With the vast array of technologies now available to the manufacturer, it is often difficult to determine which solutions to pursue. High-performance resins, thermoplastics, composites and metals are now being used throughout production applications, but sometimes the thought of entering into additive manufacturing can seem overwhelming. So how does a company evaluate additive manufacturing, develop a list of technologies that best fit its business and properly integrate into its operations? Understanding how to navigate the sea of solutions and find those technologies is critical to identifying, implementing and executing for maximum performance.
The first essential step in the evaluation process is to examine the current and future states of the company. Resist the urge to prematurely commit to a particular technology and then attempt to find a solution for it within the company operations. Instead, perform a thorough review of your business processes—including supply chain, process capabilities, bottlenecks, quality and ergonomic issues, safety, and product offerings. By looking at the various areas of the business, the company can narrow its focus and identify the true areas in need of improvement.
Based on the focus areas defined, the next step is to determine the decision criteria for comparing additive technologies. This criteria could include a reduction in cycle time, improved tooling and/or part durability, inventory reduction, performance improvement, customization, cost savings, and many more. The key is to define clear deliverables and measurable attributes that will drive focus to a subset of technologies that can potentially deliver improvements and will allow direct comparison of these technologies through the initial, detailed, and benchmark evaluations. These deliverables should include classes of allowable materials (metals, polymers, etc.) as well as basic structural and dimensional requirements. Material properties such as strength, conductivity, thermal behavior, and density need to be defined. In addition, tolerances, repeatability, surface finish, and volume quantities need to be demonstrated and compared.
Once a company has narrowed the field to a select group of technologies, it is critical to determine where, how, and by whom the equipment will be operated. Will the machine be installed in an office, laboratory, or manufacturing floor environment? The requirements and facility preparations can vary substantially and need to be defined as part of the overall incorporation plan prior to purchase and installation. If the machine is to be installed in a laboratory or research facility, it is important to understand if special provisions are required to integrate with the surrounding equipment and/or operations. Lastly, the company must determine what type and skill set of employee will be operating this new technology. Either the current employees must be trained on proper operations, safety, and maintenance of the machine or experienced technicians or engineers must be brought in to facilitate incorporation.
Lastly, the company must determine what level of risk, both financial and operational, is best suited for its business. Bringing in a prototyping desktop printer has a very low risk/entry cost and its impact on operations is minimal. However, the inverse is true for a high-precision metal printer or hybrid machine where the entry point can exceed $1 million and the impact to operations can be severe if proper execution falls short of expectation. Therefore, it is essential that a company develops a sound business plan and decision process as well as teams together with industry professionals and support organizations to ensure success. Leveraging strengths both internally and externally will provide the foundation for success.
Additive manufacturing is revolutionary and an exciting area of manufacturing—one that will propel production manufacturing well into the future. Keys to the successful incorporation of additive manufacturing are deliberate, defined sets of goals and objectives, measurable criteria and review process, proper planning and execution, workforce training, and the leveraging of established industry experts.