Going Additive: embracing 3D printing and positively impacting an industrial company

“Does it break?” – now that’s something you’ll be hearing quite often when you’re implementing a new manufacturing technology, more so when talking about an industrial user. Ultimately, the degree of confidence in a process is always proportional to the knowledge and experience with it. This is no exception for additive manufacturing (AM).

The challenge of Going Additive can be presented to you in the most diverse industrial sectors, from Automotive to Manufacturing, as well as in a field of highly specialised small-series or large-series production. Getting to know existing success stories may trigger the interest in exploring the technology. For achieving concrete results with it some key lessons can be taken, thus accelerating its adoption, as described next.

Addressing the Mindset

Depending on your position in the value chain, the correct mindset goes a long way into successfully implementing a technology. Moving from an OEM specialised in developing additive manufacturing technology towards an organisation which intends to use it pushes towards a very different paradigm.

In the first case there’s priority in pushing the limits of the technology, make builds larger, faster and increasingly better looking, following what is understood to be the customer’s needs.

However, when addressing users, the main concern is results: how can the technology help in the day-to-day business; what exactly is the problem to be addressed; what is the ROI of the application? We shouldn’t print just because we can, it should provide a real advantage for our specific challenges. In other words, is this a justifiable investment?

A shift in mindset is critical for getting additive manufacturing into the day-to-day business, which in turn means not thinking as the ‘AM expert’, but as the end-user: the one that will understand value by solving the day-to-day challenges through AM.

Ramping-up technology adoption

First things first: strategy is needed. Understand and assess the current needs of the organisation and then translate this into a strategy which narrows down the approach.

Do you want to use AM for research or internal production? Do you want to outsource from service bureaus, and you need to focus the creation of a suitable network? Are your main opportunities within metal or plastic printing? Do you have specific requirements which point you towards a specific process? Do you hope to provide new solutions for your customers or maybe solve internal challenges through AM?

While no “one-size-fits-all” approach exists for AM implementation, this is a step-by-step process; therefore, we should start small and gradually ramp-up. This means starting with low investment which, in turn, means lower risk. An idea could be to enter the technology ecosystem with lower-cost systems and technology (e.g. small-scale plastic filament printing) as the kick-starter for companies which never contacted with AM before. In truth, it is probably more than enough to come up with a first set of interesting use-cases and develop internal know-how. On the other hand, it becomes easier to achieve a valid ROI in a short period of time, thus proving the technology to the organisation.

All in all, simplicity is agility, and we can do quite a lot by starting small and stepping up our game as soon as we develop enough critical mass and support within the organisation. In any case, this is only possible if we have a defined strategy to guide us toward what we want to achieve.

Closely supporting

Whenever introducing something new, close support and steering is incredibly valuable. This should be, at a first stage, top-down and it can be done via different ways.

Non-technical initiatives with a general scope are important to get people talking about 3D Printing and how interesting it may be to use it. These can be, for example, an introduction of AM to the organisation, practical sessions which enable people to contact with 3D printing (and print their own ideas) or brainstorming on what-if scenarios. This not only raises awareness and support from the organisation, but it is also an important source of ideas.

As a second step, technical sessions with experts enable a deep dive on the product and its components to scout for improvement opportunities (ideally on-site, next to the produced units). Whether in the scope of prototyping, functional components or spare parts, we should approach the product with an open mind and aiming to solve existing pains or challenges with the technology. Maybe we can solve that lead-time issue, make the assembly easier, bring in new functionalities or ultimately reduce the manufacturing cost.

Along the way we can start identifying the “evangelists” for AM, the most passionate colleagues that can act as a catalyser and disseminate both knowledge and motivation. These enthusiastic focal points should be focused for training technical skills (e.g. DfAM) making them able to support the skillset development for the rest of the group.

Going Additive, in the end, means providing the spark to ignite the whole AM movement, which should fuel itself as more people are engaged. While a close “hands-on” support should be provided in the beginning, the gradual handover of AM development to the rest of the company is required to independently develop new focal points and critical mass. Centrally supporting top-down the different stakeholders is an important accelerator to ensure a consolidated development, opening the door for bottom-up progress to come next.

Creating technology transparency

Providing support is important but creating transparency is equally critical. In short, transparency means keeping track of the development of new applications, their reasons, characteristics and advantages, but also their difficulties. This collection should be easily accessible and incorporate contributions by the different users of the technology (e.g. via an internal online workspace). In the end, it will provide an understanding of the current technological development and its use, which can be especially difficult to manage in larger (and decentralised) organisations.

“All efforts start with strategy.”

Additionally, transparency should also address internal communication (through intranet pages or newsletters, for example), highlighting successful applications as an important stimulus to further development. Placing the spotlight on the creator of an application is a great idea, as inspiration usually comes from the so-called “lighthouse” cases, which gathered most recognition among the company’s ranks.

Open for collaboration

As with all things, if we want to go far, we should do it together. Collaborative frameworks such as Open Innovation with R&D institutes and Universities play an important role in the overall AM development, as they will allow new ideas to flow in, improve networking for joint applications and create value outside the company walls. For example, opening to research projects focusing a specific issue or application can provide the so-desired real-life scenario that would greatly benefit academical research, while allowing know-how to flow into the organisation. After all, collaboration must lead towards a win-win situation.

Additionally, as a strategical technology for the industry, AM has the power to bring together partners and competitors for joint initiatives. As knowledge starts to solidify, these consortiums should be closely followed, as they can bring new synergies and upscale your technological proficiency (as known examples, the EU initiative AM-Platform or Mobility Goes Additive).

In Conclusion

Each industrial company has its own specific challenges and expectations for AM adoption. As mentioned before, no exact recipe exists to make it successfully and achieve a concrete business case. In any case, all efforts start with strategy, which isn’t necessarily static but can evolve over time, as experience is gathered.

These simple guidelines were built out of experience in AM implementation, having successfully supported these initiatives. Who knows, maybe they can even find their way into your own project, just make sure to give it a try, always with a generous amount of drive and passion for this technology!

Author bio: Filipe Coutinho is the Additive Manufacturing Technology Coordinator at Körber Supply Chain (formerly Körber Logistics Systems GmbH). 

He has a background in Mechanical Engineering and 3 years of experience in the technical development and research of Industrial Metal Additive Manufacturing machinery for the Portuguese OEM ADIRA S.A.

Later, as AM Technology Coordinator for Körber Logistics Systems, Filipe supported and ramped-up the implementation of additive manufacturing at different group companies, while coordinating the AM expert group for Körber and different group-wide innovation initiatives. Currently, he maintains a close connection with the topic and the industry, providing support to the group companies and promoting new AM applications internally. 

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