4 Ways Digital Inventory Can Support Your Additive Manufacturing Operations

30 April 2020
Digital inventory and 3D printing 1

This is Part 5 of our series on MES software. Discover the rest of the articles in this series:

For companies looking to use 3D printing for on-demand and serial production, digital inventory will be a key requirement.
Digital inventory unlocks the possibility to store some parts virtually instead of maintaining large physical inventory. With digital inventory, manufacturers can have instant access to design files, facilitating more agile, just-in-time production. 
Today’s article will be exploring the benefits of digital inventories that will help you get the most of your AM operations. 

3D printing and digital inventories 

In the context of manufacturing, digital inventory is a digital file management system that offers a centralised virtual storage place for your 3D designs and makes them available on demand. 
3D printing is one of the leading technologies facilitating the shift towards digital inventory. The key reason for this is that 3D printing enables you to produce parts directly from a digital design file, without using any tooling like moulds. 
This results in an entirely digitised workflow, where software is used to design parts, as well as to control and manage their production.  
In this way, 3D printing helps manufacturers to rethink their approach to how they produce parts. But in addition to that, it also helps them to reimagine how they store them. 
Thanks to its digital nature, 3D printing allows boxes of parts taking up space in warehouses to be replaced with digital files that can be stored in the сloud or on a local disk and easily accessed if they are ever needed.
This is where digital inventory comes in.
Digital inventories have several positive implications, including lower warehousing and logistic costs and the ability to produce parts at the point of need. 

Key benefits of digital inventory

Reduced warehousing costs for lower-demand spare parts
When it comes to spare parts, companies face the challenge of balancing the investment of holding a high number of spare parts as inventory and the ability to meet the demand of the customer on-time. 
One way a company can overcome this challenge is by instantly manufacturing a product when the customer needs it, bypassing the need to maintain a physical inventory. 
A digital inventory coupled with 3D printing can provide such a solution. Instead of keeping lower-demand parts, like obsolete components, on the shelves in a warehouse, they can be redesigned for 3D printing and stored in a virtual part inventory. 
When the part is needed, you can just find it in your digital inventory, send the design to a 3D printer and have it ready within several hours. 
This approach will not only allow you to reduce warehousing costs but also maintain lean and agile operations by manufacturing spare parts on demand. 
Simplified logistics 
3D printing coupled with digital inventory can reduce shipping costs and potentially eliminate import/export costs. 
In any factory, there are likely many parts that prove difficult to replace once they break, taking days or even weeks to ship them from a warehouse or an overseas supplier to the factory. 
One way digital inventory can optimise this process is by eliminating the need to ship spare parts entirely. 
Having a 3D printer on the factory floor and a digital inventory of spare parts obviates the need to physically move parts from one place to another, since they can be produced locally. 
This makes it possible to lower transportation costs, reduce shipping volumes and speed up part deliveries. 
Maintaining digital inventory for simplified logistics and faster delivery can be particularly beneficial for businesses operating in remote locations like oil rigs, battlefields and space stations. 
For example, coordinating logistics and transportation makes up a significant part of any military budget. 
For an industry that spends billions of dollars on logistics alone (the US Department of Defence DoD, for example, was estimated to have spent $1.194 billion on logistics operations in 2017), it may prove to be more cost-effective to have digital inventory that gives instant access to tools and spare parts that can be produced near the point of use – a solution that 3D printing provides.

The role of Additive MES in enabling digital inventories  

One of the key ways of establishing a digital inventory is through an Additive Manufacturing Execution System (MES), specialised software designed to support the management and execution of all processes related to additive production.
An Additive MES platform with digital inventory capabilities provides manufacturers with detailed and accurate inventory data that can be made available to the right user at the right time.
Let’s explore how Additive MES can further enhance digital inventory.  
Simplified reordering for tools and parts 
Placing and handling a 3D printing order currently is a highly manual process, involving the use of spreadsheets, shared folders and disconnected software solutions.   
Digital inventory powered by Additive MES software can speed up and streamline the process of ordering and re-ordering parts significantly. 
Additive MES software provides a single platform enabling centralised order management and tracking. Couple this with digital inventory and you end up with one system that makes it as easy and straightforward as possible to find the design file and all the necessary data about the part, like the required process and material. Then with a click of a button, the order can be sent for production, ultimately saving huge amounts of time and effort. 
What’s more, Additive MES with digital inventory feature establishes a clear and simple ordering process for your employees who may be less familiar with AM. 
Streamlined operations
Another key benefit of a digital part catalogue as a part of Additive MES software is the ability to make your AM operations more efficient. 
Digital inventory helps streamline your AM production management by allowing you to specify what material and process should be used, as well as set 3D printer parameters for each part. 
In this way, a digital inventory enables your company to keep the production data in a single, validated system, ensuring that parts are produced according to their specifications each and every time. This helps you to establish a repeatable process that supports scalability.
Ultimately, a virtual inventory makes distributed production economically viable. Inventory can be shared across different production centres to authorised personnel, enabling them to 3D print parts when needed and closer to the point of use. 

Unlock a new level of efficiency with digital inventories and 3D printing 

The use of virtual inventories with AM offers plenty of opportunities when it comes to optimising your AM production and supply chain management. 
Firstly, it helps to cut warehousing costs by eradicating the need to store a physical inventory of certain spare parts and tools. Next, it makes the process of ordering parts much faster and easier. 
That said, to take the full advantage of digital inventory, it’s important to ensure that it’s a part of your wider AM production management system, like Additive MES. 
Ultimately, the virtual inventory offers the opportunity to enhance your AM operations, unlocking the way towards on-demand, distributed manufacturing. 

Learn more about digital inventories for additive manufacturing

If you’d like to learn more about the digital inventory feature, we recommend reading our new white paper, Additive Manufacturing MES Software: The Essential Guide. 
As well as providing more insights into virtual inventories, 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
Additive Manufacturing Execution Systems

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