Agile certainty: How Additive Manufacturing helps navigate an unpredictable world

Posted on 23 Sep 2020 by The Manufacturer

Bart Van der Schueren is Chief Technology Officer at Materialise and part of the 3D printing specialist’s business consultancy division, Materialise Mindware. Here he talks additive manufacturing in a post COVID era, and how it can help business adapt to new challenges.

These are unprecedented times. It’s an overused phrase, I know. The trouble is, it’s also true. The simultaneous health and economic crises that COVID-19 has triggered, in terms of both scale and severity, is a scenario that has never been seen before.

While we are now witnessing light at the end of the tunnel – what has become abundantly clear when assessing the true impact of this pandemic, is that life has already changed. And will keep changing. How much and in which specific ways is hard to predict.

This presents an incredibly challenging dilemma for almost all industries, especially manufacturing. How do you plan for the unplannable?

Speaking at the Manufacturing Innovation Summit in June, Dr Peter Colman – a partner at global consultancy firm Simon Kucher & Partners – said, “if you don’t have a plan and strategy for surviving and making money during Covid-19, it may be that you don’t get to see what ‘after COVID-19’ looks like”. But how?

The answer is simple. In concept at least. Unpredictability must become your strategy. Remaining agile enough to accommodate and respond to the unexpected, becomes the plan. You replace unknowns with what you might call ‘agile certainty’. And there is nothing better suited to supporting this approach than additive manufacturing.

Design, print, test, and invest when proven

Knowing exactly what to produce, how, and in what volume to meet customer demand to deliver optimal ROI is never an easy path to navigate – especially with shifting sands. But it can be both simplified and de-risked with AM.

Bart Van der Schueren is Chief Technology Officer at MaterialiseBart Van der Schueren is Chief Technology Officer at Materialise

The digital-first nature of AM means that the time taken to advance from concept stage to low volume runs for acceptance testing, can be dramatically shortened for more responsive production. Rapid-iteration design, encompassing immediate market feedback and customer collaboration, then allows for cost-effective fine-tuning to establish a “known sellable”. This process delivers a much stronger market entry position and also avoids any costly retrospective changes that may otherwise be needed further down the line.

It is important to point out that AM does not necessarily need to be the end production medium of choice in this scenario. Alternatively manufacturers can, knowing their concept is proven, invest in other mediums and potentially more expensive tooling with the knowledge their solution is sound in current market conditions.

Depending on the product in question, keeping manufacturing AM-based post concept-stage does, however, allow even more flexibility in terms of design, potentially removing weight, component complexity and therefore potential cost. It has been said that price always trumps quality in times of crisis. Having the opportunity to offer both by virtue of the design freedoms linked to the additive process is not something to be underestimated.

Flexible supply chains: when spares and support go digital

No supply chain is certain or devoid of weak links, and the implementation of recent mobility freezes cast a particularly strong spotlight on the benefits of localized supply in this respect.

Many of the manufacturers to have maintained or gained ground in recent months, have been those with a supplier portfolio diverse enough to ensure local part provision and service support, and/or those who in turn could offer similar benefits to their onward customer base.

Image supplied by Materialise Image supplied by Materialise

Here again, Additive Manufacturing has a lot to offer in terms of replicating this benefit set, most noticeably in the form of digital spares.

Negating the need to stockpile key components, incurring purchasing, storage and resource expenses – potentially at a loss if demand for the end-product in question dips – digital assets (AM files) last as long as needed, can be adjusted when needed and can be used to print exactly the amount needed, in-house or locally at any given point in time. Indeed, manufacturers who 3D Print products can offer the same service forward; should logistics cut off provision to customers, the transfer of digital files for continued local supply is a valuable option.

In fact during the early days of the pandemic, we (Materialise) put this exact principal to work with the design, development and roll out of fully compliant medical device files in around 26 days. Files we were then able to share for localised printing to overcome any potential supply issues.

Another important point on this topic is that part designs – via virtual manufacturer/customer collaborations – can also be adapted rapidly in line with available suppliers and resources. The data held ensures core functionality is not compromised in the face of supply chain bottlenecks and/or complete blockages.

In short, the agility is there to flex the supply chain in line with requirements and manufacturing realities, whatever they may be.

Risk averse? Start small, think big

Avoiding unnecessary risk goes hand in hand with manufacturing during turbulent times. But this is often a risk itself and can lead to stagnation – a reluctance to move forward with opportunity and/or invest in development. This doesn’t have to be the case.

Small scale production

I mentioned earlier about how AM could be used to de-risk product development by cost-effectively enabling market acceptance testing. What AM also supports however, is cost effective short run production – especially when you factor in the digital spares scenario.

This has two important benefits. Reactive and proactive. Firstly, it maintains that crucial agility and the associated certainty of being more easily able to adapt and react to changing demands/conditions – for instance if demand for a specific product line suddenly drops or customer specifications change.

Secondly, and perhaps most interestingly depending on how things settle post COVID-19, it opens up more proactive potential. Because some of the biggest opportunities, in say automotive or aerospace, are going to lie in the development and supply of crucial components needed on a much smaller scale. Those able to meet this challenge while protecting ROI will stand-out from the crowd.

Production line practicalities

On the subject of short run manufacturing (whether planned or reactive) and de-risking, it’s interesting to focus on production lines for a second. Here too AM can deliver much needed agile certainty, maximise existing investment and avoid unnecessary expense.

The key for businesses here is to identify small investments that can really add big value and flexibility. We’ve seen the impact this approach can have many times with the manufacturers we support and advise – from large multi-nationals to small independents.

3D printing a gripper that can accommodate a greater range of shapes and part sizes, for instance, or a variety of different connecting points for a core jig structure, can avoid having to rip out and replace whole production line components should demands/needs shift.

De-risk digitalisation

Digitalisation is another area to examine more closely when talking about de-risking manufacturing.

For the past few years, Industry 4.0 and the rise of digitalisation has been one of the most dominant themes in manufacturing. That won’t disappear. In fact, digitalisation can deliver many of the efficiencies, not to mention quality and cost control mechanisms, that could really help manufacturers at this time. The daunting thing about this? Investment.

But what’s important to remember is that digitalisation is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Neither are its benefits dependent on large scale investment. Once again, it can often be a case of identifying small changes that can deliver big value.

To illustrate this, let’s stick with the production line theme a moment, there are inevitably tools and components that need to be replaced more often than others due to their function and associated wear. Switching to a 3D printed digital spares model in such cases avoids the supply chain risk and storage costs previously mentioned. It can also significantly limit damaging downtime. Small digital change, big business value.

A grander form of digital adoption may indeed be warranted. For instance, we work with a number of manufacturers whose part design, ordering and delivery system is entirely digitised and deeply embedded in work processes. There is a sliding scale, yes, but the initial question is always the same. What change will deliver most value?

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Reference to digitalisation raises one final point that is also worth making. Times are changing. But that doesn’t mean big global trends that existed pre COVID-19 have disappeared. In many cases, quite the opposite.

Image supplied by MaterialiseImage supplied by Materialise

Last year, manufacturers the world over were focussed on adapting to a world where the environmental performance of end-products, and associated credentials of comprising components, was increasingly business critical. 2019 also saw many manufacturers looking more closely at their health and safety measures – especially around workplace protocols.

These are two major trends that, in my view, will actually be supercharged by recent events. What that means exactly is still to be determined. What isn’t is the fact that AM can help. In all the ways I’ve highlighted. Because AM supports agility and at the moment, agility is king.

Talk to the advisory team at Materialise Mindware to discover how additive manufacturing can support agile operations for your business.