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28 July 2017 10:06
From Our CEO: Why it’s Time for Additive Manufacturing Software to Evolve
The additive manufacturing (AM) sector is currently enjoying a period of rapid innovation, in terms of both processes and technology. In particular, new software solutions allow for multiple processes, machines and software tools to be truly integrated — managed through a single, centralised platform. Once such a solution is in place, numerous opportunities to automate areas of the quotation, ordering and production processes will reveal themselves. The result: operational efficiency is enhanced, consistently high quality maintained, and a better customer journey helps build loyalty. All of this will help drive long-term business growth.
Some manufacturers are already embracing this new approach to managing additive manufacturing workflows. Others are more cautious, and prefer to stick with established, disconnected systems. The reason for this relatively slow uptake is that current software platforms have simply not been designed with additive manufacturing workflows in mind. They are not designed to effectively integrate with the range of software tools already used in a typical AM workflows (CAD packages, slicing software, etc.). Employing too many disconnected systems in a single project in this way will inevitably create inefficiencies.
So how can AM specialists go about establishing a software solution that accommodates the needs of their teams and customers alike? The way I see it, there are three ways to approach this:
Customising an established software platform for AM requirements
This approach allows AM companies to implement a proven solution, while still benefiting from an element of specialisation. The most well-established software platforms in the manufacturing sector are mature technology and are generally quite straightforward to integrate with other widely-used software, such as accounting packages. Alternatively, some have modules that can replicate the functionality of other software, providing an all-in-one solution.
However, even software designed with a certain level of customisation in mind, such as Microsoft Navision or SAP, is limited in how it can accommodate AM workflows. Most importantly, none of these platforms have any capability when it comes to reading and working with 3D data, so external programs will still be required for these workflows. Furthermore, many software companies are reluctant to rebuild a core product from the ground up to suit individual customers’ needs, as it will not usually provide a good return-on-investment from their point of view. Such intensive customisation will therefore prove prohibitively expensive, if it is feasible at all.
Building an in-house software platform from the ground up
On paper, this is certainly an option to consider for AM companies, as it means their software solution can be built according to their exact requirements, with no compromises. If successful, the resulting tools can potentially develop into a USP and core asset. However, achieving this requires the investment of considerable resources and software expertise, which can prove a challenge, even for larger companies who’re willing and able to invest millions in such projects.
Furthermore, the additive manufacturing sector is evolving at an ever-increasing pace, which means any software solutions put into place need to be able to evolve with it. This will require ongoing upkeep and development, which will translate into a considerable ongoing investment. In light of this, the potential benefits of this approach are unlikely to justify the time, effort and expense involved.
A specialist AM solution with the scope for customisation
This offers the perfect best-of-both-worlds solution: a software platform designed specifically for the additive manufacturing sector that can be tailored to suit individual business requirements. This allows companies to benefit from the advantages of each of the above approaches, while eliminating most drawbacks. A proven, well-established platform can be put in place, while maintaining the flexibility to tailor it to the user’s specific requirements for AM workflows. The result: a strong foundation for developing innovative solutions and helping companies differentiate themselves in the market.
This type of best-of-both-worlds solution should:
- Integrate seamlessly with existing back-end systems, including all the standard payment, finance and CRM/ERP systems
- Have strong CAD handling capabilities as part of its basic functionality, eliminating the need for additional investment in this area
- Be designed specifically for day-to-day AM operations, with hands-on input from industry specialists
- Be customisable, without large additional costs and time-consuming IT development
- Build brand loyalty by offering customer-focused tools, such as online dashboards to place and track orders
- Grow with the user by regularly rolling out new features and updates, designed to reflect evolving best practice in AM
Broadening additive manufacturing’s horizons
Any company delivering a solution like this should have a deep strategic interest in additive manufacturing, to ensure every solution they offer is conceived and built around AM-specific requirements. It is simply a good long-term business decision to partner with a dedicated software company who can draw directly on industry experience and understand the specific needs of AM companies.
Developing a strong partnership with the right software company will benefit every aspect of manufacturers’ AM workflows, creating a space where teams are able to focus on delivering high-quality work rather than on an administrative burden. This, in turn, will encourage the adoption and usage of additive manufacturing and associated hybrid processes across new sectors, for a wide range of sophisticated applications that will drive revenue growth. As these new software tools establish themselves as a key part of AM workflows, I am confident we will see our current period of growth and innovation continue, to the benefit of both manufacturers and customers.
Keyvan Karimi, Founder & CEO, RP Platform