Smarter Manufacturing: Additive Manufacturing and the Digital Value Chain
Isaac Maw posted on November 05, 2019 |

For hundreds of years, manufacturing has been a game of trade-offs between speed, cost, and functionality. Each phase of product development, from design to manufacturing to distribution, must make compromises and synergize so that the product can meet cost, quality, and time-to-market targets.

For example, an air manifold may be designed with cylindrical ducts so that it can be fabricated from a stock size of tubing, even if a custom, optimized shape would reduce weight and allow air to flow more effectively.

Historically, engineers were only allowed to follow through on these types of optimizations in low-volume, high-value applications such as performance automotive or aerospace R&D. Today, additive manufacturing (AM) has removed manufacturability constraints, changing the way manufacturers think about product lifecycle and ultimately bringing these better, more effective parts to market.

Digital Manufacturing

(Image courtesy of EOS.)
(Image courtesy of EOS.)

AM is a digital process: each build is represented by a digital file and can be reproduced by anyone with the same printer and the same material. Of course, CNC cutting paths also represent part geometries digitally in G-code, but reproducing these cutting paths requires the same tools, the same stock material and dimensions, and possibly even the same machine. The digital nature of AM creates new opportunities for innovation in the product lifecycle.

Taking the entire product lifecycle into account is critical when evaluating AM for a specific manufacturing application. For example, building a part with AM may take longer and potentially have different costs than another process such as CNC milling, but if redesigning the part for AM eliminates costs elsewhere in the lifecycle, then it's well worth it to use additive. In this article, we’ll explore some of the ways that can happen.

To find out more about how AM is creating opportunities for more effective product lifecycle in manufacturing, spoke to Glynn Fletcher, president of EOS North America.

The Digital Thread

(Image courtesy of EOS.)
(Image courtesy of EOS.)

The product lifecycle begins with ideation and design. It’s well known that AM is able to support geometries and design features that aren’t possible using subtractive techniques. According to Fletcher, the design phase is also the starting point for a digital thread which follows the product through design, production, distribution, and even supports the end-of-life or decommissioning of the product. The digital thread is the foundation of all the ways digital manufacturing technology can support the product.

One of the ways in which AM transforms the product lifecycle lies in this design phase. “The whole principle of design for manufacturing was once to simplify the design, so that it could be easily made. This undermines functionality in many cases. With AM complexity is free,” explained Fletcher. “For example, one of our partners produced a trabecular hip cup, which has a design which couldn’t be produced any other way, and provides better functionality thanks to those design features.”

What separates the EOS vision of the digital value chain from other AM proponents is that in the company’s vision of digital manufacturing, high-volume subtractive manufacturing techniques are considered to be a necessary tool in the toolbox for manufacturing. However, the digital thread and design for AM can support the lifecycle of products which require high-volume production, too.

(Image courtesy of EOS.)
(Image courtesy of EOS.)

“When your product originates digitally, it gives you a lot more versatility,” explained Fletcher. “Sometimes we get a little bit obsessed with the AM part of it, but for me it's not really that part that makes the most difference. What makes the most difference is your ability to design, develop and manufacture the product in the digital environment.”

Digital Twin

(Image courtesy of EOS.)
(Image courtesy of EOS.)

For example, the automotive industry has, in some cases, struggled to find significant use cases for AM, due in part to the high volume of production. However, automotive is also an industry in which the product lifecycle has a long tail. Spare parts and warranty repairs extend for years after vehicles roll off the line. This creates a problem: parts optimized for high volume production can be expensive at low volumes.

“Now, the automotive industry is designing digitally, developing designs using AM, using all that technology’s advantages such as rapid iteration. Next, they make a decision depending on volume whether they take a more traditional route [such as stamping or molding, for example] or they go the additive route,” explained Fletcher. “But when high-volume production is finished, they then have the ability to revert to the digital method of production, which makes a lot more sense when you're only making hundreds for spares, rather than making tens of thousands for production.”

The digital value chain also provides freedom in where parts are produced. Because additive is a digital process, manufacturing and design expertise is not required at the geographic location of printing equipment. For example, rather than manufacturing a large inventory of spare parts in Taiwan or Tennessee, and shipping them around the globe, companies can print spare parts in a network of local facilities, shortening supply lines and reducing costs.

Digital Inventory

(Image courtesy of EOS.)
(Image courtesy of EOS.)

This brings us to the third benefit of the digital value chain in manufacturing: the digital inventory. Historically, producing parts after the initial high-volume production phase has been expensive. Fletcher described the reality in the automotive industry.

“The design advantages we’ve discussed only represent 20 percent of all the advantages that the digital value chain has to offer,” said Fletcher. “It also provides the ability to reduce cost further down the process.”

“In the automotive industry, the lifecycle of the vehicle is getting shorter and shorter. It changes more rapidly than it once did. But, when vehicles are being produced in sufficient volumes, then they’re probably going to be made by utilizing stamping or casting or injection molding, or machining and all of the traditional techniques. The problem is that when you get to the end of the optimized, high-volume part of production, these automotive executives are faced with supporting their customers for the next 50 years, because that's what we expect as customers. It might be out of production for 30 years or so, but consumers expect to get spare parts for their cars ad infinitum, forever.”

(Image courtesy of EOS.)
(Image courtesy of EOS.)

Fletcher continued, “This means that for the automotive industry, before a model goes out of production, they build a ton of spare parts, so that they don't have to use all of these die sets, all of these stamping tools, all of these mold tools. They must store all these tools and spare parts in huge warehouses, just waiting to be used, and at some time in the future, they may have to refurbish all this equipment. They spend an enormous amount of money storing it in the first place, an enormous amount of money refurbishing it, and an enormous amount of money bringing it back into production. Once they bring it back into production, they may only have demand for a couple of hundred parts. But they must manufacture tens of thousands of parts, because they realize that if they have to repeat this cycle, it's a really costly process again. So, then tons of spare parts go back onto warehouse shelves gathering dust, because the process requires them to do it that way, and it's entirely cost-ineffective.”

In comparison, explained Fletcher, manufacturers can eliminate all of this costly warehousing and inventory, replacing it with a digital inventory of digital twin spare parts to be printed on demand. Furthermore, there’s no reason not to optimize a part, such as a bracket, for a traditional manufacturing process during initial process, but then use an additive-optimized design for the same part as a spare.

“If you want to produce a seat belt bracket in the hundreds of thousands, you're not going to do it using AM,” said Fletcher. “But if you design it in such a way that it can be produced in high volumes using traditional methods, and it's kept relatively simple as a consequence of that, and you don't over complicate the additive design, then as long as the location point doesn't change, as long as generally the shape is the same, it fits into the same space, then it doesn't have to look identical to the traditionally manufactured part. It can look somewhat different, but it will do exactly the same job and can be produced considerably more cost effectively.”

The Digital Value Chain—Enabled by Additive Manufacturing

When considering the value that AM could add to your manufacturing business, look beyond the four walls of the manufacturing department. The technology enables a new way of thinking about the entire product lifecycle, from design to spare parts.

“I think the dynamic will change fundamentally,” said Fletcher. “Digital disruption is coming to everything, and it will certainly be in manufacturing. So, I think that there will always be a place for the traditional way of making things. At least for the next 20 or 30 years, I see additive as a complementary process. Additive is complementary to subtractive, but I think as we get used to these ideas of Industry 4.0 and the factory of the future the ratio will shrink dramatically and there will be considerably more AM in the world than there will be subtractive manufacturing.”

In short, AM and the digital thread represents a better way to make better parts, and is an excellent example of how 3D printing technology is maturing, leaving the Gartner hype cycle behind and becoming an effective part of the manufacturing landscape.

For more details about the digital value chain, contact EOS at

EOS has sponsored this post.  All opinions are mine.  --Isaac Maw.

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