Establishing a Business Case for Manufacturing Execution System in Additive Manufacturing

11 January 2021
Additive manufacturing execution software business case for organisations

Whether you’re using additive manufacturing for rapid prototyping or batch production of spare parts, or want to advance to serial manufacturing, you need a solid production management strategy in place to run operations smoothly and efficiently.

In this article, we provide an in-depth analysis of how you can use additive MES software to overcome the challenges at different stages of your AM production and ensure the growth and efficiency of your additive manufacturing operations.

9 key challenges in managing additive manufacturing operations

1. Increasing production efficiency

In the competitive AM industry, organisations must stay agile, innovative and always striving for production efficiency.

However, when it comes to enhancing productivity, AM manufacturers face a number of challenges, like high levels of inventory, manual processes, unplanned downtime and a lack of visibility.

Without a system in place that enables organisations to align their processes accordingly, AM manufacturers will struggle to increase efficiency and ensure they derive value from their investment in AM technology.  

2. Measuring the productivity of your AM systems

Efficiency in manufacturing is also heavily influenced by the use of equipment. If the equipment isn’t running at peak performance, then it can’t yield a large enough output to cover the initial investment.

So how do you measure the productivity of your manufacturing equipment? How do you gain insight to improve your processes?

Without the right technology, measuring the productivity of your AM production line becomes arduous. This is especially true if you use spreadsheets, paper or disparate software platforms. 

Manual, disconnected tools are inadequate for the task of tracking and measuring the productivity of your AM systems. They simply don’t provide the level of visibility you need to effectively run AM production. 

3. Standardising operational processes

Standardising manufacturing and operational processes is vital for success. 

A lack of standardisation leads to inefficiencies across the workflow. For example, without a standardised way for internal teams to receive orders from other areas of the business, the ordering process becomes incredibly time-consuming, with endless emails typically becoming the norm. 

4. Disorganised request management 

For many AM departments, the AM request submission stage remains a manual, disorganised process. 

Design files and production requirements are often sent through email, with the data stored in shared folders and spreadsheets. This approach won’t pose a challenge when dealing with a handful of requests. 

However, as the number of requests grows to hundreds or even thousands, dealing with a large volume of projects quickly becomes laborious for project managers responsible for verifying all requests. 

Sometimes the important information may be missing, or the incorrect file type is sent, further muddling the submission process. 

Without a standardised way to receive requests, sorting through and prioritising requests becomes an error-prone and time-consuming process for most AM project and production managers. 

5. No clear understanding of capacity

AM manufacturers must understand their capacity to be able to plan production efficiently and scale it, as it grows.  

However, predicting future demand and planning capacity while relying on siloed data is a recipe for failure.  

Using disparate, unconnected systems means that data often needs to be manually synchronised before it’s used. 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. 

6. Use of unsuitable and dated technology to plan and 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. 

While your ERP system may include planning modules for master production scheduling and material requirements planning, the problem is simply that none of these planning systems was designed to schedule your factory. 

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

Without the correct tool for the job, it can be difficult to leave room for the unexpected priorities and changes that may arise. Dealing with change is not always easy and may take as much effort as creating a new production plan from scratch. 

7. Lack of connectivity

So many technologies and manual solutions used on the AM shop floor can lead to a fragmented ecosystem, which lacks overall interoperability. 

Without interoperability, manufacturers can’t integrate different software solutions they use to create a seamless workflow. 

Furthermore, they can’t connect their AM machines to their software systems, meaning that the access to real-time data, like performance, machine efficiency, or failure rate, remains locked. 

As a result, there is no real-time visibility into AM operations and performance, which could help manufacturers understand their processes better and improve upon them. 

8. Meeting compliance and traceability requirements 

AM is increasingly used in highly regulated industries like aerospace and medical. For manufacturers in these industries delivering only the highest quality products is an essential requirement. 

For this, manufacturers must establish a system of controls, electronic documentation and audit trails, to enable full product and process traceability in the event of an audit or recall. Compliance with this regulation requires the collection and control of data.

However, multiple data systems and manual processes are wide-open to errors and make deep traceability difficult to achieve. 

As a result, the process of aligning with and documenting regulatory compliance, and mitigating the possibility of violations, becomes taxing and inefficient. 

9. Connecting with manufacturing partners

While your AM department may own many AM technologies, you’re likely still outsourcing a part of your AM projects or tasks, like post-processing, to partners. 

Without the right system in place, AM project managers communicate with outsourcing partners over the phone or by email and manage outsourcing jobs using spreadsheets. 

These processes are inefficient because of two reasons. 

First, they can’t provide immediate access to data, like order status, since you have to call or message people to get the information you need. Second, communicating the requirements and costs this way also wastes time, which the project manager could use on higher-value tasks.  

Solving additive manufacturing challenges with the right technology

AMFG additive MES overview
Advanced additive MES helps to organises teams, data and processes

Though many manufacturers face these challenges every day, only a small number are realising the competitive advantage of automation through an additive manufacturing execution system (MES).

Additive MES software enables manufacturers to establish a paperless or digital system to manage the entire digital thread from importing design data to scheduling production and post-processing steps, along with control of revisions and design changes.

Before we get to the fundamental functions of an additive MES system, it will be helpful to understand how each fits into one of five key pillars of an MES system:

Establishing a plan and staying on schedule: Schedule AM jobs and let operators see real-time progress on dashboard graphics; it’s all fully accessible.

Enforcing a repeatable process: The key to long-term success is repeatability; assure your process (exactly as it’s defined) is followed time after time.

Creating a rich data set for continuous improvement: Acting on captured data is vital to driving improvement; it’s easier to identify and solve hidden inefficiencies.

Improving visibility and traceability: Break down business silos from top-floor to shop-floor, and between workflow steps.

Reducing costs: Free up labour costs through automation, optimise operations to enable higher ROI.

Now, let’s see how MES functions support one or more of those pillars.

1. Streamlining request management 

Advanced additive MES software helps you reduce the time spent on manual submission tasks, by offering a centralised request submission portal.   

The ordering portal, powered by an instant pricing engine, automates the process of analysing and pricing AM requests. 

It can also be preconfigured to accept only certain CAD file formats, technologies and materials, and other parameters deemed important by your AM department. 

Ultimately, this means that any file uploaded by the user must meet the requirements set up by the AM department before any request is submitted. 

This not only contributes to the standardised submission process but also saves time, cutting down on the back and forth email conversations.  

The MES software also provides users with a personalised dashboard, where they can log in and review the status of their orders by themselves. 

From the perspective of designers and engineers using AM, the ordering portal helps to create a better user experience, bolstering confidence in the technology.

2. Simplifying inventory management with digital part catalogue

AMFG digital catalogue
A digital part catalogue can significantly simplify the ordering and re-ordering of 3D-printed parts. [Image credit: AMFG]

Additive manufacturing has made the prospect of digital inventories a reality. The ability to produce parts from digital files opens up new opportunities for distributed manufacturing. 

This is particularly exciting for the production of spare parts, where typically lower-demand parts can be produced on demand, more economically. 

However, for this to be effective, manufacturers need detailed and accurate inventory data that can be made available to the right user at the right time. 

An Additive MES platform with digital inventory capabilities is essential to helping manufacturers to establish repeatable spare part production.

For example, some additive manufacturing execution systems provide a digital catalogue 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 through the MES system for production, ultimately saving huge amounts of time and effort. 

Furthermore, a digital inventory enables AM manufacturers to keep the production data in a single, validated system, ensuring that parts are produced according to their specifications each and every time. Ultimately, this helps to establish a repeatable process that supports scalability.

Related: 4 Ways Digital Inventory Can Support Your Additive Manufacturing Operations

3. Understanding capacity and planning production

AMFG Production Management Scheduling e1541668079853 1024x469 1

Managing the production process with MES software opens the door to full control over production planning and scheduling. With access to data like real-time machine availability, shop floor operators can optimise machine utilisation, visualise capacity and respond quickly to scheduling changes. 

For example, as orders come in, production managers can use the system to allocate orders in a build based on specific machine and material and then place builds into a schedule. Planners can view and edit schedules by dragging and dropping builds on a calendar-style workflow chart.

Users can also set priority levels for AM orders and assign the total capacity available each day. Plus, the ability to automatically assign parts to build jobs based on material, delivery date or priority level reduces the chance of mistakes and streamlines scheduling even further. 

Ultimately, the process of planning for capacity with additive MES software helps optimise the use of assets and avoid bottlenecks in production, which can positively impact the entire supply chain.

4. Integrating machine data to optimise production

AMFG Machine Analytics
AMFG provides machine analytics dashboards to assess machine productivity
Connecting directly with AM machines through additive MES software can advance your operations in multiple ways.

Imagine a situation where production planners and machine operators 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 overall equipment efficiency.

This knowledge also feeds into production planning, as production managers can better schedule machine use, and therefore better prepare machines to yield more in less time. 

Integrating machine data into MES software provides not only live but also historic machine data, including printing parameters and outcome of each build. It’s this information that gives your AM production team a clear view of which parameters resulted in the highest-quality builds. 

This is the way machine monitoring through additive MES can provide insights into performance and quality, enabling continuous improvement and optimisation. 

Further reading: 3 Ways Connectivity Will Enhance Your Additive Manufacturing Operations

5. Coordinating the post-processing and quality management workflow

AMFG post processing module
AM shop floor workers can use MES software to conduct QA checks [Image credit: AMFG]

When adopting additive manufacturing for production, considering the strategy for managing the post-processing and quality management is crucial.

Digitalisation through MES software offers a valuable way to streamline this process. 

MES software ensures a seamless flow of data between the production and post-production stages. It allows you to establish a sequence of post-processing operations and adhere to it, so post-processing operators know what step needs to be done and when. 

Digitisation of QA management is another benefit of additive MES software for AM manufacturers. For example, AMFG’s MES software has a 3D viewer that allows operators to inspect the part and its properties more accurately.

It also provides the possibility to import reports from external data sources, like sensors and barcodes, offering a faster way to ensure that parts meet the required specifications.

However, MES software is useful not only for tracking post-processing steps and managing QA checks, but also for connecting this critical stage to the rest of the AM workflow – supporting scalable end-to-end operations. 

6. Connecting with outsourcing partners

MES system allows you to automate job routing to manufacturing partners and creates the possibility for easy data sharing. Sending streams of emails and other documents back and forth to keep all parties in your supply chain updated is slow, outdated and prone to human error. 

MES software enables you to integrate with suppliers, eliminating communication downtime in the supply chain while keeping your data secure and reducing missteps in your processes.

Additive MES – It’s all about growth and scalability

Before having used an MES system, you can’t appreciate its capabilities, power, and potential to help additive manufacturing operations to advance.

If your organisation does not yet use an MES, it’s likely you handle certain production management problems using an ERP system or a set of smaller solutions that are not necessarily integrated with one another. 

However, without an encompassing production management solution capable of meeting the unique needs of additive manufacturing, AM operations can’t scale up. 

A good MES system includes all of the functions above, and it allows you to grow in whatever way your organisation needs.

You can start small and handle your immediate-need issues. Then, when other opportunities for improvement or growth arise, you have the exact right system to handle them. 

You’ll find that an MES system boosts the efficiency of just about every department (quality, engineering, production, and more).

When these teams get on board with an MES, they’ll also start to realise the many benefits of having a single system that coordinates everything together and drives the efficiency of your AM department.

See how you can improve efficiency and traceability to scale your AM production


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