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The impact of 3D printing on manufacturing and making sure your IT infrastructure is ready

06/27/2013

Of all the disruptive technologies that have influenced manufacturing in this evolutionary era, 3D printing is one of the most exciting. In a span of only 30 years, it has gone from a drawing board vision to making a significant impact on manufacturers of various sizes—and in multiple industries. It’s far from being a futuristic fad.

Infor recently held a webinar on the topic of 3D printing with a panel discussion on preparing your ERP infrastructure for such disruptive technologies. A companion survey also polled attendees on their current adoption and predictions for how they would leverage 3D printing in the near future.

Although 60% of respondents said they are not currently using 3D technology at all, 10% said it is a significant part of their business and 4% went as far as to say it is critical to their business.

How has this technology made such an impact so quickly? What has caused manufacturers, often cautious about capital investments, to embrace this technology, even while it is still in early maturity cycles? The answer, it seems, lies in the substantial benefits and that 3D applications address some of the most pressing issues manufacturers face: the need for fast, cost-effective product introductions.

Customers demand new products faster, whether it is automobiles, toasters, ketchup, or medical imaging equipment. Speeding product introductions is one of the top tactics manufacturers use to drive revenue growth. Yet it is one of the most daunting, high-cost efforts a manufacturer faces (5 Key Factors in Optimizing Complex Manufacturing Businesses, June, 2013, Infor). Bringing new products to market and the high cost of development, prototyping and testing are critical issues, ones in which manufacturers are willing to invest.

This is where 3D printing comes to the rescue and why it has so readily been embraced by manufacturers. Speeding product introduction is commonly recognized as the most obvious benefit of this technology. In the Infor survey, 20% of respondents said they thought 3D printing would speed prototyping and testing and another 16% said it would enhance innovation and creative product engineering. 

Indeed, prototyping is one of the benefits—but just one of many, according to Greg Elfering, vice president of sales, production printers, and healthcare solutions with 3D Printing, and guest speaker in the Infor webinar. Elfering explained that applications are actually far-ranging, from biocompatible products—like custom-fit dental implants and prosthetic limb devices—to durable metal products which need to withstand critical high pressure situations—like cockpits of jet fighters.

As Elfering elaborated on other current applications, he dispelled a common misconception that 3D printing is limited to small sizes and plastic materials. In fact, 3D printing also includes producing metal pieces and finished items of varying sizes. The versatility of the processes—which include fused deposition modeling, ink jet printing, and laser sintering—is what has brought the power of 3D printing to practical use—from the home workshop to the factory floor.

Industries which have been early adopters of the technology, according to Elfering, include:

Aerospace

  • Exotic materials—less waste w/additive process 
  • High value; relatively low volume

Dental/Medical

  • Dental, prosthetics, fillings
  • Mass customization; low volume

Automotive

  • Unique fabrication of repair parts
  • Fabrication of tooling and prototypes

Consumer specialty

  • Jewelry, toys, lampshades

Although a growing number of manufacturers are incorporating 3D printing—or plan to in the near future—there are still some barriers to adoption. According the survey conducted by Infor, the top barrier (sited by 30%) is lack of understanding of the process and benefits. That is closely followed by 26% saying cost of equipment is the primary barrier.

Perceived costs is one the issues addressed by Elfering during the webinar. Often, total cost of ownership is, in fact, lower, he said, providing examples where factoring time/materials made the 3D option far more economical. This is especially true in industries, such as aerospace and defense, where the piece being produced is of critical specifications, one-time usage, or exotic materials where waste can be costly. The variety of types of printing units available also adds to the cost effectiveness, making the technology accessible to small businesses well as large companies. Personal 3D printers can be as low as $1,300 to $20,000. Professional units can cost up to $250,000, while the most advanced, high-performance units capable of printing larger sizes and volumes will carry a price tag of around $950,000.

Although lower total cost of ownership is a benefit, the remarkable speed seems to be the primary advantage for manufacturers who are racing against the clock to beat competitors to market with new innovations. Since quality and specification compliance is near identical to traditionally built items, the units produced “overnight” by 3D printers can be used for engineering planning, consumer research, and product testing without requiring the time and expense of complete line set up and tooling. The savings of time, effort, and materials is tempting. 

This may be why 36% of the respondents say 3D printing is a part of their future—whether they are currently researching applications (28%) or actively pursuing and plan to implement soon (6%). While 16% are current users of 3D printing, that still leaves half of all respondents in the “wait and see” camp.    

When it comes to predicting impact on their business, respondents were fairly certain this technology is one that will be an influencing factor, with 52% saying they expect it to have a moderate impact and 20% predicting a major impact. Another 14 % hold steadfast to “little or no impact” on their business, and an equal amount (14%) admits they are unsure.  

For those delaying action or remaining skeptical, concern over the compatibility of the IT infrastructure and how to integrate product lifecycle management (PLM) and CAD systems and ERP solutions may be one of the underlying concerns. Survey results show 34% thinks their current IT system will likely need modifications before it can take on 3D printing, and 16% are sure their current system is inadequate.

From the Q/A session during the Infor webinar, it seems connecting 3D systems to other IT solutions is one of the top issues manufacturers face as they explore how to incorporate this technology into their total manufacturing processes. Past experiences have taught manufacturers that total integration is the key to full visibility and streamlined activities.

Navin Kulkarni, Infor technology strategist, addressed these issues and offered insights about the value of flexible architecture. As he explained, manufacturers—if they want to keep pace with new disruptive technologies—need to make sure their ERP solution is flexible and easily adopts new applications.

Kulkarni then explained the concept behind Infor ION, the middleware which allows Infor ERP solutions to communicate and share data with other Infor systems and other third-party solutions and systems, including machines. This highly flexible integration capability allows manufacturers to take advantage of best-of-breed solutions while maintaining total visibility.  

For example, manufacturers deploying 3D printing will want to make sure they have advanced, integrated PLM systems so they can control the entire innovation and product introduction in a streamlined and cost effective manner. In other words, a manufacturer needs to be able to bring the 3D process, including data from the 3D printer, its performance, costs and production status into the overall system. It should not operate in an isolated silo. Visibility into performance and status is always critical in manufacturing. This doesn’t change just because the piece of equipment is creating one-of-a-kind parts or prototypes.

Flexible ERP solutions allow manufacturers to manage the complexity of new product introductions plus track and control costs associated with new processes, such as using 3D printing for prototypes or parts.

Infor ERP solutions utilize open architecture and the language of the internet—HTML—to give manufacturers this ultimate flexibility.

Advantages include:

  • Manage bill of materials and routing with ease.
  • Optimize planning and scheduling (including incremental changes of jobs running).
  • Ensure cost-effective procurement of raw materials—planning, purchasing execution.
  • Engineering change management—ties to tool CAD/tool paths.
  • Track project-based manufacturing (scheduling, costing, and production).
  • Integrate the entire PLM process
  • CAD to PLM and then to ERP (ensure proper version/design).
  • Optimize design for cost.
  • Control shop floor processes and activities/SCADA.
  • Maintain open visibility to shop floor machines.
  • Analyze production data in detail.

Preparing your IT infrastructure for disruptive technologies is one of the first steps a manufacturer should take when considering deploying a new process like 3D printing. With the fill power of an advanced ERP system behind this technology, the manufacturer can be sure of prompt attention to details, cost-effective decisions, and fast response to customer demands. Most importantly, innovation and new productions—so important to remaining competitive today—will be managed with ease and cost efficiency.

With the proper IT infrastructure in place, manufacturers will be closer to obtaining the positive results they anticipate. According to the Infor survey 32% agree with the statement: “I am convinced this technology will have a major impact on the manufacturing industry.” Another 56% agree with: “I’m excited and optimistic about the prospects.”

Indeed, it is new era in manufacturing. Technology breakthroughs happen at remarkable speed. Having the supporting infrastructure is essential and begins with flexible ERP, such as Infor provides manufacturers.

 More resources:

 Posted by Warren Smith, Director of Global Automotive Market Strategy, Infor

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