Reconsidering the software integration process for additive manufacturing operations
28 April 2017
We live in a truly connected world. Everything from our phones to our televisions and cars is now online, bringing together many disparate areas of our daily lives and how we do business. The concept of an ‘internet of things’ has gained increasing currency, and more and more companies across the industrial sector are looking to bring disparate systems and processes together to optimise their overall efficiency and productivity. As a result, effective software integration tools and processes must be considered.
So how does this affect the world of additive manufacturing?
Bringing together the different elements of a successful additive manufacturing operation
A typical additive manufacturing operation requires numerous software tools to perform at its best. For example, there will be a system for receiving customer requests (potentially multiple systems, to accommodate different channels), one for CAD analysis/repair, one for production management… The list goes on. A fully integrated approach, where all these systems are optimised and interconnected will make your project workflows far more efficient, with no effect on the quality of your 3D printed parts.
For example, with multiple independent systems, any transfer of data will probably need to be handled manually — exported from one system, converted into a different format and uploaded into the next system. Not only does this create a risk of data becoming redundant, inconsistent or error-prone, it also creates an unnecessary layer of administrative work. With an well-considered software integration solution, the transfer of data could be automated where appropriate, freeing your teams of this administrative burden, while providing them with peace of mind that all project data is consistent, accurate and secure.
Our approach to stress-free software integration
At RP Platform, we regularly work with companies who have well-established systems that they would like to retain, while still implementing new tools to enhance their overall efficiency and productivity. The good news is that it’s not a case of choosing one or the other. With the right support and consultation, we have found that most integrations with our platform are achievable.
Rather than replacing existing systems altogether (which frequently proves impractical when they are well-established within a company) the goal is to optimise their capabilities and incorporate new tools to meet the specific challenges of additive manufacturing projects.
While the software integrations we have designed and implemented for our clients are highly varied, they typically encompass two main areas:
- Back-end integration. This involves effective integration of our software with the client’s preferred ERP or CRM system. For example, we recently managed a large-scale integration with the SAP platform for a global client, ensuring all customer and project data gathered through our platform could be automatically imported into their systems, allowing their teams to make full use of our quote generation, CAD analysis/repair and production management tools while maintaining their well-established processes and fully centralised data.
- Front-end integration. This is about maintaining continuity, ensuring our solution reflects the client’s established brand and offers a consistent user experience for all customers. To achieve this, we will engage directly with the client to ensure their branding has been communicated and understood, and their IT team to achieve consistency across all areas of the online portal and customer dashboards we will create. Alternatively, for classrooms or internal production departments, this would involve customising the platform for internal rather than customer use — something we recently undertook for a leading school of design in Oslo.
The system integrations we put into place will incorporate elements of both models, along with measures to capture and maintain any offline processes and systems the company has in place. It’s all a questions of listening and remaining flexible. No two companies will have identical processes, requirements or long-term goals, so no two system integrations will ever be the same, making early consultation a crucial foundation for long-term success.
Working with the most popular ERP and CRM systems
ERP and CRM systems have become a key part of many companies’ daily operations — something that is unlikely to change any time soon. The good news is that the most popular platforms — such as SAP and Microsoft Navision — are eminently customisable, which means we are well-placed to integrate our platform with them while retaining any tailored elements that have already been implemented.
As AM technology evolves, we’re sure to see new innovations in the way different platforms are integrated. This should not be thought of as an optional extra when designing workflows — with the increasing sophistication of process and technology for additive manufacturing, it’s more important than ever that all elements are brought into alignment if they are to run smoothly.
At the time of writing, we are in the process of developing a new approach to integrating RP Platform with our clients’ internal email systems. This will help maintain complete consistency for the management of customer requests received in this way, allowing quotations to be generated and data captured in exactly the same way as requests received through company websites, with no manual import required.
This is very much an ongoing process at RP Platform. Technology, materials and best practice in the field of AM is evolving day by day, so the complementary software solutions need to evolve in parallel with them. We will continue to work closely with our clients to identify the tools that will prove most useful to forward-thinking companies and — equally importantly — develop the software integration processes needed to ensure their successful implementation.