Posts Tagged ‘3D manufacturing’

In our prior post we suggested how additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, will be a major consideration in the customized world of the factory of the future.  We’ll wrap up the line of thought today with a few observations on why, and the economic impact, with some help from editors at The Economist (7-1-17).

Manufacturers often start production either by building small runs of prototypes, or sometimes by making small numbers of high-value items for special applications or markets, before tooling up to larger production runs on more mass-market items.

One British company called Domin Fluid Power is using 3D printing to change the equation.  When this design service company decided to start making its own products, they picked high-performance hydraulic pumps and servo-valves, devices that control fluids in a variety of applications from aviation and aerospace to factory plant floors.  The question they faced was which market to go after.  The answers are revealing.

While aerospace offers good profits from high margins, it’s a low-volume business, fraught with time delays, layers of prototyping and costly risks.  The industrial and general equipment markets are generally broader and arguably easier to enter, and they can help companies get up to volume production quickly; however, they’re price sensitive, with inherently lower profits and margins.

Domin had acquired a 3D metal printer from a German firm, and realized that economies of scale were different with 3D.  Changing designs meant only software modifications, not wholesale shop floor retooling.  Operationally then, unit costs were roughly the same whether they made five of an item, or 500 or 5,000.

And importantly, manufacturing with 3D requires less material.  Unlike traditional methods that require removing excess materials, as well as burnishing, abrading, cutting and drilling… 3D products can emerge fully formed with little or no waste.  Over time – and production volumes – that adds up to significant savings, and a reduced cost of goods.

An analysis done by Domin revealed that, as always, reduced product weights held value to varying degrees across applications.  For instance, saving a couple pounds of weight when building a Formula One racecar might be worth over $100,000 relative to the value of a win in a world of tight tolerances.  (“A kilo saved is a trophy won.”)  In spacecraft, they calculated the value at about $25,000, in aircraft, from $1,200 to $13,000, in automotive from $20 to $600, and finally, in factory equipment, from zero to perhaps $6 per two pounds of weigh saved.

All this makes for lighter, less expensive (i.e., less material) and often more valuable end products.  And with 3D printing, the costs per unit were essentially the same across any size product run.  In Domin’s case, the analysis led them to decide to enter the low-end of the market first with a competitively priced servo-valve.  But since essentially the same valve could be used in mobile hydraulics in tractors and trucks, they can move up the profit scale at little added cost.  And in fact, they’ve found aerospace applications for which they hope to qualify, and with some modification, they say they can crack the racecar market too, thus opening the way to automotive.

3D printing opened all these markets to them, and is making them competitive on the low-end and capable at the high end, all while managing production at lower costs very effectively.

The benefits of 3D will spread throughout industry, as Domin illustrates.  And weight reduction and cost reduction will always have the manufacturing marketplace advantage.


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druckerOhnoIn his 1993 book The Post Capitalist Society longtime management guru Peter Drucker of Claremont Graduate University (and for this writer’s money, the greatest and most innovative management thinker ever) described what he saw as the coming shift from the knowledge worker to the “knowledges” worker.  His point was that companies were being created to make all available knowledge as productive as possible.  Drucker argued for “decentralized organizations” that were built for continuous change, composed largely of equals who were focused on innovation – in things like processes, tools and really, all work related efforts.  His then unconventional thinking has become the standard for business today.

In 1987, Taiichi Ohno in his book Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production, told the world that the goal of “just in time” (JIT) was, simply, the elimination of waste.  He also stated his opinion that the Toyota Production System was more than a production system – it was a management system.

These two operational touchpoints were brought together in a recent article by John Collins, President of Sustainable Solutions and an APICS CFPIM in the current issue of APICS Magazine (Sep/Oct 2015) in which he asks whether perhaps today’s newest technological advances – he names 3D printing as an example (also known as “additive manufacturing”) – are now making it possible to seriously consider mass customization.

Collins points out that “there are many pros and cons inherent in the strategic and operational choices associated with mass production” (including make to stock, just in time, sequence assembly, configurators, job shop and customized project design).  These methods have long had to deal with trade-offs including the ability to forecast demand, the customer’s desire for customization, and the volume of products that can be efficiently delivered.  Thus, he notes, mass customization is viewed with suspicion as it “attempts to overcome these inherent compromises by producing a high volume of customized products offered to customers at near-mass-production prices.”

And so it is that he quotes Drucker and Ohno in reminding us that we have been challenged to confront such “traditional principles” for many decades now.  The times continue to change.  Today’s additive manufacturing, which makes 3D solid objects from a digital file by adding continuous layers of material (plastic being only the best-known, but not the only, example), forces us to change our thinking.  Today, it is actually possible to construct buildings with this new technology.  A Dutch company, Collins notes, is building a pedestrian bridge in Amsterdam, on-site – over a canal! – exclusively with 3D printers.

Once again, change is in the air.  Drucker and Ohno would certainly approve.  And they would probably remind us that companies need to make production and operational choices in keeping with this new and burgeoning demand for mass customizations, 3D printing and today’s new range of digitally-driven manufacturing.


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3d printerA recent article in the Jul/Aug edition of APICS Magazine points out where innovative businesses can score gains when it comes to the newest 3D printing technologies, often known as “additive manufacturing.”  We’ll reprise their thinking briefly here, based on an article by Julie Kim and David Robb entitled “New Dimensions.”

3D printers use an “additive manufacturing process” to build objects layer upon layer.  It’s appropriate when one or more of the following hold true:

  • Customization is a key business strategy.
  • Production volume requirements are low.
  • Demand is constantly changing and difficult to predict.
  • Remoteness leads to high transport costs and long lead times.
  • The cost of traditional manufacturing makes for a significant barrier to entry.

Most of us only started hearing of 3D printing in the past couple of years.  The idea that an object could be literally printed into existence seemed pretty exotic initially, but it’s fast becoming reality today.  In their article, the authors point out “five key conditions that comprise an appropriate environment for implementing 3D printing technology as a manufacturing method.”  These are:

  1. High level of customization.  3D printers have the ability to print highly complex geometric shapes with little to no impact on the cost of manufacturing a product.  That’s mostly a function of raw material used.  Production is efficient and economical with minimal machine configuration and the ability to switch between products rapidly.
  2. Low-volume production.  Traditional manufacturing methods favor cost-efficient mass production.  Today’s 3D printers produce slowly, building an object layer by layer, thus rendering themselves to small production volumes but with high levels of customization.
  3. Unpredictable demand.  3D printers require minimal reconfiguration and setup effort.  They can switch between designs with little delay, and thus are highly useful in unpredictable environments, with minimal custom tooling or manual reconfiguration.  Again, all this favors low-volume production environments.
  4. Remote distance to market.  “3D printing enables simplification of the supply chain and can eliminate a large portion of the transportation and waiting time involved with offshoring,” note the article’s authors.
  5. High barriers to entry.  Taking an idea and turning it into a physical product involves substantial investment, often at high cost.  3D printing offers an affordable alternative, both for prototypes and for a continuous (limited) run of finished goods.

3D printing allows for operational efficiency at some levels: while holding inventory can be costly, 3D printing has essentially the same cost per unit, regardless of how many units are produced.  Thus, “pull” production systems tend to be more appropriate here, with the benefit of limited runs and avoiding of overloaded inventories.

3D printing is still a relatively new technology, the authors point out, yet to fulfill its full potential.  But its promise of simpler entry to markets and the growing availability (and plunging costs) of 3D printers will provide benefits to many over time.

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3d_gunManufacturing, long one of our key topics here, continues to evolve.  We’ve written before about “additive manufacturing,” more commonly known as 3D printing, and a recent article by the editors at Bloomberg points out where all this is heading.

As we’ve noted before, the basic concept behind 3D printing is that you download a digital instruction file for a design and, using one of many available “printing” devices on the market today, the machine very slowly (but increasingly faster these days)sprays  a material, usually a special plastic, through a heated nozzle in slow patterns in order to create actual objects.  There’s been a lot of press lately about the law student in Texas who published full instructions on the Internet for printing out a usable gun.  While he was subsequently forced to take the file down, it had already been downloaded by over 100,000people.  Such are the dangerous implications of this unbottled genie of technology.

But beyond the controversy, we think (as does Bloomberg) that the potential is, in their words, “stunning.”  Already global sales of 3D printing are said to have reached $2.2 billion, and are expected to triple by 2019.  A company called Kor Ecologic is producing a car – the Urbee 2 – which, when completed will weigh 1,200 pounds, and be comprised of about 40 pieces of thermoplastic, requiring minimal time and labor to assemble.

Bloomberg’s question in an article published in their magazine’s May 20 issue is “whether the technology will transform manufacturing more broadly.”  We think long term it will.  While today’s printers are slow and the materials expensive and inconsistent, you just know those wrinkles will be worked out in time (just look at computers in general!).  Longer term, it’s a potentially disruptive force in supply chains, when you think about the reduced need for warehousing, inventory planning, shortened supply chains and reduced assembly lines.  There’s potential for elimination of a lot of waste, shipping and pollution long-term.  Those kinds of trends always win out in the end.

Bloomberg also points out how down the road (a “few decades” in their view) engineers “should be able to blend raw materials in new ways, endow products with nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, and create objects that interact with their physical environments.”  Think armor with embedded sensors or a turbine blade that monitors its own temperature.

If you really think about it, it’s the fulfillment of the promise of “mass customization” toward which manufacturing has been slowly evolving for decades – and only more rapidly of late.

Of course, the downside, besides our earlier make-your-own-gun example, includes the intellectual property aspects, with so many items subject to possible counterfeiting, and all the ensuing lawsuits that are bound to follow – thus likely making attorneys as a group one of the beneficiaries of this growing technology.

Think too about the implications for medical devices, vehicle parts, and homemade replacement parts.  The list goes on.   And finally, as Bloomberg reports, this: a recent report from Washington think tank called the Atlantic Council predicts that 3D printing “has the potential to be as disruptive as the personal computer and the Internet.”

And we can’t even count the number of careers and companies those have launched.


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