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Why a Scalable Additive Manufacturing Workflow Starts with the Right Order Management Process

When it comes to implementing a scalable additive manufacturing workflow, an area that is often overlooked is the order management stage. For service bureaus and AM departments, order management refers to the process of receiving, tracking and fulfilling incoming orders efficiently. In the context of additive manufacturing, this means establishing the correct people and processes required to ensure the smooth running of operations, so that the right users receive the right parts at the right time.
 
Whether you’re using additive for prototyping, tooling or end parts, how your AM department or service bureau receives and handles orders will be crucial to the efficiency of your overall workflow.
 
While the order management stage is a critical part of any additive manufacturing workflow, for many companies it’s an area that is often bogged down by inefficient and manual processes that ultimately slow down the subsequent stages of the additive manufacturing workflow.
 
Today’s article will take you through what the order management stage involves, how to identify the gaps in your order management process and how using workflow software to automate the process will enable your team to focus their efforts on more productive, value-driving tasks.
 

What is order management and why is it so important to the additive manufacturing process?

 
Increasingly, companies are recognising the unique benefits that additive manufacturing can bring to certain areas of their production. However, implementing the technology first requires having a strategic plan that can deliver maximum efficiency and productivity gains.
 
Order management bridges the gap between the product development and production stages. Once a design file has been created, a request will need to be submitted to the relevant AM or RP department so that the part can be manufactured.
 
While this may seem a rather straightforward concept, the reality is that this process can quickly become quite complex, as it often requires input across different departments.
 
For the vast majority of AM departments, the request stage is a manual and frustratingly disorganised process. Without a standardised way to receive requests, machine operators and production managers can quickly become swamped by a deluge of requests that need to be sorted through and prioritised individually before they can be scheduled for production.
 

How can managing orders become a bottleneck in the AM process?

 
For most companies who have already adopted additive manufacturing, their current order management process broadly takes one of three forms:
 

  • Spreadsheets: Users are required to fill in an Excel or Google Sheets document with the requirements for their part.

 

  • Email: Users send their design files as attachments via email, along with notes on their requirements.

 

  • Custom-built solution: The AM or RP department has developed its own in-house, custom solution to manage their orders.

 
Let’s take a look at the issues that can arise with each of these workarounds.
 

Spreadsheets

 
Spreadsheets are commonly used to not only manage the order management process, but also other areas of the AM workflow, such as production scheduling. The initial benefits are clear: they’re relatively easy to set up and offer a (limited) degree of flexibility.
 
However, the problem of scalability comes into play when dealing with hundreds of requests on a weekly or monthly basis. Using a spreadsheet to manage a large volume of projects can quickly become a logistical nightmare for the machine operator or production manager responsible for verifying and scheduling all requests for production.
 
Then there is the challenge of not only tracking, but maintaining an archive of all historic requests. Details like the quantity of parts requested, technologies, materials and the person sending the request will important to keep a record of for reporting and analytics purposes.
 
With a spreadsheet-based model, creating archive requests will typically require creating yet another document that will need to be manually updated.
 

Email

 
Email has the benefit of facilitating direct communication with other teams and departments – a necessity in most cases, particularly if your AM operations span multiple locations. And once again, email offers a simple go-to option, at least in the first instance.
 
And yet, following a thread of email correspondence can quickly become chaotic, becoming difficult for those involved to have a clear and transparent overview of the status of a project at any one time.
 
To illustrate this point, let’s take a common experience for many AM departments, where a production engineer or machine operator may be the person responsible for receiving requests.
 
Multiple emails have been received, each with a separate request for a set of parts to be 3D-printed. However, important information is missing in each one of the emails. In one, the user has forgotten to specify the material required for the part; in another, the required quantities and 3D printing technologies haven’t been included. Before the projects can be scheduled for production, your production engineer now has to send an email to get the right specifications, and will need to wait for the requester to confirm or clarify their requirements.
 
If your AM department is dealing with a low number of requests on a regular basis (a few dozen a week, for example), dealing with this back-and-forth chain of emails may not seem like a major pain point.
 
However, if you’re dealing with considerably more requests, using email to manage such a common scenario quickly becomes highly inefficient and unscalable. For example, different emails dealing with the same request can easily lead to duplicate requests being submitted.
 

Developing a custom solution

 
To overcome the challenges of spreadsheet and email-based systems, a few companies may attempt to develop their own in-house solutions.
 
Such a solution most commonly takes the form of an internal web portal through which designers and engineers can send their files and machine operators can schedule their projects.
 
While this might seem an attractive solution, this isn’t an option available to many companies, as it is incredibly time-consuming and costly to maintain such a system. The system would also require expertise to be able to keep up with the rapid developments within the industry.
 

Why should I automate my order management process?

 
Now that we’ve looked at some of the bottlenecks AM and RP departments face with their current order management processes, let’s explore how you can streamline this process to ensure maximum efficiency.
 
First, it’s important to identify the gaps in your order management stage as well as the challenges you’re looking to solve.
 
Are you having difficulty tracking requests throughout the production lifecycle? Is your team spending a great proportion of their time responding to requests? Whatever your challenges, it’s important to document them, as this will help you identify the right workflow solution.
 
The next step is to understand the benefits of using workflow software to automate the particularities of your order management process.
 
Just some of the benefits include:
 

  1. Reducing the time spent on manual submission tasks by automating the process;
  2.  

  3. Standardising submission requirements for departments outside of AM;
  4.  

  5. Improving communications and increasing visibility across the whole company;
  6.  

  7. Creating an end-to-end workflow by connecting the request submission stage to the other stages of the AM process (production, post-processing, logistics);
  8.  

  9. Ensuring a scalable process that can be adopted across locations and drive distributed manufacturing.

 

1. Reducing the time spent on manual submission tasks

 
Whether you’re using spreadsheets or email, manual processes means that your team is spending a large proportion of their time responding to requests or manually submitting information.
 
For one automotive company, the order management stage was a key bottleneck because the RP department was using an email-based approach. Users would simply email the department anytime a prototype was needed, along with their files. Oftentimes, the incorrect file type would be sent, which meant that a member of the RP department would need to spend a great deal of time responding to requests for further clarification.
 
One way to eliminate this issue would be to use workflow software to create a systematic, standardised order management process. A dedicated order submission portal, preconfigured to accept only certain CAD file formats, technologies, materials and other parameters deemed important by the RP department. Ultimately, this means that any file uploaded by the end user must fulfill the requirements setup by the RP department before any request is submitted – with the platform automatically notifying the user in the case of errors.
 

Having a web application can accelerate the order process for your customers. Image source: AMFG
A dedicated ordering portal provides the tools to ensure that users can only submit files that fit pre-defined parameters.

 
This has the clear benefit of automating the response process – as any files that don’t fit the specifications cannot be submitted for production.
 
Which brings us to the next point.
 

2. Standardising order submission requirements

 
With the vast majority of companies at an early stage of their additive manufacturing journey (particularly compared with traditional manufacturing processes), there will inevitably be varying degrees of AM expertise within any company. The bigger the company, the greater the variance.
 
As a result, there is often a knowledge gap between the information required by the AM department and the information given by the end user. This issue only becomes more acute if you’re managing multiple facilities in different locations. Sometimes the wrong file type is sent, other times there is no information.
 
In the long term, having a standardised submission process will go a long way to educate users on what information is needed to ensure a successful print.
 

3. Improving communications and increasing visibility

 
Having the right communication tools is intrinsic to any great workflow software solution, particularly when operating in across geographical locations. It’s essential in the case of providing status updates, clarifying requirements and providing an extra level of visibility.
 
For example, a centralised workflow software platform eliminates the need to email each individual user once a part has been manufactured by providing users with the ability to log in and review the status of their parts themselves.
 
Similarly, being able to communicate more easily also offers the benefit of greater visibility. In the case of one consumer goods company, there was little to no visibility across their factories as to what each factory was producing. At times, this lead to two factories producing the same parts twice. Using a request management platform can eliminate this problem by giving the two production facilities access to the data of the requests that have been received and allocated.
 

4. Creating an end-to-end workflow

 
While we’ve spoken at length about the order management stage, how does workflow software help to fit this into the wider AM production workflow?
 
Well, workflow software brings connectivity to the process, something that custom in-house solutions are often unable to replicate.
 
When an order is received through MES/workflow software, the software provides a centralised platform to ensure that the process is streamlined. For example,
 
AMFG’s workflow software gives production managers and machine operators a full, visual overview of all the requests received, and the ability to directly schedule these requests for production. If post-processing is required, not only can this be specified in the request form, but AMFG’s platform also ensures that all of the post-processing steps have been completed. And of course, all updates and activities can be tracked and traced throughout the whole workflow.
 

5. Ensuring a scalable process

 
Finally, using workflow software to create an automated order management process is the first step to ensuring a scalable AM workflow.
 
Why is scalability important?
 
When first adopting AM, you will most likely have invested in only a few AM machines, However, smart planning will inevitably involve strategies to scale your AM operations in due course. It’s therefore important to invest in solutions that can accomodate your needs as your operations expand.
 
As we’ve seen, tools like spreadsheets and emails can work in the short-term, when the volume of requests is relatively low. However, if scalability is a key priority for your AM department, workflow software provides an agile, flexible solution that can expand as your operations grow.
 

Conclusion

 
To summarise, having the right order management process can help AM departments greatly reduce the time spent on routine, manual submission tasks, thereby speeding up the overall production process.
 
While this stage is often overlooked, order management is the starting point for a successful additive manufacturing workflow. Not having a standardised way for your end users to submit their internal requests makes organising and scheduling projects much more difficult for your AM team.
 
Workflow software offers a flexible solution by providing a centralised platform to not only receive requests but also connect this stage directly to other operations, like scheduling and logistics management. Ultimately, this will allow your team to spend much less time on manual submission tasks, and creates a culture of transparency and traceability right from the outset.
 
To learn more about how AMFG’s order management platform and MES/workflow software can help you streamline your processes, or to schedule a demo of our workflow software, just contact us.