3D Printing in Manufacturing

Disruptive Technology: a new technology that completely changes the way things are done.

Cambridge University Dictionary

As a reluctant member of the millennial generation, I admit that disruptive technologies are a bit less shocking to me. As acclaimed futurist Ray Kurzweil claimed on the main stage of Explore, change is exponential. I was born in a period when exponential growth was in full stride, so while the changes are no less significant in objective measure the changes I saw at a young age were large, so my brain is desensitized.

That said, I can point to the specific point in time when I realized what a specific technology could mean to manufacturing.

3D Printing: Changing the Game for the Better

While working at a medical device manufacturer as an industrial engineer, one of my projects was to prototype a new fixture. Knowing the history of the fixture being replaced, I requested something that I could take to the shop floor and demonstrate. The next day a working model was brought to my desk. I was floored. At my previous place of work, the machine shop took two weeks to bring me a model, which severely limited our ability to get feedback from people who weren’t fluent in CAD. With the one-day turnaround model, we went through three design iterations and had a very enthusiastic group of operators in a week – in half the time, which is immeasurably more successful when end-user approval is considered. The difference here was that this model was created on a 3D printer. I was impressed enough that I worked countless overtime hours so I could purchase my own 3D printer, and shifted my master’s thesis topic to include deep research on how this might affect supply chains. Your natural question, “Michael, how is this different from rapid prototyping? Isn’t 3D printing just the common consumer’s term for RP?”

If you have spent any time considering 3D printing you probably won’t be surprised with the conclusion of my research: at the moment, it is no serious competitor to long-run, low-variability manufacturing; but applied correctly it can shift the short-run, high-variability scene. Every quarter sees a new advance in what materials can safely and consistently be used, how fast objects can be printed, how fine the specs can be and how tight the tolerances. Any environment can benefit from gaining on the time-to-market race (or suffer from late adoption), but organizations belonging to a vertical in which customization and/or specialization is common are susceptible to a shift in the entire supply chain model. Many manufacturers are the purchasers of custom tooling – how might your business change if you could bring that in-house or shift your supplier from a long lead-time shop to a 24/7 3D printing farm? Now picture yourself as the tooling provider.

Novelty to Necessity: Enabling Effective 3D Printing

How is 3D printing actually adopted? In addition to finding the right form of 3D printing technology, balancing the vendor vs rent vs purchase decision, transforming all your drawings into something a 3D printer can interpret and so on … you need to consider your information systems. QAD has the solutions for those challenges:

  • Item Attributes — 3D printing can support identical external structures with innumerable build structures. How do we keep a record in our system? Item Attributes is perfect for expanding the information you can collect around parts and their distinct manufacturing lots.
  • QAD Automation Solutions (QAS) — Now we have variations that are equal to the human eye but different in physical properties. How do we accurately track and identify them? Automation Solutions has you covered with label printing in any programming language, and data collection so your machines and/or end-users can instantly store and read attributes of that model and lot. Whether you want to apply adhesive labels, RFID tags or write directly into the object. AS has you covered.
  • QAD Configurator — We want to explore selling 3D printed objects to our customers and be leaders in specialization, how do we do this without manually creating a thousand Items and BOMs? QAD Configurator gives you the ability define options and let your end customer decide their own combination.
  • QAD Enterprise Platform — Let’s say we can we can deal with the manufacturing side of the technology and use all the aforementioned QAD capabilities, how do we scale this so we don’t burden our IT group and ERP users? The QAD Enterprise Platform, Interoperability services, and configurable definitions in QAD’s web-based Channel Islands interface give you the power and flexibility to expand your use of the ERP system. Rely on API-driven architecture that opens your options and reduces training time for end users.

Whether it’s 3D printing, Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things or your own new invention – disruptive technologies are expanding at a non-linear pace. QAD can be an ally and solution provider instead of just another tool to master. Get your running spikes out, the race has already started! I’d love to hear what you think about these as well as other disruptive technologies occurring around us. Leave a comment below so we can discuss!