The First Step of Any Successful Additive Manufacturing Project…30 January 2017
Whatever the nature and scale of a project, the delivery of quality 3D-printed components always begins in the same way: with a clear, accurate customer request. Unfortunately, many additive manufacturing specialists have found that rapid prototyping projects often experience problems at their very earliest stages due to incomplete manufacturing requirements, data errors, or product specifications that will not be possible to print.
These might be technical errors in the submitted CAD file that will render the part unprintable. Alternatively, there may be a lack of clarity regarding the prototype’s purpose, which can easily lead to an inappropriate choice of material or orientation during printing, leaving it unsuitable for its intended use.
Such issues can be caused by data being submitted in an unsuitable format, human error when assembling and checking the file data, or key information being left out due to miscommunication between the customer and their additive manufacturing bureau. So what can be done to avoid these problems?
First of all, consider which method of gathering requests will be most appropriate for both you and your customers. For unusual projects with quite specific details, it may be best to take requests via email and initiate a process of consultation with the customer to establish the details of the project and ensure the correct data is gathered in the correct format. This early consultation could be perceived as a value-add service for the customer, but will frequently be essential if costly mistakes are to be avoided.
For projects that are initiated via email, it is important that a clear process for workflow management is established well in advance. This should include steps for importing all data received into the appropriate internal systems and tracking each step of the project, from optimising data quality to delivering the finished product. In particular, consider the purpose of the printed prototype; how will this affect the materials used, the part orientation during printing, and any post-processing services that will be required? This should be captured in all documentation for customer requests at the outset of the project, regardless of the format in which you are taking requests.
It is now possible to automate much of the process for customer requests — an increasingly attractive option for many additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping bureaus who handle large repeat orders from their customers. Many customers will appreciate being able to send requests and receive quotes online, at their convenience, and it often helps boost internal efficiency. However, this ease of use must never be allowed to come at the expense of data accuracy and optimisation. An online customer request form should be more than just a space to upload a CAD file — it should incorporate all the information needed for the RP bureau to establish the most suitable material and part orientation for printing. This must be followed by a rigorous process for checking and repairing the uploaded files.
There are two ways approach checking online customer requests: either forwarding requests to team members to manually check the quality of data and engage directly with the customer if there are any concerns, or utilising an automated checking/repairing function. The latter is a useful solution for routine orders, where the primary concern is data errors creeping into a familiar design, but the former will likely be necessary for more unusual, one-off projects.
For example, thin walls or detailed features may well be an intentional part of the prototype’s design, so it is important that they are not interpreted as errors during the checking process. For such files, the checking process should focus on identifying and repairing holes, self-intersecting triangles, and any other errors that would make the prototype unprintable. In such cases, direct communication with the customer to ensure their project goals have been clearly understood and acted upon will be required. If projects of this sort are likely to arise regularly, it may be prudent to invest in an additive manufacturing software platform with the flexibility to manage both automated and manual requests.
Ultimately, there is no such thing as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution when it comes to optimising customer requests, so consider your requirements carefully and be ready to implement systems and solutions that reflect them. It’s quite possible, for example, that your ideal solution will involve a strategic blend of concepts, automating some parts of the process while maintaining a hands-on approach for others.
Above all, it is essential that providers of additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping services maintain the flexibility to take requests in whichever way best suits their customers’ projects and preferences. The result will be a better customer experience and a more efficient delivery process — the best of both worlds.
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