As AM becomes more accepted as part of a manufacturing supply chain, it is altering the way engineers work and develop products. We recently had a conversation with Daniel Lazier, product marketing manager at Markforged.
Here are highlights from the interview.
Potential changes to the design process
One of the changes engineers can expect is to have greater control and empowerment at the point of need with 3D printers.
“Back in the day when I was a design engineer, the nature of my job was to create a design and then rely on a completely different and distinct set of resources, often outside of my business entirely, to make the part. And that might take weeks or months, depending on what the part was and what processes it was beholden to. I recall how frustrating that could be when the reality of your job, your timetable, and even your cost structure is dictated by someone completely outside of your business and outside of your control.
“The very nature of that job and that role changes when you’re empowered with equipment right on your desk,” continues Lazier. “In addition, the kind of components and parts that you rely on now can be produced right where you need them. And as an engineer, you are actually specifically involved with the creation of that part.
With 3D printing, designers can qualify a part all the way from prototype to production at a design lab or geographically distinct office, and then push that design to production where it may be pulled down by production resources somewhere completely different across the planet. This process is happening for a specific and growing band of use cases and applications, especially with printers like the Markforged Digital Forge, and other cloud manufacturing capabilities.
A new role for the design engineer
With 3D printing, you have more choice about how hands on you want to be with a design, depending on the organization, the individuals involved with manufacturing, and the roles and responsibilities of those individuals.
“What I thought engineering would be before I went to college, I assumed I would be involved in the process of actually creating my object. But the reality was, at least in 2015, when I started my career as an engineer, it was really hands off. I could go walk through the factory, and go see how the parts were being created. But when I was actually doing my job, it was all behind a computer screen.
“And the beauty of 3D printing today is I’m sitting in a room that’s like 10 by 12, and I have three 3D printers sitting behind me. Even as I’ve transitioned to a role that has less to do with engineering, the process of actually creating physical parts, and every little detail that goes into that, are completely under my control. And by extension, the people who make great designs and made those great designs, create it on great manufacturing platforms. Now it’s sort of reverted back to this reality where I am directly in control of creating that part, pulling it right off the printer and getting that hands-on feedback as to how my design worked out.
Engineers can be involved in the manufacturing process. If you’re a concept development engineer that’s making prototypes, you are interacting with the folks that are involved with mass production use cases in that you need to reflect manufacturability in the design of your final part. If you are, by contrast, directly involved with the creation of those manufacturing processes, then the nature of your very job is on that manufacturing line.
“And the trend we’re seeing is this emergence of humongous, gargantuan manufacturing plants of 9, 10 million square feet, where it could take almost an hour to walk from one end to the other. It doesn’t just matter that you have a 3D printer at the factory itself, it actually matters where in that factory you are, because it could take a while to walk that part from one place to another.
“We now see engineers, technicians and point managers alike, all converging on the point of the manufacturing line that needs that critical part and locating a printer as close to that, pushing that printer as far forward into that manufacturing challenge as possible.
“The biggest difference we see is in the role and the response. I talked a lot about the transition of the role and responsibilities of the individual engineer. The reality of the technician’s role and responsibilities change as well, where there’s less time doing the manual processes of clamping, fixturing, programming, doing all the things that it takes to get a successful part out of the CNC mill, and spending more time actually making parts, managing things from the digital level where those individuals are now empowered to make more parts for more people, solve more problems, which is a great transition to see as well.”
Challenges to AM within the supply chain
“One of the challenges we’re all facing right now is the coordination of distinct supply chains. There’s a small but growing wedge of production parts that can be produced on a 3D printer today, at least in economic and logistically feasible means. The challenge becomes, how do I get the rest of this part or this assembly or this add product produced at the point of need? And the really exciting part and trend we’re seeing emerging out of the pandemic is, manufacturers are by nature parallelizing their supply chains so that more parts are available in distinct, shorter supply chains.
“And while that may be potentially more expensive in the short run, it ends up being far more beneficial for manufacturers in the long run when they have the ability to more flexibly balance load, demand on specific discrete components of their supply chain, and then rely on the flexible components of the supply chain like 3D printing, additive manufacturing to fill in the gaps.
The supply chain, after the pandemic
Will the changes experienced with the supply chain over the last two years continue, or will it return to how it operated pre-pandemic?
“I think over the next few years, as we transition from pandemic to endemic, we right-size the really critical links of global supply chains, like shipping, trucking, warehousing, and we get to a new point of equilibrium where we’ve got the right resources to solve the right problems in manufacturing. I think we’ll see a sort of asymptotic releveling to something that looked a lot more like what it looked like in 2019.
“I think that said, manufacturers are going to clamp down on the specific use cases where we all mutually have found it’s more beneficial, both from a cost and lead time, to parallelize and have this flexibility. And something that might cost a little more in the short term to spool up, and in fact, things that people are investing in now that you can’t just throw in the garbage can, like in a new factory, we’re going to find new and more powerful ways to use these things and produce products with more flexibility, more customization, and ultimately more acceptance at the end-customer level. And I think those advantages are going to be here to stay and they’re going to be enduring.
Additive manufacturing is influencing the supply chain. At the extreme level, look at the U.S. military and how its supply chains have evolved.
“Even before the pandemic, they had some of the most austere supply chain challenges that you could imagine, needing to get a specific part or bracket somewhere in some desert in the middle of Kuwait where there are no roads, how do you get a part there? And we saw the military really treat 3D printing almost like, their terminology, not mine, 3D duct tape. I’m making something that’s sort of going to take the form of the object I need.
“In the case of Markforged, they were making really strong parts that conventionally could only be made of metal, but sort of coming in as this, I love that metaphor of this duct tape. The thing that solves the problem cheaply, quickly and efficiently that I can make at any time, at any point where it’s needed with the portability of the printers.”
3D printers can be rugged and work in hostile environments, as the military example shows.
“I did a little science experiment a while back. I actually wanted to see if I could 3D print while driving to a customer location. I was running a little under the gun and I needed to show them a demonstration part. At the time I was living in Los Angeles and I was driving down to Orange County, about a two-hour drive down a pretty, I’ll say bumpy Interstate 5 freeway. I hooked the printer up to my car battery. The printers are just so robust, reliable, and it bears mentioning, power-efficient, that throwing the thing in the back of my Honda Accord and getting a successful printout was really a no muss or fuss experience. Mileage may vary on the 3D printing on the road, I should probably disclaim.”