measures. Not only can AM help, it’s also more affordable than an airfare for two.

With AM manufacturers can quickly and cost-effectively 3D print tools on demand at or near their facility. An inventory of one is also possible to make the switch even faster and still replenish with AM. This ensures the line is down for the absolute minimal time and a replacement tool is on hand at any time – something simply not possible with any other manufacturing technology.

The great thing about tools is that they are designed and controlled by the manufacturer so the move to AM is an internal decision. Providing the tools are produced in a consistent manner, this move will reduce the cost of tooling and lower the line’s downtime – a win-win situation. For tools that need replacing often, it’s possible to go a step further and keep one or two 3D printed tools on hand, and when they’re being used, 3D print another.

A breed a part

AM can also help overcome other production line headaches like missing spare parts, which are another major cause of unproductive lines. Unlike tooling, machinery manufacturers own the designs of these parts, and they can offer them as digital assets that can be consistently produced on demand and in limited quantities close to their production line.

Such an approach can significantly reduce downtime. Some hardware manufacturers may go even further. In some cases, AM can produce a replacement part but it is not as robust as a part manufactured in the traditional way. In this case, the equipment manufacturer can offer a 3D printed emergency spare part to keep the line going until the regular part arrives. Like this, two short part replacement efforts can avoid weeks of downtime. The key is to get the line back up quickly without compromising quality. This comes down to consistent, repeatable tools and parts (across time and across production lines).

Thankfully, there are Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions that can protect such items from being altered, output on the wrong printer or accessed by an unauthorized party. This ensures correct, repeatable, and consistent production of the tool or part, which is a necessary ingredient to the shared goal of manufacturing managers everywhere: a functional line that’s always (or almost always) running.

Certification

In addition to its ability to help minimise downtime, a fundamental benefit of AM is its inherent flexibility that allows for the manufacturing of different parts and products, sometimes on the same printer bed. However, this flexibility creates a challenge when it comes to certification – something that is a must in many industrial sectors.

Typically, within conventional manufacturing, normal practice is to certify the production line of the particular part or product made on it. The line is then used only for the certified production of this specific part. In most manufacturing techniques, this is a one-time certification that can last for up to a year and permits the line to produce the certified part during that period. To complete the part’s certification, the material the part is made of is also usually certified as a prerequisite. In conventional manufacturing, certifying the material and the production process can be enough to certify the product. In more exacting certification cases, the workflow and other components (including, potentially, the people handling the workflow) must also be certified.

This kind of certification is sufficient for two main reasons: first, the material entering the process corresponds in a unique way to the material of the final item. That’s to say that, it’s either the same material (as in CNC) or it is a material with predictable properties (as in injection moulding or casting). Second, mass manufacturing lines typically produce the same part continually without interruption. Once the line is certified, you can’t change anything (and typically don’t need to). And, if the line is changed over to a different part, it is re-certified when returning to the specific part.

Changing the game

None of this is true for AM, where the machine settings can and do change from one bed to the next. In addition, it’s often the case that parts being produced will constantly change. It does not make sense to go through a certification process for each bed, nor does it make sense (except in mass manufacturing such as teeth aligner molds) to limit a machine to one part – this robs AM of a big advantage (no switching cost and minimal batch size of one) and increases the cost of said part manifold times. Also, changing the machine settings – and even the pre-processing of the item – can change the material characteristics of the actual part produced. This means that certification for AM needs to re-thought with the specific characteristics of the technology in mind.

Fortunately, you can certify an AM protocol for a particular part, and with the right kind of SaaS solution you can enforce this protocol throughout the workflow every time the part is produced. This will give you tracking (essentially an audit trail) that will allow you to demonstrate that the part was produced according to the certified protocol with the certified raw material to yield a certified part.

Indeed, for those companies producing more than one kind of part using AM technologies, investigating such software solutions is a necessity in order to track complex production easily and make sure certification is adhered to.

Automotive in the additive manufacturing lane

In terms of its integration of AM technology, the automotive industry is widely considered to be a pioneer. In 2018, BMW was already producing over 200,000 3D printed car parts a year (a leap of 40% compared to the previous year). In tooling, AM is even more prevalent. For example, Michelin 3D prints (in metal) over one million siping tools a year for use in its tire manufacturing line. The industry’s adoption of AM is not surprising, as the technology provides the solution to OEMs’ biggest challenges: keeping a lid on production line downtime, increasing customization possibilities, reducing waste and carbon footprint, and, of course, cutting costs both in the production line and in the supply chain.

The automotive 3D printing market is currently estimated at $1.4Bn and is forecasted to grow to $9Bn by 2025[1]. A significant part of this market is attributable to tooling – the jigs, gauges and fixtures that are so critical to keeping today’s increasingly complex manufacturing and assembly lines moving.

The cost of tooling to OEMs alone (i.e. not including tooling used by their suppliers) is estimated to be $550 per car. Some of these tools are already additively manufactured but there is much more to come. The ability to 3D print jigs and fixtures onsite (or locally) and on-demand can reduce tooling costs considerably as well as cut lead times, often from days or even weeks to hours.

In addition to minimizing production line downtime this way, AM also allows manufacturers to respond quickly to part failures by either redesigning or re-printing the part, as required. This offers the flexibility to accept and respond quickly to any changes needed to the production or assembly line. For example, Ford’s partnership with Trinckle is reported to have cut the time it takes to design a new jig from 4-6 hours to just 10 minutes. This, together with onsite 3D printing, means that in any failure or redesign event, Ford can get its production lines up and running in a matter of minutes, instead of hours or even days.

Repeatability and protecting digital assets

Repeatability is a hallmark of manufacturing and assembly lines, especially in the automotive industry. Aside from envy-inducing, highly-customised super cars like the Bugatti Chiron, most cars are mass produced. This means that every car of a particular make and model must be identical, and so too must be the tooling that enables their production. Therefore, it is essential they are made in a way that is both consistent and repeatable.

However, while repeatability sounds like a no-brainer, it is a challenge for AM, where parts are produced in small batches (or even batches of one), potentially in different factories or even in different countries. This makes it difficult to ensure that parts are always produced to the same specifications. Any variance in the 3D printer settings or other parts of the workflow can result in a faulty part or weak tooling that breaks and stops the assembly line. With a digital inventory of AM-produced parts, jigs, or fixtures, repeatability is therefore key – whether a file is printed once or a thousand times, in one location or dozens. This relies on securing AM blueprints and ensuring that parts or tooling are produced in exactly the same way with exactly the same settings regardless of where or when the digital turns into physical.

There is no doubt that the flexibility and efficiency-enhancing aspect of additive manufacturing will continue to be attractive to manufacturers. Providing the right steps are taken and relevant software solutions are in place to support the integration of this exciting technology, I think it is safe to say it will continue to enhance traditional manufacturing.

[1] https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2019/08/01/1895642/0/en/SmarTech-Analysis-Issues-New-Report-on-Automotive-Additive-Manufacturing-Market-Sees-a-9-Billion-USD-Opportunity-on-the-Horizon.html

[2] https://www.alliedmarketresearch.com/press-release/tooling-molds-market.html

*Lee-Bath Nelson is co-founder and VP business at LEO Lane

https://twitter.com/leolane3d

https://www.linkedin.com/company/leo-lane

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