Additive manufacturing: breaking into the mainstream

Contributing editor, Malcolm Wheatley, examines additive manufacturing and the knock-on effects as it transitions into the mainstream.

In late 2014, astronauts on the International Space Station had a need for a ratcheting socket wrench.

The Chinese space station will be open to international modules in a similar way to the ISS (pictured). Image courtesy of Nasa
The International Space Station (image courtesy of Nasa).

The only problem: there wasn’t one on the space station, and it might take months for it to be sent aloft on one the station’s regular resupply rockets.

But a few days later, space station commander Barry Wilmore had in his hands the very wrench he required – the manufacturing instructions having been sent to the station’s 3D printer via an e-mail attachment.

Equally dramatic, in its own way, is the more recent announcement by aero-engine manufacturer, GE that it anticipates producing around 100,000 additively manufactured engine parts a year by 2020.

Already, the first of those parts are flying on commercial aircraft. Lockheed Martin, Airbus and Roll-Royce have similarly ambitious plans.

All of which starkly illustrates just how far additive manufacturing—to give 3D printing its ‘posh’ name—has come in the last few years.

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No longer used simply for prototypes and mock-ups, the technology has now found its way into mainstream manufacturing environments.

At present, most of the buzz surrounding additive manufacturing revolves around the ‘gee wizz’ technology factor: additive manufacturing’s ability to transform manufacturing processes themselves.

Quite simply, whichever specific additive manufacturing technology is being deployed, the art of the possible has been transformed.

High performance engineering business, KW Special Projects, for instance, uses additive manufacturing to make parts that are “more or less impossible” with conventional approaches – think of complex shapes such as the interior of a snail’s shell, achieved by using additive manufacturing to manufacture a tooling ‘mandrel’, which is then wrapped in carbon fibre and dissolved.

“Additive manufacturing isn’t a universal solution, but it’s undeniably a real one,” says managing director Kieron Salter, a self-confessed additive manufacturing enthusiast.

“Last year, we used it to produce around 2,500 Formula One parts.”

Additive Manufacturing PQ March 2016That said, at such relatively low volumes, conventional manufacturing planning and supply chain processes can cope satisfactorily.

But that certainly doesn’t hold for every business, and behind the hype that still surrounds aspects of additive manufacturing, an awkward realisation is dawning.

Which is this: as additive manufacturing moves into the mainstream, conventional approaches to supply chain management and production planning don’t necessarily hold true.

“The fundamental difference is that economies of scale are no longer so important,” says Mark Esposito, professor of business and economics at Grenoble Ecole de Management, and a keen observer of how additive manufacturing is tearing up conventional rule books.

“As a result, there’s no longer quite the same need to forecast demand in advance, and manufacturing plans can much more closely follow actual demand and order intake.”

In short, at its simplest, additive manufacturing brings about not only the fabled ‘batch of one’, but also the reconfigured supply chains and changed business models that a batch size of one – if required – makes possible.

“Additive manufacturing will completely disrupt the supply chain,” says Asif Moghal, manufacturing industry manager at CAD and simulation specialists, Autodesk.

“Traditionally, manufacturing goes to those areas of the world where costs are low, particularly in terms of manual labour. But with additive manufacturing, you can in theory create products on demand.

“The value of the parts being shipped will be lower because manufacturers will be transferring raw materials instead of finished products, and warehousing won’t be as important because they won’t need to store as many items.”

This, of course, goes a long way to explain the growing popularity of additive manufacturing in low-volume industries such as aerospace.

Manufacturers such as GE, Lockheed Martin, Airbus and Roll-Royce simply don’t have the volumes called for by traditional MRP planning processes, and have always struggled with concepts such as economic batch size formulae.

But that certainly isn’t true of other industries, as the major ERP vendors are well aware. At manufacturing ERP specialist QAD, for instance, chief marketing officer Carter Lloyds confirms that a revolution is underway.

Additive Manufacturing PQ2 March 2016“This is something that we’re thinking about a lot,” he sums up. “Additive manufacturing radically simplifies supply chains, and it’s going to have a profound effect on the ERP industry.

“Planning processes are going to have to change—and so will manufacturers’ definition of what exactly constitutes a product. Look at car manufacturer Tesla, and you don’t see model years as such: its cars are gradually evolving as improvements are made.”

So perhaps predictably, ERP and supply chain vendors such as QAD are scrambling to highlight the capabilities of their products in terms of additive manufacturing, and the impact that it will have on supply chains and manufacturing planning processes.

Take JDA Software, where the acquisitions of supply chain planning and execution innovators such as RedPrairie, i2 Technologies, and Manugistics now look increasingly prescient.

“Additive manufacturing is something that our customers are increasingly talking to us about,” says Hans Georg Kaltenbrunner, the company’s European vice-president for manufacturing strategy.

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“In configure-to-order businesses, it offers significant increases in speed and flexibility – and we’re the vendor with two decades of exactly that configure-to-order supply chain planning and execution experience.”

SAP, too, is seeing in additive manufacturing a fresh reason for customers to buy its in memory production planning technology, continually running MRP replenishment processes.

“As production batch sizes shrink, manufacturers are going to need real-time responsiveness, and not batch-driven planning carried out in – say – weekly ‘buckets’,” says Patrick Crampton-Thomas, the company’s vice-president for supply chain solution management.

But for now, such concerns lie in the future – albeit the near-term future. And meanwhile, many smaller manufacturers are dealing with more prosaic concerns: gaining access to additive manufacturing design and simulation software.

“For SMEs like us, the technology we need isn’t really affordable,” concludes Neil Burns, founder and director of Croft Additive Manufacturing, which develops bespoke specialist filters.

“We’re having to go to organisations such as universities in order to get design work done.”