5 Ways Real-Time Production Visibility Advances Your AM Operations
28 September 2020
Have you ever been in a situation where you had no clarity of what’s happening on the production floor or struggled to understand the issues creating bottlenecks?
Many such challenges are the result of poor visibility into your additive manufacturing (AM) operations.
The complexity and the digital nature of AM, demands real-time visibility and flexible control. And yet, many companies using AM have limited knowledge of their production and use outdated tools, such as paper, spreadsheets and legacy systems, to organise and manage processes.
But, what could your company achieve if you used the tools that enable advanced AM production visibility? Here are 5 ways to elevate your AM operations through digitally-enabled visibility.
1. Increase productivity
Advanced production visibility is at the heart of maximising the productivity of your AM department or facility.
Without production visibility, your team, responsible for managing AM machines and projects, struggles to predict what the day’s productivity will be or lacks insight into constraints they will meet in the day.
This complicates forecasting, order and inventory management, as well as communication with stakeholders. Consequently, the team is blind to potential risks and mostly react to situations, instead of being proactive.
AM production visibility offers invaluable insight into the opportunities to optimise the process, squeeze more out of the assets and increase productivity.
One way production visibility helps your team is by better assessing the productivity of your machines, also known as Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE).
Imagine a situation where the manager can see the AM machines’ performance in a real-time dashboard. Equipped with the ability to see what’s happening in real-time, the manager can work with the operators to identify underperforming equipment and take proactive actions and keep up the OEE.
Ultimately, the entire AM facility operates more efficiently when the team, at all levels, have real-time production information at their fingertips.
2. Understand Demand Capacity
In addition to companies adopting AM for internal production, some companies launch AM production facilities to serve as contract manufacturers and AM service providers.
Production visibility helps such companies gain a clear picture of their existing operational capacity. You must understand your capacity to be able to efficiently plan your production and scale it, as it grows.
Too often, however, a lack of visibility into your capacity can lead your business to overextend its operational capacities, inevitably putting you in a situation where some customers will not receive on-time deliveries.
By increasing visibility throughout your operation, you gain a holistic view of the journey that each product takes through your production stream, including make-time and machine utilisation.
In this way, you’re better positioned to determine your capacity for taking on new orders. When reaching your capacity limits, your production processes will be transparent enough to let you thoughtfully optimise that capacity.
3. Create a single source of truth
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 are just some of the questions that would be difficult to answer quickly, without full production visibility. Without knowing and, more importantly, tracing what happens with your 3D files, machines and materials, you’ll be faced with blind spots that impact operations and profitability.
A good production visibility system will serve as your single source of truth, that eliminates blind spots and enables you to log and track each step in the AM process.
The 360-degree view into production conditions and delivery logistics improves your quality management processes and helps you maintain accountability.
File versioning is one example where greater transparency can significantly enhance AM production and provide added traceability in the pre-production process.
Your team most likely processes hundreds, if not thousands, of STL files. In a scenario where STL files undergo several iterations, the ability to not only save but also to track new versions of your STL files immediately provides greater transparency for your stakeholders.
Furthermore, team members can easily revisit all versions of the file in question – no mean feat when you’re talking about thousands of files. And with the large number of files that your team will typically need to process, file versioning provides huge time-saving benefits, as you no longer need to manually rename files or maintain duplicates.
4. Reduce costly errors
When mistakes occur on the production floor – a part doesn’t meet specifications or a piece is out of tolerance – you pay in lost profit and slowed production. The longer it takes to identify the error and implement a solution, the more damage is done to your business.
The inability to spot the problems early on is not for lack of effort on the production floor. All too often, it’s the tools being used to provide production visibility that’s the cause.
Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, companies adopting advanced technologies, like AM, continue to use legacy systems, like printouts and spreadsheets, to collect data and organise production.
Paper is a black hole for visibility, and data manually collected on paper is ripe for mistakes.
In addition to paper, many companies mistakenly rely on their ERP to bridge the visibility gap. However, ERP systems struggle to adequately track and manage work.
As a transactional system, the ERP works upstream in the production value chain. It manages orders and financial transactions, but it can’t capture the nuance or cause-and-effect links required in a workflow.
Using a digitally-enabled visibility system empowers you to get ahead of errors and proactively prevent them, saving you money in rework. Getting real-time feedback from your production line will help you quickly identify errors, understand root causes, and resolve the problem before a defective product is shipped.
Plus, switching to digitised data collection and management helps eliminate human error that comes with manual data entry.
5. Facilitate continuous improvement
Strong visibility into AM production makes it easy to uncover opportunities to improve, which are backed by data.
With a production visibility system in place, you can monitor production in real time, as well as delve into discrete areas of your operation.
For example, you can identify how many failed prints you produced over a certain period of time and compare that number to the total number of 3D-printed parts produced. This information can encourage you to make crucial business decisions to increase productivity, such as optimising machine parameters or assigning more operators to certain tasks.
Digital, real-time visibility not only supports process improvement, by providing critical data for measuring success, but also provides the feedback loops your operators and managers need to secure the improvements.
The key to real-time production visibility in additive manufacturing
So, how can you eliminate the blind spots in your AM production management?
Enter the Manufacturing Execution System (MES) software.
MES software, developed to meet the unique needs of additive manufacturing, gives you a comprehensive view of operations, through a centralised platform linking order, project, production and post-processing management.
Essentially, it’s your window to all activities critical to successful AM production.
A bird’s eye view over each step in the process, enabled by MES software, helps you proactively manage tasks, reduce the chance of mistakes, understand your capacity, ensure part quality and, ultimately, drive greater productivity.
Ready to boost your AM production with real-time visibility? Let’s talk.