How Can MES and Workflow Software Transform Production Planning for Additive Manufacturing?

28 February 2020
Additive manufacturing execution software business case for organisations

This is Part 2 of our series on MES software. Discover the rest of the articles in this series:

As today’s manufacturers look to scale up their additive manufacturing operations, the most forward-thinking are actively looking to optimise one key area: production planning. 

Production planning is at the heart of any great additive manufacturing strategy. With the right production management and planning processes in place, manufacturers can successfully integrate AM into their wider manufacturing strategy, gain complete visibility into their operations and significantly increase efficiency.

This article will explore the importance of production planning for additive, the common challenges manufacturers face when it comes to managing their operations, and how you can use MES software to solve these challenges — and maximise your chances of success with AM.

Why do I need to think about production planning for my AM facility?

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”― Benjamin Franklin

Successfully manufacturing certified AM parts requires careful consideration of the entire production process. It’s the result of a highly integrated sequence of steps that must be followed to achieve the end result.

A lack of production planning means a lack of control over the production process. This increases the likelihood of inefficiencies across the workflow and missing key bottlenecks in the process.  

Production planning for AM is your strategy for managing the entire additive manufacturing process. It covers the key stages of the AM production process, such as build preparation, production scheduling and machine status monitoring.

A clear production planning process brings greater control over the production process itself.

Production control means that you have a complete overview of your operations and are able to respond to events in real time, regardless of where your facilities are located. These capabilities will ultimately allow you to scale your AM operations over time.

As companies look to integrate AM into their manufacturing operations, now is the time to consider how you can optimise your production management processes to achieve maximum efficiency and productivity. 

The 8 most common challenges manufacturers face with production planning for additive manufacturing

40% of manufacturers reported having adopted additive manufacturing in-house, according to a report by EY. With this figure set to grow, it’s never been more important for OEMs to consider production planning as a central part of their internal AM strategy. 

However, there are a number of potential pitfalls that companies may face when it comes to establishing a clear planning strategy. Below are eight of the top challenges faced when it comes to production management for AM. 

Challenge #1: No clear understanding of capacity

Defining existing capacity for production is key to efficient production planning.

A realistic assessment of production capacity includes factors such as the availability of machine time, the flexibility of the various types of AM systems for different tasks, and the availability of skilled labour within the facility. 

However, many AM manufacturers face capacity planning issues, not least because they rely on siloed data.  

Using disparate, unconnected systems means that data often needs to be manually synchronised before it can be acted upon. Not only does it add time, but it also makes data outdated before it can even be used. 

Without a real-time visibility into capacity, AM manufacturers will struggle to fully understand their current capacity, leading to inaccurate forecasting of future capacity needs. 

Challenge #2: Using unsuitable and dated technology to schedule production 

In addition to capacity planning, there are also challenges in planning production activities of the AM factory. AM manufacturers often struggle to increase throughput and schedule the minute-to-minute activities on the AM shop floor. 

Many AM manufacturers attempt to do production planning and scheduling with legacy systems or data manipulation tools poorly equipped for the task. 

For example, your ERP system may include planning modules for master production scheduling and material requirements planning. However, none of these planning systems was designed to schedule AM production. 

Without the correct tool for the job, it can be difficult to create an accurate schedule, which factors in the unexpected priorities and changes that may arise.

Challenge #3: A manual job tracking process

Outdated manual job sheets are very inefficient when compared to automated job sheets within a software system.

Printed job sheets often get lost when technicians hand them to one another, leading to delays. Additionally, this process doesn’t provide any visibility into work in progress without being physically on the shop floor.

Challenge #4: Preparing 3D printing builds for production

Dealing with a variety of orders from many customers adds another layer of complexity to production planning. 

The orders typically have to be produced using different materials and 3D printing technologies, which means they first need to be grouped together. 

Paper-based or disconnected systems limit your ability to group orders and schedule them efficiently. They also don’t provide real-time information and, as a result, you can’t utilise your time or capacity to its full potential.

Challenge #5: Lack of data visibility

Data is at the heart of all AM production

With all of the different material and post-processing options, additive manufacturing can easily get complex,” explains Timm Kragl, Senior Consultant at Phanos GmbH.

For companies, the question then becomes, how can we keep track of these complex workflows and large amounts of data?

This is a key question, as within any AM facility, data is being generated at every stage of production — continuously.

This includes:

  • Machine-generated data (e.g. technology, machine status, activity, sensor data),
  • Part data (e.g. part orientation, position, parameters)
  • Material data (e.g. material type, stock levels)
  • Post-processing and quality management data (e.g. post-processing steps, compliance requirements)
  • Data for reporting (e.g. print success vs. failure rate, throughput)

Due to the volume of data that is generated throughout the production process, keeping track of this data and utilising it to make important decisions is a key challenge.  

Challenge #6: Ensuring repeatability

Quality is a key priority when it comes to AM. 

Particularly for serial production, additive manufacturing must be able to maintain the same standards as traditional manufacturing processes. 

Achieving this requires repeatable and consistent production steps to ensure that each part meets the same requirements.

As a result, documenting the exact process steps is critical to producing the same, high-quality part each and every time.

Without a system in place to track this, ensuring production repeatability becomes virtually impossible to achieve. 

Challenge #7: Operational traceability

Who made that change to a CAD file? Has this part already been inspected? What material batch has been used to produce this component? 

These (and other) questions can only be answered when there is end-to-end traceability across your operations. 

Traceability means being able to track every step of your AM workflows, along with the production steps that need to be taken at any stage.

Additionally, traceability means knowing exactly what action has been performed at what time and gives you an in-depth insight into potential bottlenecks in your operations. 

This knowledge is key to understanding and optimising the performance of your operations.

And yet, traceability is incredibly challenging to achieve, particularly if you are operating multiple production sites. 

“Companies must have visibility on information like what has been ordered, by whom and in what time period, as well as the different steps that are required for production, how to schedule and so on,” explains AM consultant, Timm Kragl.

Two of the biggest barriers to traceability are disconnected systems and manual processes, which don’t allow for real-time access to data. 

Crucially, a lack of traceability will make it virtually impossible for you to scale your operations effectively.

Challenge #8: Managing and coordinating suppliers

26% of OEMs outsource at least part of their 3D printing production to their suppliers, according to EY. 

Outsourcing provides a way for manufacturers to complete AM jobs that can’t be done in-house. It also makes on-demand manufacturing — the concept of producing products on demand, close to or at the point of need — a reality. This has the additional benefit of reducing factory downtime and increasing operational efficiency. 

Therefore, for most manufacturers, AM production planning will need to include managing the outsourcing of specific jobs to third-party suppliers. 

This means that OEMs must be able to manage and execute operations not only internally but also externally, across their supply chains. 

Outsourcing requires a high level of coordination and integration to ensure that a product is delivered with the right specifications at the right time. 

For OEMs and suppliers alike, this means knowing what needs to be outsourced – and to whom – and ensuring that key stakeholders are kept up-to-speed at all times.

This level of coordination is challenging if, as is the case with the majority of manufacturers, there is no centralised system in place to facilitate communication between OEMs and their suppliers. 

How you can solve your production management challenges with Additive MES software

Despite the challenges involved when it comes to production planning for AM, the good news is that MES software, developed specifically for additive manufacturing, offers the tools necessary to solve these challenges.

Additive MES software is workflow software that helps manufacturers manage their AM operations by enabling greater traceability, better data insights, and establishing best practice processes across their entire AM workflows.

But how can you use MES and workflow software to improve your production management processes?

AMFG additive MES overview
AMFG’s additive MES scope


1. Streamline production scheduling

Additive MES software gives manufacturers a reliable tool to schedule and prioritise AM production jobs.

As orders come in, additive production managers can use workflow software to easily group orders according to their production technology, material requirements and priority levels. The grouped orders create production batches, often called builds. 

In advanced workflow management solutions, there’s also a feature that allows orders to be assigned to build jobs only when they meet the requirements of that build. This means that schedulers won’t be able to add, for example, parts to be produced in PA 12 to a build using PA 11. This feature ultimately helps to prevent potentially costly mistakes and rework, streamlining scheduling even further. 

Takeaway: Use MES and workflow software to automate build preparation and ensure accurate scheduling. 

2. Increase production planning visibility

AMFG production scheduling
A Gantt chart helps to visualise the additive production schedule [Image credit: AMFG]

Once the parts have been assigned to a build, MES software makes it possible to visualise all scheduled jobs on a calendar-style workflow chart, known as Gantt chart. 

The Gantt chart provides the information relevant to production scheduling at one glance. For example, at AMFG’s Gantt chart you can see:

  • A start and end dates of a build
  • Build time and status
  • Number of parts in a build
  • Information about the machine and material used

Clearly defined dates and deadlines empower your staff to prioritise their work and meet deadlines. Furthermore, displaying an up-to-date AM job schedule helps to keep everyone (teams and customers) informed of the progress. 

In addition to this, Gantt charts allow you to see a project’s timeline where you can easily see how and where the AM systems are being used. When machines are properly managed, AM jobs are more likely to be completed within budget and deadlines.

Takeaway: Use MES and workflow software to improve production visibility and better understand capacity.

3. Use MES software to create a data-driven digital thread

As we’ve seen, data is crucial to additive manufacturing operations. 

Fundamentally, MES and workflow software provides a foundation upon which OEMs can track and analyse data across the entire AM production process, including post-processing and quality management.  

Additionally, historic data can be accessed to provide key learnings and optimise processes. 

KPI tracking, reporting and analytics are another way in which manufacturers can leverage MES software to take a deeper dive into the key factors that are driving productivity.

Having these processes managed by a digital platform provides a seamless digital thread and creates greater operational efficiency and traceability.

Takeaway: Use data insights provided by MES software to learn, scale and build a repeatable AM production process.

4. Ensure repeatability for serial production

For manufacturers looking to leverage AM to produce end parts, repeatability and predictability are key. 

As we’ve seen, ensuring that the same part is produced every time and that quality standards are consistently met, is crucial for serial production. 

For this, a repeatable workflow management process that ensures predictability is vital. Key criteria for this are:

  • Part orientation
  • Position
  • Material 
  • Machine

Workflow software can track the parameters that have led to past success, giving you a high-level detail into the optimal process steps. 

For example, the parameters needed for a specific part to be produced can be tracked by the system, and accessed again should the same part need to be produced. This, in turn, can be linked to the post-processing management steps that need to be taken immediately following production. 

Bonus: Manage prototyping production more easily

When it comes to prototyping, typically, you will be producing a high volume of one-off parts. 

Here, the challenge isn’t repeatability, but managing a high volume of requests for your product development and other teams. 

Conventional methods of managing this, such as email and spreadsheets, are typically disruptive to the production planning process, as they lack integration with the wider AM workflow. MES software can solve this.

Takeaway: Use MES and workflow software to establish clear, standardised process steps that ensure production repeatability and predictability.

5. Gain a 360-degree view of your operations

additive manufacturing system monitoring through MES

MES software helps to maintain internal traceability of files, parts and processes. Each product or batch can receive its own identification number, which can also be assigned additional information throughout the manufacturing process, such as dimensions or QA results. 

AM workflow software offers a ‘single version of truth’ that helps companies meet their quality standards and complete audit checks. 

Takeaway: Using workflow software enables you to gain complete traceability across your AM operations.

6. Coordinate and manage suppliers more easily

A robust MES system is one that allows you to coordinate suppliers and manage outsourcing on one, standardised platform.

The benefit of this is that it keeps your suppliers and internal stakeholders aligned and up-to-date with the real-time status of specific tasks and actions. 

Takeaway: Use MES software to manage your internal and external production, and streamline your supply chains.

Rethinking production planning with additive MES software

Additive manufacturing offers manufacturers a strategic opportunity to develop a competitive advantage.

However, just as AM requires a different approach to thinking about design, achieving the above objectives means rethinking traditional approaches to managing AM production. 

In reality, this means adapting your internal processes to suit the requirements of AM production and ensuring that workflow steps are integrated to achieve efficiency, visibility and productivity. 

Using systems that are disconnected from each other or highly manual is one of the biggest barriers to production efficiency and control. 

Ultimately, MES software that can coordinate process steps, provide traceability and data-driven insights is the key to a solid production management strategy – and enabling you to scale your AM operations for the future. 

Learn more about production management for additive manufacturing

If you’d like to learn more about how to scale your AM operations with software, we recommend reading our new white paper, Additive Manufacturing MES Software: The Essential Guide. 

As well as providing more insights into production planning for AM, you’ll learn more about how to develop a comprehensive AM strategy and how you can use MES software to help you scale and expand your AM operations.

AMFG MES guide download 1


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