Ask a user of additive manufacturing about this technology’s advantages, and the answer will almost certainly focus on the part. A production process that uses 3D printing—building the form in layers—expands design freedoms and enhances the efficiency of material use. But according to Jeff Hanson, these benefits are only the beginning. An altogether greater set of advantages largely has not been experienced yet, because 3D printing for production is still so young. As additive manufacturing spreads, he says, it will transform not just parts, but also supply chains.
Hanson is the business development manager for RedEye On Demand, a company offering a preview of that transformation. As the contract manufacturing business unit of Stratasys, RedEye is essentially a factory for making contract parts using Stratasys machines. While most users of additive manufacturing have one or two 3D printers, or maybe five or six, RedEye has 85 such machines in its Minneapolis-area facility. These fused deposition modeling machines make prototype and end-use plastic parts, and seeing the clockwork way they do this provides a glimpse of manufacturing to come.
Part of what that glimpse shows is just how unpredictable today’s production methods are when it comes to scheduling. For example, injection molding involves setup times for mold machining that are long and highly variable, compounded by further delay for shipping the mold to the molder. The resulting production timetable is downright squishy. By contrast, Hanson says the production time for a 3D-printed part is a direct function of that part’s volume, which CAD can precisely compute. As a result, a customer ordering parts through RedEye’s online interface knows exactly when the parts will ship, because the system compares the requirements of the part model to the facility’s production schedule in real time.
The implications are huge. Tightly predictable scheduling provides greater control for the customer, along with a lot less wasted cost. An OEM today that is assembling various plastic parts might use various mold shops and molders to coordinate deliveries. With digitally predictable production, that same OEM could use just one supplier, and could simply choose the timing at which any and all of the components appear. Work-in-process inventory is reduced, and mold tooling inventory goes away.
In fact, choosing the timing can even reduce the direct cost of 3D printing. Because RedEye’s algorithm charges more for urgent production, a customer selecting a delayed delivery date can see the quoted price automatically reduced.
When the tight scheduling of additive manufacturing is combined with the lack of heavy tooling, one further advantage of this production is the ease with which it can be coordinated across distances. RedEye’s 3D-printing capacity is actually 125 machines, once global partnerships in Belgium, Turkey and Australia are taken into account. If the Minnesota capacity is maxed out, overflow work can be sent to these far-away machines—typically without the customer knowing or caring that this is happening. In this way, the factory of the future permits offshoring or reshoring to occur at a moment’s notice, simply by sending the data.