Expert Interview: Timm Kragl on Why MES Software is Crucial for Successful 3D Printing Operations
15 June 2020
AMFG’s Production Scheduling System [Image credit: AMFG]
As additive manufacturing continues to move towards industrialisation, Additive Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) are becoming essential for manufacturers looking to manage their AM operations successfully.
Additive MES software plays a critical role in addressing the challenges of disconnected, manual AM processes by enabling manufacturers to track data, connect software and hardware systems and achieve full visibility across their operations.
We caught up with Timm Kragl, Senior Consultant at Phanos GmbH, an independent AM consultancy firm headquartered in Munich, to discuss the current state of Additive MES software and share tips for its implementation.
In this interview, Timm discusses the best time to consider Additive MES software, how best to approach the evaluation process and the key criteria you should take into consideration when comparing solutions.
How would you describe the current landscape of Additive MES solutions?
The market is growing, and with new industries and vendors, it can be confusing for customers to really understand what is the right system — especially if you’re not already experienced with different solutions.
Generally speaking, we can split the market into three main groups.
First, you have existing players who already offer conventional MES software for traditional manufacturing. However, since it has been developed for other manufacturing processes, this type of MES software is often not appropriate for 3D printing.
Then you have software companies who focus on different areas, but who have seen the potential of AM and want to take their customers in that direction.
Finally, you have a smaller group of specialised, niche players whose sole expertise is Additive MES. Even though the pool is smaller, their workflows and features can be quite unique.
The diverse range of potential suppliers makes it all the more important that companies have a clear idea from the outset of what they are looking for from a solution.
At what point should a company start to consider an Additive MES solution?
There are a number of different factors to consider. For example, a well-established MES solution will likely be the right choice if you’re operating multiple sites, or if you’re dealing with industries that have their own certification and quality assurance requirements.
The size of the company is another important factor, as is the extent to which a company needs to track its operations.
But where Additive MES software is really necessary is when traceability and transparency become key priorities for the company.
For example, perhaps a user wants to have immediate feedback on the status of their order or a company-wide dashboard is needed for visibility — these are scenarios in which you should start to look for an MES system.
Another potential use case is if you want to establish a more automated workflow and therefore reduce the workload on your end. In this case, a customer-facing frontend, provided by a specialist MES, can help to reduce time and costs.
Why are more companies looking into Additive MES solutions?
If we consider the increasing importance of customisation, any manufacturer that wants to streamline customer interaction and pursue a customer-oriented product and service strategy will need to reduce the workload and achieve greater efficiency internally.
And this is where data becomes really important. You 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.
Then you have things that relate not only to production but also to the external customer demand and internal process requirements.
This need for transparency and efficiency requires an MES system.
How would you advise a company that is just beginning their search for an Additive MES solution, but doesn’t have a solid process in place?
My advice would be to look at it from a process and a customer perspective.
By this I mean: define the procedures that are needed and what this will require from a solution.
Be thorough in analysing what your process is currently lacking and how you may be able to fill that gap with software. It’s also very important to consider different and potentially new workflows and scenarios. For example, what should happen if a part was printed but failed?
From here, you can drill down and group these scenarios into different main topics. For example, clustering features under main headings such as “quality assurance” or “process stability”.
Once you’ve mapped out these areas, you’ll be much better placed to compare and benchmark different software solutions against each other, ask the right questions to potential suppliers and ultimately find the most suitable partner.
From your experience, what do companies need to successfully make the transition to production with AM?
While individual processes will vary from company to company, the first step is to be able to ensure traceability so that should something occur, the cause can be tracked down quickly.
This accumulated data can ultimately be used to further improve the offerings and overall quality.
We know from other conventional manufacturing technologies that quality assurance is key, and for additive manufacturing, it is no different.
Therefore, traceability is also about being able to track and document quality. And when it comes to AM, this not only includes the printing of the part, but also all the other steps involved, such as post-processing, 3D data acquisition or preparation.
Finally, it is the finished product and the customer experience which matter and, of course, your overall efficiency to get there.