How Can MES Software Transform Production Planning For Your 3D Printing Services Business?

14 January 2021
AMFG production scheduling

Running a 3D printing services business involves an increasingly sophisticated interplay of human and material resources required to manufacture often complex products with shorter delivery schedules. As a result, 3D printing planning, control and scheduling have become more important than ever.

This article will dive into the realities of 3D printing production planning and what solutions can help service providers optimise the process, increase productivity and ensure parts are delivered on time.

Why do I need to think about production planning for my 3D printing business?

Production planning helps companies make the production process as efficient as possible. It’s like a roadmap: production planning helps you know where you are going and how long it will take you to get there.

Production planning covers the key stages of the 3D printing production process, such as build preparation, production and post-production schedule, and machine monitoring. 

An effective production plan and scheduling can offer multiple benefits, including: 

  • Saved time and improved process flow
  • Optimised equipment usage and increased capacity
  • Improved on-time deliveries of products

However, achieving these benefits is often easier said than done, largely because of the range of challenges many 3D printing service providers face at the production planning stage.

The 7 most common challenges 3D printing companies face with production planning

Below, we take a look at the key obstacles to advanced production planning.

1. Not fully understanding capacity

Not properly establishing capacity is a stumbling block to successful production planning and scheduling.
A lack of real-time visibility into your capacity can lead your business to overextend or underrate your operational capacities, inevitably leading to inaccuracies when forecasting future capacity needs.

Read also: 5 Ways Real-Time Production Visibility Advances Your AM Operations

2. Prioritising parts

Project priorities change fast. Maybe there’s been an unscheduled downtime or another issue and now you have to prioritise some 3D printing jobs over others to ensure on-time delivery. 

However, using manual systems, like spreadsheets, online boards like Trello or even whiteboards, to organise projects doesn’t offer the visibility you need to prioritise 3D printing jobs quickly and efficiently.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. Inefficient communication with production partners

Your 3D printing bureau might also have a network of production partners to whom you outsource a part of your requests, for example, post-processing jobs or certain 3D printing jobs for technologies you don’t have in-house. 

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 many reasons. 

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. As a result, you can’t quickly compare prices and choose the best outsourcing option. 

Ultimately, manually communicating the requirements and costs also wastes time, which your team could use on higher-value tasks.

6. Ensuring product quality and compliance

In 3D printing, quality checks are still frequently recorded manually on paper. This process poses many challenges, including the need to collect and store the paperwork, which can be difficult to find when faced with quality audits and regulatory compliance. 

Additionally, multiple data systems and manual processes are wide-open to errors, making data integrity and product quality difficult to ensure.

7. Not meeting deadlines

With so many inefficiencies in production and post-production management, you may find it difficult to deliver products to customers on time. Delayed orders can have a big impact on the long-term success of your business, as customers who didn’t receive on-time deliveries can take their business elsewhere. 

While it’s difficult to eliminate delays completely, automation can help you reduce a chance of delay and help your 3D printing service stand out. 

Address your biggest challenges in 3D printing production management with the right technology

additive manufacturing production planning 1

As we’ve seen above, many 3D printing businesses attempt to do tomorrow’s production planning and scheduling with yesterday’s tools. 

To solve inefficiencies in the preparation and planning of 3D printing production, companies need to invest in the right automation solutions. 

One such solution is the Additive Manufacturing Execution System (MES), which helps you optimise your production workflow.

3D printing workflow/MES software can provide a range of benefits for your company. Below, we’ve summarised the 4 key advantages of using it: 

1. Increased visibility: View progress across all your AM projects, monitor timelines and share project statuses in real-time.

2. Traceability and accountability: Provide timely updates to team members at all levels and eliminate confusion regarding individual roles and responsibilities.

3. Standardised processes: Establish a central location for all project details and updates; a centralised platform also facilitates standardisation.

4. Automation: Replace spreadsheets and manual processes with streamlined, digital workflows.

How Additive MES software advances production planning for 3D printing businesses 

Let’s find out how different functions of MES support the benefits above. 

1. Streamlined production scheduling and improved capacity 

3d printing production planning
Advanced MES software allows you easily select and assign parts to a machine, streamlining build preparation [Image credit: AMFG]

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, 3D printing bureau managers can optimise machine utilisation, visualise capacity and respond quickly to scheduling changes. 

For example, as orders come in, 3D printing 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. 

Additionally, MES software provides users with the ability to:

  • View and edit schedules by dragging and dropping builds on a calendar-style workflow chart.
  • Set priority levels for AM orders
  • 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. 

2. Increasing production planning visibility

Using the manual, disconnected or paper-based processes lead to a visibility gap, which can be closed with MES. 

Visibility helps 3D printing production managers easily understand their machine utilisation levels and assess when they can schedule the next build or ensure that the order will be completed in time. 

Advanced MES solutions provide this level of visibility with the help of Gantt charts. Essentially, a Gantt chart is a planning board that visualises the production schedule and provides all relevant information 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 team members to prioritise their work and meet deadlines. Furthermore, displaying an up-to-date 3D printing project schedule helps to keep everyone (teams and customers) informed of the progress. 

In addition to this, Gantt charts allow you to use 3D printers effectively as you get to see a project’s timeline where you can easily see how and where the machines are being utilised.

When machines are properly managed, 3D printing orders are more likely to be completed within budget and deadlines.

3. Machine monitoring 

machine connectivity and integration in additive manufacturing
MES helps to streamline AM system monitoring by providing an easy-to-navigate dashboard [Image credit: AMFG]

With the integration between your 3D printing machines and MES software, you can establish a seamless transfer of data at every stage of AM production, including the information about:

  • Production time;
  • Number of parts being printed; 
  • Job status; 
  • Alerts on errors occurring during the printing process;
  • Processing parameters, and much more

This data can help you analyse the performance of your machines, identify bottlenecks and optimise processes for greater productivity.

For example, equipped with the ability to see what’s happening in real-time, production managers can better schedule machine use, and therefore better prepare machines to yield more in less time. 

4. Integrating with manufacturing partners 

MES system allows you to automate job routing to manufacturing partners and creates the possibility for easy cost comparison and 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.

5. Quality management

Workflow automation through MES also helps to alleviate quality management challenges. It provides the tools to record quality data, and the backend database to store it. 

Removing paper from the workflow also means technicians will enter quality data via a device into the system. This leads to faster collection and a consistent entry of data. 

By implementing digital solutions, such as workflow automation, 3D printing service providers can deliver improved product traceability while also retaining accurate quality data. 

A commitment to quality and transparency in additive manufacturing is quickly becoming a customer expectation – pushing more service providers to take action and implement digital solutions. 

Enhancing production planning with additive MES software

Digitising production scheduling and control can go a long way in helping 3D printing service providers ensure higher productivity and on-time delivery. 

With MES software, capable of meeting 3D printing requirements, production becomes better controlled and organised, enabling your team to know what and when an order should be produced and how long it will take. 

Effectively managed production allows 3D printing workflow to run closer to clockwork, in the end, cementing customer satisfaction and driving sustainable business growth. 

Learn more about production management software for 3D printing and additive manufacturing


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