Setting Up an On-Demand Agile Manufacturing Network
Ian Wright posted on March 27, 2018 |
3YOURMIND expert on the risks and rewards of automating bespoke manufacturing.
(Image courtesy of 3YOURMIND.)

Job shops aren’t what they used to be.

Manufacturing was once a family business: fathers training sons in machining and metalworking—sometimes on the same equipment they learned on with their fathers. Though this process may have been complicated by technological advancements, if you needed help or advice it was likely sitting across from you at the dinner table.

There is no doubt that the pace of change is accelerating. (If you’re skeptical, just take a moment to reflect on how often you got a new phone over the last few decades.) This makes it much more difficult to maintain the old model of passing down knowledge from one generation to the next. Compounding this difficulty is the fact that the manufacturing sector itself is changing, with many companies switching to a small-batch, on-demand model.

“It’s no longer enough for you, as a manufacturing company, to get one large order for 10 million parts and run that order for the next couple of months,” said Philipp Stelzer, Head of Sales and Marketing at 3YOURMIND. “With on-demand manufacturing, you need to be able to take on hundreds or thousands of different orders. You need to be flexible, but you also need streamlined processes for your customers to place their orders, otherwise you’ll be overwhelmed and lose your margin.”

So, what is on-demand manufacturing, and how can you leverage it in the changing economy?

On-Demand Manufacturing Explained

As with the on-demand services we know generally, such as Netflix or Uber, on-demand manufacturing is all about getting exactly what you need, right when you need it. As Stelzer explained, this model requires a fundamental shift in the way we think of the industry as a whole:

“An on-demand production network is one where parts get manufactured as needed and in small quantities,” he said, “so it’s not like the mass production that we have today, which tends to have long planning cycles. With an on-demand network, a client could order even just one part, but still get exactly that from the supplier right away.”

(Image courtesy of 3YOURMIND.)

Smaller production volumes are a natural consequence of an as-needed approach, but there’s another factor that’s driving this trend toward on-demand manufacturing. Personalization is the watchword of the 21st Century, and personalized goods—by definition—cannot be mass produced.

This trend began in dental and medical device manufacturing, for obvious reasons. If you need a new hip or dental implant, something that’s been tailored to your body can reduce pain and recuperation time compared to a generic, off-the-shelf replacement. This is a good starting point for understanding what customization means in a larger manufacturing context.

“In the end,” said Stelzer, “if you want mass customization, you can only do that at a very basic level without on-demand production. You can offer your customers a few different setups for a car, for example, and call that ‘customization’ but it’s not true customization in the sense of making an impact on the performance. If my options are between choosing a blue or a black car, that’s not really customization.”

(Image courtesy of 3YOURMIND.)

Between these trends of on-demand and what is sometimes called “bespoke” manufacturing, one technology in particular stands out: 3D printing. “With 3D printing, you get the customization for free,” said Stelzer. “As long as you can print the object, it doesn’t matter how complex it is or how different it is from your next print. If you want to use traditional manufacturing methods, then you have to change your tooling and systems between jobs. So, in that case your costs go up a lot, but with 3D printing they stay pretty flat.”

To sum up: producing customized goods requires producing at lower volumes, which is where additive and on-demand manufacturing excel, but this also presents a problem, as Stelzer explained. “The challenge is producing customized goods at low volumes efficiently without making your production costs explode.”

Advantages of On-Demand Manufacturing

Accessing on-demand production networks offer the solution to Stelzer’s challenge.

“You need access to machine capacities to deal with hundreds or thousands of orders,” he said. “Ideally, you’ll be able to serve a wide variety of clients, which means having many different materials available and lots of different production types. Of course, there are lot sizes of one, but on-demand can also involve lot sizes in the hundreds or thousands. In those cases, you want to be flexible enough to be able to outsource the production to partners in your on-demand network. So, you can still accept the order from your client, but it doesn’t depend on just the resources you have available, since you can use your network to absorb the extra capacity demand.”

(Image courtesy of EOS.)

This goes back to the trend for manufacturing to become less centralized and more distributed: the production capacity of any one job shop is less important than that of the entire network, just like the Internet. Beyond increasing your production capacity, being part of an on-demand network also opens up the types of production capabilities you can offer.

“If you want to use additive manufacturing to make high-quality parts, then you don’t want to use one machine with multiple materials,” said Stelzer. “Of course, each industrial-quality machine is quite expensive, so if you want to be able to offer a wide variety of materials, you’re better off working with a couple of partners and reselling their capacity than buying the machines yourself.”

Roadblocks to On-Demand Manufacturing

Between increasing your production capacity and enabling access to additional 3D printing processes that you wouldn’t otherwise have, the benefits of on-demand manufacturing are clear. So, why isn’t everyone adopting this new model?

Well, for one thing, setting up an on-demand network all by yourself—or even with a few partners—is difficult. However, by using 3YOURMIND’s platforms, the task becomes considerably simpler, as Stelzer explained:

“We can quickly establish an on-demand network from scratch,” he said, “since we already have a large supplier network. So if you’re a new company and you want to participate, you can step into that already existing network. If you already have some partners, we’re happy to integrate them as well, and continue to extend the network that way. In both cases, we’re using our growing user-base to build and strengthen these networks.”

(Image courtesy of 3YOURMIND.)

3YOURMIND offers two platforms to help manufacturers join on-demand networks and access on-demand suppliers. The company’s eCommerce solution allows print shops to join an on-demand network, adding their capacities to it and enabling them to selling those capacities via their own online shop. “We basically connect the different online shops in the background to establish the networks,” said Stelzer. 3YOURMIND’s Enterprise solution gives users access to the on-demand suppliers—i.e., the eCommerce clients—as well as the ability to compare their internal capacities with those of the companies on the network.

Once you have your network in place, you‘re ready to consider Stelzer’s challenge in depth. The transition from producing many parts from a few orders to producing a few parts from many orders isn’t easy, especially when it comes to quoting.

“It’s definitely one of the biggest roadblocks right now,” Stelzer said. “Even if you’re fast, it usually takes 20-30 minutes to prepare a quotation for an order. There’s also a lot of ‘email ping-pong’ at the beginning: someone sends a request, you check if the part is printable, it’s not, so you request changes back and forth, and it just goes on like that.”

Fortunately, you can avoid all that email ping-pong by automating your quotations and printability checks. 3YOURMIND’s Enterprise Platform is designed to do just that. In addition to giving you direct access to 3YOURMIND’s network of additive manufacturing suppliers, the platform can also evaluate models for pricing and printability, include side-by-side comparisons of internal 3D printers with those in your on-demand network.

(Image courtesy of 3YOURMIND.)

Given the extent to which 3D printing plays a role in on-demand manufacturing, determining which parts would benefit from being additive manufactured is crucial to running a successful on-demand job shop. For this reason, a lack of experience or knowledge of 3D printing can be another major stumbling block. However, with 3YOURMIND’s platform, that knowledge and experience doesn’t have to come from in house.

“We have customers who have a lot of experience with 3D printing and know exactly what they want, but we also have customers who come to us and basically say, ‘Hey, we heard about 3D printing and we don’t want to miss out on it. What should we do?’ These are the guys who rely on our supplier network and who may not even have a single printer in their facility,” explained Stelzer.

On-Demand & The Future of Manufacturing

Whether you’re a production supplier or a multinational conglomerate, keeping up with the pace of change is key to staying competitive. Disruptive new technologies are emerging and evolving within the lifetime of a single generation, making it impossible to rely solely on the knowledge and the experience of our predecessors. But software platforms are now providing the tools to begin on-demand manufacturing without large upfront investments.

Find out more using the Enterprise platform from 3YOURMIND to capture the potential of 3D printing with our On-Demand AM Supplier Network.

3YourMind has sponsored this post.  All opinions are mine.  --Ian Wright

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