Rising to the challenge

Securing, certifying and increasing production with additive manufacturing. By Lee-Bath Nelson

Be it due to a breakage or malfunction of tooling or a part, if you’re a manufacturer, you will likely acknowledge that it’s not unusual for one or more production line(s) to be down, waiting for a replacement item at any given time.

Fortunately, with additive manufacturing (AM) / 3D printing, there are ways to minimise this downtime, especially, but not only, when the culprit is tooling.

The cost of an idle line is very high. How high depends on the industry. In the food industry, for example, the costs can be hundreds of thousands of pounds a day, while in the automotive industry the number is close to £17,000 a minute per line. That’s over £1 million an hour. No wonder manufacturing managers will go to great lengths to get lines back up and running quickly. In extreme cases, they may fly someone to get a spare part and return with it on an additional purchased seat. The reliability, consistency, and predictability of tools and spare parts is key for avoiding such measures. Not only can AM help, it’s also more affordable than an airfare for two.

With AM, manufacturers can quickly and cost-effectively 3D print tools on demand at or near their facility. An inventory of one is also possible to make the switch even faster and still replenish with AM. This ensures the line is down for the absolute minimal time and a replacement tool is on hand at any time – something simply not possible with any other manufacturing technology.

The great thing about tools is that they are designed and controlled by the manufacturer so the move to AM is an internal decision. Providing the tools are produced in a consistent manner, this move will reduce the cost of tooling and lower the line’s downtime – a win-win situation. For tools that need replacing often, it’s possible to go a step further and keep one or two 3D printed tools on hand, and when they’re being used, 3D print another.

A breed a part
AM can also help overcome other production line headaches like missing spare parts, which are another major cause of unproductive lines. Unlike tooling, machinery manufacturers own the designs of these parts, and they can offer them as digital assets that can be consistently produced on demand and in limited quantities close to their production line.

Such an approach can significantly reduce downtime. Some hardware manufacturers may go even further. In some cases, AM can produce a replacement part but it is not as robust as a part manufactured in the traditional way. In this case, the equipment manufacturer can offer a 3D printed emergency spare part to keep the line going until the regular part arrives. Like this, two short part replacement efforts can avoid weeks of downtime. The key is to get the line back up quickly without compromising quality. This comes down to consistent, repeatable tools and parts (across time and across production lines).

Thankfully, there are Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions that can protect such items from being altered, output on the wrong printer or accessed by an unauthorised party. This ensures correct, repeatable, and consistent production of the tool or part, which is a necessary ingredient to the shared goal of manufacturing managers everywhere: a functional line that’s always (or almost always) running!

Certification – the more things change, the more they stay the same
In addition to its ability to help minimise downtime, a fundamental benefit of AM is its inherent flexibility that allows for the manufacturing of different parts and products, sometimes on the same printer bed. This flexibility is great for innovative design and solutions but creates a challenge when it comes to certification – something that is a must in many industrial sectors, at various levels.

Typically, within the sphere of conventional manufacturing, normal practice is to certify the production line of the particular part or product made on it. The line is then used only for the certified production of this specific part. In most manufacturing techniques, this is a one-time certification that can last for up to a year and permits the line to produce the certified part during that period. To complete the part’s certification, the material the part is made of is also usually certified as a prerequisite. In conventional manufacturing, certifying the material and the production process can be enough to certify the product. In more exacting certification cases, the workflow and other components (including, potentially, the people handling the workflow) must also be certified.

This kind of certification is sufficient for two main reasons: first, the material entering the process corresponds in a unique way to the material of the final item. That’s to say that, it’s either the same material (as in CNC) or it is a material with predictable properties (as in injection moulding or casting). Second, mass manufacturing lines typically produce the same part continually without interruption. Once the line is certified, you can’t change 11anything (and typically don’t need to). And, if the line is changed over to a different part, it is re-certified when returning to the specific part.

Changing the game
None of this is true for AM, where the machine settings can and do change from one bed to the next. In addition, it’s often the case that parts being produced will constantly change. It does not make sense to go through a certification process for each bed, nor does it make sense (except in mass manufacturing such as teeth aligner molds) to limit a machine to one part – this robs AM of a big advantage (no switching cost and minimal batch size of one) and increases the cost of said part manifold. Also, changing the machine settings – and even the pre-processing of the item – can change the material characteristics of the actual part produced. This means that certification for AM needs to rethought with the specific characteristics of the technology in mind.

The good news is that you can certify an AM protocol for a particular part, and with the right kind of SaaS solution you can enforce this protocol throughout the workflow every time the part is produced. This will give you tracking (essentially an audit trail) that will allow you to demonstrate that the part was produced according to the certified protocol with the certified raw material to yield a certified part.

Indeed, for those companies producing more than one kind of part using AM technologies, investigating such software solutions is a necessity in order to track complex production easily and make sure certification is adhered to. There is no doubt that the flexibility and efficiency-enhancing aspect of additive manufacturing will continue to be attractive to manufacturers. Providing the right steps are taken and relevant software solutions are in place to support the integration of this exciting technology, I think it is safe to say it will continue to enhance traditional manufacturing.

Lee-Bath Nelson
Lee-Bath Nelson is Co-Founder and VP Business at LEO Lane, an Israel-based business that empowers industrial manufacturers to securely and consistently manage consistent additive manufacturing, anywhere anytime, using the company’s cloud-based SaaS solution.