The supply chain continues to be a story for additive manufacturing, especially with the recent news from President Biden on the new AM Forward initiative. I recently interviewed Dave Evans, CEO of Fictiv, to discuss AM and the supply chain, among other subjects.
Here are highlights from the interview.
The AM initiative
It’s great to see support from the government that fosters reshoring and manufacturing in the US. The additive industry is a beacon for many on how to bring in industry 4.0 and digitization into manufacturing. Of note was the focus on small and medium-sized manufacturers, “which really is the base of our manufacturing ecosystem here in the United States,” says Evans. “Any way that we can help that base of manufacturers be more productive, more technology advanced, I think will only help to grow the ecosystem. It’s that infrastructure that we need in the US to continue to foster building here in America.”
Digitization of additive manufacturing and the supply chain
“I think that digitization is a buzzword,” notes Evans. “I’d break it down in a couple of ways. As we think about this announcement of what the Biden administration has put forward, I think that additive can play a critical role in speeding up many manufacturing processes in a traditional shop. So, it’s not about making an end-use part necessarily out of pure additive. You will need other processes, including subtractive. I think digital can help speed up a lot of all the operations and secondary operations that go into making an end-use part. That’s one way to look at digital.
“A second way involves how you work with partners.”
Fictiv, for example, brings technology and software into small and medium-sized manufacturing facilities to help speed up their processes. Quality practices, for example, can leverage software to do documentation for measurements, including GD&T. A number of offerings photograph in-process steps to track the end product.
“One of the cool features is that all of this can be done on the mobile phone of the operator,” notes Evans. “Such a feature reduces the number of computer stations and can help shrink networking needs. It’s a way of leveraging technology already in that ecosystem, but giving them software to speed up processes and really work alongside them.”
Another tool in the toolbox
Increasingly, additive is being viewed as a needed tool for manufacturing, and less as a replacement for traditional manufacturing technologies and processes.
“I think a lot of people in the early days, when I was an engineer being told that a 3D printer would be all I’d need, I’m like, they’re telling me that this is going to replace injection molding? I never bought that vision. Call me a skeptic. And I still don’t buy it. I think of it as a tool in your tool chest, and you pull out that drawer, and there’s a time and place to use additive for that reason. And there’s times where that additive part is better than a urethane casted part or an injection molded part or maybe even a machined plastic. And there’s other times where it actually can accelerate the steps in making a final part. So, leverage how additive can speed up some part of your development process. Not replace, it’s really in addition to.”
Education on additive capabilities
“I think that at the rate that additive continues to grow, because there’s so much money being invested in here all the time, you really have to continue reading and educating yourself. If you really want to understand the best material properties or a faster way of maybe printing or growing a part, you have to continue educating yourself. It’s the same as if you’re studying lightweight polymers for aerospace, like the material science that’s going on there, you have to continue to stay educated.
Advances in design software
Most additive vendors are introducing software to their product mix, or are working with established CAD and simulation vendors. But having an actual functional prototype is still needed.
“Here’s an example. I started out as a mechanical engineer. I cut my teeth at Ford. I was building infotainment systems, dashboards of cars. So think about all the buttons, knobs, switches on your Mustang, your Ford Fusion. Those are all things I got to work on in my career. This was in 2010, 2011.
But if you were designing things in the ’80s and ’90s, you would build physical prototypes of what these items looked like. You interacted physically, because our computation wasn’t very good then.
At Ford, it was all PowerPoint presentations, meaning you’d make digital designs, take screenshots, rip them out, put them in some type of presentation, and we are talking about the simulation of this. But for me, simulation could only go so far then.”
I see a swing now, I would say, in the last decade, where the ability to go from an idea to digital to then a physical part, that has never been faster. And I still think that there’s nothing that can replace two mating parts coming together, seeing how they function, feel, click, snap.
While CAD is great in the simulation, the speed at which you can have a physical product on your desk, nothing replaces that. So I think simulation for DFM is good, but I still think physical parts on your desk, if you can do that with real speed and high quality, I think nothing replaces that.
The merging of simulation, CAD, and additive
Evans sees these technologies coming together, probably as one solution.
A while ago, the CAD was powerful, but the ability to simulate and see the actual manufacturing process, that was basically nascent. Now, we can build a digital twin, a full simulation of how this part will be manufactured. Combine that with a look at all different ways a part can be made, and the designer is looking at a number of potential combinations.
“What’s happening is a merging of simulation with CAD software to say, how do you build this high-quality product,” says Evans. “That if you need this very tight, tolerance-specific feature, well, your lead time goes like this, or your cost might do this, or hey, you need a special cutter, a CNC tool actually made to make this feature. And you can do that, but here are the implications of it. That’s the power of simulation. Now, you can know exactly what you’re buying up front. I think that’s the merging of simulation with physical prototyping, and you get a high-quality product out the other end.
Fictiv, for example, runs a full computational geometry analysis on how a part will get made. On a bearing mount, that will mean running a full tool path on it. How many cutters are used? What’s the machine time? What is the material removal rate in a 4140 material versus, say, a 6061 aluminum? All of that’s being done on its software.
How additive can enhance agility and resiliency in the supply chain
“For a long time, many supply chain professionals were responding, ‘Well, if this happens and if this happens,’ and they built things like Monte Carlo scenarios of all these ifs, and that was five years ago. Today, it’s actually, ‘When this tornado hits, or when this ship is stuck in the LA port, or when the Suez Canal won’t allow ships to pass.’ So, we’re out of the “if” moment into the “when” moment. Everyone needs to build geographic resiliency into their models. You cannot be overly concentrated on one region.
“I think there’s a lot of ways digital can help. We spend a lot of time working with supply chain professionals on the topic of geographic resiliency.
“I think additive, for a long time, has been the beacon of hope. But I think that additive is only one aspect of a digital playbook that you need to have. While I think Fictiv is a chapter of a digital playbook, you should be looking at other tools, like Flexport, which is the digitization of logistics. And I think that what Ryan has built, they’ve digitized the entire logistics space. You need to have all these digital layers to your resiliency playbook. So, yes, additive is great. But I think that we should be thinking about how other digital solutions can drive this result we need, which is resiliency or agility in our supply chains or our products.
As for the near future, Evans sees advances in data handling aiding the shift to more digital manufacturing.
“Think back 10, maybe 15 years ago,” he says. “If you wanted to build your software or your website, you would build using on premise server racks. That was your only option. So you’d have a whole bunch of servers. You’d calculate what your load capacity was. You’d hire an IT department, which would run those servers for you. And you’d just pray that something wouldn’t happen and crash your website. And you try to design for those spikes.
“Fast forward to today, and nobody is thinking about their website going down anymore. Nobody is thinking about load balancing because it all runs on the cloud, Azure, AWS, and so on.
“If you take this same analogy to the supply chain, today we are still running on ‘on-premise server racks.’ That ‘IT department’ is the supply chain, and they are doing their best with bubble gum and shoestring to hold together this network all of the suppliers. And now this group is leveraging new tools like additive to digitize portions of the supply chain, so kind of moving it to the cloud. What I would say is if you look at this whole new suite, if you’re adding additive, if you’re putting robotics into your facility, you’re starting to make this transition to the cloud, which is one where you actually have agility. You have real resiliency that’s built in.
“Here’s an example of this. In Q1 this year, in Shenzhen, overnight, this was like late February, the whole city shut down due to COVID. More than seventeen million people, like that, could not leave their homes. Just locked down. A lot of customers would have received calls from all their suppliers in Shenzhen, that would say delivery would be delayed and they wouldn’t know when it would happen.
For us, we had 249 work orders that were in production in that region on that Monday when we came in. Within 24 hours, all 249 work orders were moved out of that region to new manufacturers through our digital system, and we had near zero impact to lead time or cost for our customer base. I mean, some of them didn’t even get a phone call because they didn’t know that their work was moved. It just was like, ‘Your parts are going to arrive on May 15th, and it’s still on schedule.’ But behind the scenes, all those work orders are getting shifted to new factories. That is like AWS. That is like a digital ecosystem that your website just stays up. It’s resiliency. So that’s why I think more companies should consider adopting this type of resiliency, versus the old way. We’ve done it in computing with server racks, and it’s time that we do it in supply chain as well.
Final tips are:
–think about your digital playbook.
–think about the gaps and how they can be plugged.
–and if you’re not adopting digital, you’re going to be left behind. Digital is not a luxury. It’s a must to move forward.