The Most Common 3D Printing Workflow Bottlenecks – And How to Fix Them

19 March 2021
3d printing workflow bottlenecks and how to fix them2

Process bottlenecks in 3D printing are virtually inevitable yet, left unresolved, they can impact your company’s ability to deliver parts on time, incur additional costs, and restrict your company’s growth.

Bottlenecks can occur for any number of reasons, but recognising these bottlenecks and fixing them early on is essential for success.

In this guide, we’ll dive into how to identify 3D printing workflow bottlenecks and resolve them efficiently.

6 Signs that you have a bottleneck

So how do you know if you have a bottleneck?

Several signs are signalling that there is a bottleneck somewhere within your 3D printing workflow: 

  • Long wait times: Does it take too long to get back to a customer with a quote or receive additional information on an order from them?

  • Backlogged work: Does the work get piled up continuously at different stages, e.g. the order submission or post-processing steps?

  • Missing delivery schedules: Are you constantly missing expected delivery deadlines, causing customer dissatisfaction?

  • A lot of failed parts: Do you have to deal with a lot of rework or 3D printer calibrations because of the frequent printing failures?

  • Irregular maintenance frequency: Do you have to deal with frequent equipment maintenance due to unexpected breakdowns?

  • Unpredictable lead times: Are you facing challenges in accurately estimating production lead times? 

How can you identify the root cause of the bottleneck?

If you said yes to one or more of the questions above, it’s a good time to start assessing your workflow in more detail to identify the root cause of the bottlenecks. 

The first thing you need to do is to map your processes. When you map your workflow, you create a list of steps, which determine the results that the process should achieve.

Once the process is mapped, spend some time monitoring it to see whether or not the steps and their duration are meeting standards.

As you’ve mapped your process, you also need to look at two key areas of your workflow to find any slowdowns: performers and systems.

Performers are any people (employees, manufacturing partners, etc.) that are involved in the workflow in some capacity. 

Systems are any technology or apps that handle tasks related to your workflow (e.g. spreadsheets, 3D printers, post-processing stations etc.).

Performer-based bottlenecks

In performer-based bottlenecks, a certain task is regularly taking longer than it should. Here are some common performer-based bottlenecks in 3D printing and additive manufacturing workflow: 

  • It takes a lot of time to perform low value-add tasks 

For example, one service bureau identified that calculating prices for 3D printing requests should ideally take them less than five minutes, whereas in reality employees would spend 30 minutes or more quoting 3D printing requests.

  • Key human resources shortfalls 

If you have one staff member dealing with a lot of tasks, like communicating with customers, quoting parts, fixing file errors, there is a chance that one of the processes that they are responsible for will run at a limited capacity. 

  • Miscommunication along the production line 

To illustrate, imagine a scenario when a 3D design went through several iterations and a new version was agreed with a customer. However, a technician responsible for production didn’t receive the updated information and sent the wrong design file for production, which resulted in waste. 

  • Poor inventory management 

As a manufacturing business, you will be familiar with the need to bring in materials efficiently so that they’re ready to be deployed when manufacturing starts. Excess materials need to be stored safely to be ready for use.

However, with poor inventory management, there may be a delay in delivery. Not having the supplies ready for use causes a bottleneck before manufacturing can even begin.

  • A lack of visibility 

Another cause of a bottleneck may be a 3D printing shop manager who is unaware of what happens during each stage of a process due to a lack of end-to-end visibility of logistics management, the supply chain value stream, and the operation cycle.

System-based bottlenecks

On the other hand, if the process is delayed due to a slow system, or other technology-related cause, it’s a system-based bottleneck. Here are some common system-related bottlenecks in 3D printing and additive manufacturing workflow: 

  • Siloed data management tools 

When you receive 3D printing requests via emails and store data in spreadsheets, there is a great chance that, with the increasing number of requests, these systems will prove inefficient and lacking real-time visibility. 

  • 3D printers are unable to keep up with demand 

3D printers don’t have enough capacity to meet the demand, leading to other processes following the bottleneck to operate at a lower capacity as well.

  • Faulty equipment 

Equipment bottlenecks can simultaneously be the simplest and most complicated bottlenecks to fix. On one hand, you’ll be immediately aware of any 3D printer or post-processing station breakdowns.

But on the other hand, additive manufacturing equipment is highly specialised and replacing or repairing AM systems can cause enormous bottlenecks.

Fixing bottlenecks in 3D printing and additive manufacturing 

To remove bottlenecks, you need to achieve a balance of people, process and technology. Here are some ways to achieve this: 

Automate manual, low value-added operations

Manual, repetitive approaches to managing 3D printing processes – including cost calculations, project data gathering and tracking, file conversions, error fixing and customer updates – is a large cause of bottlenecks in the 3D printing workflow. 

Automating these tasks will reduce wasted time, eliminate human error, and save hours, so people can do work that is more valuable to their companies. 

For example, the 3D printing service bureau, Makelab, uses a digital platform to automate the quotation process. 

Before implementing it, Makelab’s team had to quote 3D parts manually, whereas now its customers are using a web-based portal to upload files and receive a quote in just 4 easy steps. Additionally, customers can set up accounts and view the status of their projects as well as their order history – which streamlines the process of updating customers on their order status. 

Optimise capacity 

One way to deal with capacity issues is redesigning the set-up on your factory floor or simply diverting more resources into the production bottleneck. Elevating the capacity (more workers or machines) of the bottleneck could allow the workstation to catch up with the backlog during a high period of demand.  

Other solutions also include adding capacity by automating the process further, for example, with the help of production management software, which can help optimise build preparation and job routing to 3D printers. 

More on this: How Can MES and Workflow Software Transform Production Planning for Additive Manufacturing?

Address miscommunication and lack of visibility 

To ensure smooth and efficient 3D printing production, you’ll ultimately have to ditch the spreadsheets and switch to a centralised system that allows for real-time visibility into operations. 

This means getting visibility into all 3D printing projects you need to fulfil, deadlines, priorities, worksheets with relevant data, machine statuses and other information. 

This way, you can ensure a high level of synchronisation and transparency, allowing you to be as responsive as possible, no matter what unexpected delay might occur.  

Minimise downtime

Critical equipment can be damaged at a moment’s notice. Other than regular maintenance schedules to keep this equipment operational, you must have contingency plans in case of a worst-case situation. You do not want to be caught off-guard by any critical machinery breakdowns.

Optimise 3D printing production using AMFG’s workflow automation and MES solutions

While bottlenecks are virtually inevitable, identifying them to learn where improvements could be made is valuable. 

Production optimisation requires ongoing effort, and so should be eliminating bottlenecks considered a continuous improvement process, but one that will enable your company to thrive.

The good news is that using advanced workflow automation solutions can help you to identify and resolve 3D printing bottlenecks more efficiently. For example, AMFG’s additive MES and workflow software can: 

  • Automate 3D printing price calculations and request submission 
  • Generate worksheets and schedule production 
  • Collect process and machine data to identify drops in productivity and quality
  • Centralise data to provide easy access to it across every department, removing delays in paper transfer

Ultimately, the goal is always to improve your 3D printing operations as a whole, instead of improving its parts in isolation.

The only way to do this is by understanding where the bottlenecks are and aligning the company’s and team’s efforts behind optimising them.

Discover how AMFG’s MES can minimise the impact of bottlenecks on your 3D printing business or department and help your bottom line.


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