Let’s talk about 3D printing.
But not the desktop 3D printers that sell for a few hundred bucks at any online retailer and basically allow you to make super-fancy paperweights.
No, let’s talk about industrial 3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM) as it’s more commonly known.
Even in the past three to five years, we’ve seen incredible advances in the capabilities of AM and the prevalence of it in manufacturing settings – and not just for prototyping, but for actual production of parts.
Many automotive OEMs have found AM to be particularly powerful in tooling, for creating parts with high cap rates to reduce hot spots, and for manufacturing widgets that are hard to assemble and can bottleneck manufacturing operations.
Unfortunately, adopting AM isn’t as easy as buying a printer, hooking it up and hitting “print.” It requires a lot of work to integrate successfully into your operations.
Where to Begin
AM is much more than a hardware implementation. It’s a form of digital transformation. As such, a successful implementation starts with a change of strategy informed by experience-based knowledge.
To generate that knowledge base, your AM journey will begin by creating a transformation team. This cross-functional internal group needs ambassadors from every aspect of your value chain – including both primary and secondary functions – as well as executive sponsors to champion your efforts.
This team will be responsible for identifying opportunities for AM, creating timelines for implementation and anticipating limitations.
A second group, the implementation team, will need to work closely with your transformation team.
The implementation team should be made up of individuals from management, supply chain, procurement, engineering and production, and its goal will be to bring your AM initiative to life. This team should work as an agile unit and have a strong grasp of your product portfolio.
Identify a Challenge AM Can Solve
Some automotive OEMs have achieved AM success by simply saying, “Show me what this can do.” However, it’s usually more effective to identify specific challenges AM can solve. The goal should be: “Show me how AM can solve this particular issue.”
For instance, perhaps you have a part made of multiple subcomponents that is time-consuming to assemble.
With AM, all those subcomponents can become one consolidated design – saving time and resources by eliminating individual production and assembly of several parts. Don’t let the size of the part deter you. Today’s industrial 3D printers can accommodate larger projects. For example, you could probably print a dashboard in two parts.
Crunch the Numbers and Celebrate Often
Before you fully commit to switching over your production, do the math.
Make sure AM is a cost-effective solution to the problem by conducting a Net Value Add analysis, which looks at the cost of AM production against the expected gains of using AM as a solution.
While there are numerous challenges AM can solve, it may not be the most cost-effective solution for a specific problem.
Remember to celebrate small victories. AM isn’t a new concept for engineers, but managers or clients may be skeptical of AM’s capabilities and lack trust in the final product.
Consider starting with a part that isn’t mission critical, such as a speaker grill or radio dial knob. Once you establish that trust, then move on to more complex use cases, such as engine components or battery housings.
Share the Wealth
Now that you’ve compiled the knowledge and applied it to a few use cases, begin sharing that knowledge more broadly internally. Host lunch-and-learns or information transfer sessions that teach and empower others to embrace and utilize AM within the organization.
Does AM seem daunting? It should – but with the right support and a thoughtful approach, a successful implementation is achievable. Better yet, AM can yield significant benefits that extend throughout your organization. If you need support, prioritize working with a partner that has proven experience helping businesses succeed at every step of the AM journey, from start to part.
Keep in mind the average AM rollout takes approximately five years. Every second you wait to begin your AM journey is time you’re falling further behind your competitors.
Jon Walker (above) is a business development manager for EOS, the global technology leader for industrial 3D printing of metals and polymers.