How Can Consumer Goods Brands Transform Their Additive Manufacturing Operations?

03 June 2021
additive manufacturing in the consumer goods sector

While additive manufacturing has long been a part of consumer product development, it has massive potential for innovation in product manufacturing. 

However, it’s one thing to talk about its potential. It’s quite another to establish efficient, scalable AM operations that bring value both for customers and the company’s bottom line.

This article will dive into the challenges to efficient AM workflow and highlight the solutions to help set AM operations up for success. 

Additive manufacturing in the consumer goods sector 

Complex factors are shaping the consumer goods sectors, creating new operational concerns for businesses. 

On the one hand, brands continue to adjust to digital trends in e-commerce. At the same time, the rise of digital transformation also brings forth new business models like direct-to-consumer selling. 

On the other hand, brands have to deal with the challenge of finding a balance between consumer pressure to embrace sustainability versus what actually sells. These pressures, coupled with the all-time need to grow rapidly while shrinking lead times and dealing with demand volatility, drive complexity across the end-to-end supply chain. 

Consumer goods manufacturing moves from global-sourcing to near-sourcing, delayed to instantaneous, and manual to automated through these macro and micro trends. 

Additive manufacturing is one of the newest technologies consumer goods companies adopt to drive resilience and innovation. 

The business case for AM in the consumer goods industry is the ability to accelerate product design and prototyping, customise products, enable lean production processes with less waste, and produce parts with enhanced complexity/functionality that would be difficult to achieve with traditional manufacturing means. 

Read also: 10 Exciting Ways 3D Printing is Being Used in the Consumer Goods Industry

Together, these benefits of AM enable new business models and opportunities for operational efficiencies that early adopters can leverage for a competitive advantage. 

That said, using AM internally is not without challenges. AM operations can quickly become bogged down with inefficiencies if not managed properly, slowing down order fulfilment and hampering scalable growth. 

So what are the signs of inefficient additive manufacturing workflow, and what solutions can help optimise it?

Four challenges to managing AM operations in the consumer goods industry 

1. Complicated internal ordering of 3D-printed prototypes and parts  

Most consumer goods companies that are using AM produce hundreds if not thousands of parts per year. It means AM labs and facilities receive dozens of daily production orders, putting much pressure on lab technicians and managers who often have to deal with the orders manually. 

Consider this example of an ordering workflow at the 3D printing lab at L’Oreal.  A typical scenario of ordering a prototype would require engineers at L’Oréal to send emails with production requirements and 3D design files or even bring USB sticks to a 3D printing lab to have their files 3D-printed. 

On the back end, 3DLab assistants had to calculate the cost of orders. And while the cost was fixed per parts, sometimes, when a customer ordered several hundred parts, a special price would have to be created to reflect this. 

Any manager who has to deal with such a workflow would confirm that it’s unscalable, and the manual cost calculations and order management bring little value to the process. 

So what can AM managers do to streamline the ordering process?

AMFG for Order management in additive manufacturing and 3D printing

In L’oreal’s case, the company found the solution in investing in AM workflow management tools that help automate order submission and handling. 

Several such solutions exist on the market today. More advanced software for additive manufacturing management provides the ability to set up a web-based request portal linked to the back-end system. 

With a portal, engineers and designers who want their files 3D-printed select from pre-designed options and can see the price and lead time for their parts in a matter of minutes. 

This information is then automatically transferred to the back-end system, where AM lab managers can track the requests, prioritise them, and schedule production. 

By streamlining and standardising order submission through automation, AM labs and facilities can accelerate order fulfilment. This can directly impact lead times, whether it’s delivery or product development. 

2. Centralising siloed data 

Data tends to be organised by internal departments. AM shop floor, finance, administration, and other departments need different information to do their work, and those individual collections of often overlapping-but-inconsistent data are in separate silos. 

As the quantity and diversity of data grow, silos continue to grow too. 

In AM, such silos typically occur because of disparate, outdated data management systems, such as spreadsheets, used to organise projects and schedule AM production. 

However, AM production planning, forecasting and reporting are commonly collaborative activities, meaning that they typically require information from different departments. In addition, the final documents are often a result of multiple exchanges of data and files.

Experience will tell you that collecting data in spreadsheets and exchanging it via emails is susceptible to duplicate and even erroneous data. Teams using spreadsheets tend to find it hard to keep track of similar files going back and forth and sometimes even end up using or sharing the wrong version.

This tells us that spreadsheets can’t really support quick decision-making and are unsuitable for establishing workflow transparency and real-time access to data.

What can be done to remove data silos in additive manufacturing? 

To enable tight collaboration and data sharing between departments, it’s advisable to set up a centralised, connectivity-driven platform for production management. 

While many consumer goods companies already use ERP software to manage their operations, such software proves insufficient for organising, tracking and executing AM production. 

Removing silos in additive production is one of the most critical capabilities of Additive MES platforms. It implies the ability of an MES platform to connect production and operation systems so that they can communicate with each other for maximum efficiency. 

Additive MES software allows organisations to connect all their internal AM workflows (for example, through API integrations with ERPs and PLMs) and production centres (through a centralised platform), if it’s operating in multiple locations. Digitising workflow in this way helps to avoid error-prone manual practices, like re-entry of data from one system to another. 

Finally, connected processes ensure that you have complete visibility and keep operations uniform across multiple sites.

3. Shifting to on-demand additive manufacturing

In the quest for more sustainable experiences, many consumer goods brands are exploring localised, on-demand production options. 

Additive manufacturing provides such an option for a growing range of products, like footwear, eyewear, toys, and sporting goods. 

However, setting up an on-demand AM facility is going beyond the purchase of AM systems. Because AM differs from traditional manufacturing, using AM in the on-demand production model requires a substantial step-change. 

One solution that will be instrumental in driving on-demand additive manufacturing is digital inventories.

AMFG digital catalogue

Digital inventories are software applications that store all relevant information about the parts you want to 3D print, including CAD models and production requirements. 

A single digital system storing AM parts makes it easy and straightforward to find the design file and all the necessary data about the part, like the required process and material. 

To fully benefit from digital inventory, it’s essential to connect it with your other IT systems like ERP and MES. Digitally linking your virtual inventory and production management software will allow you to order parts and send them for production with a click of a button, ultimately saving huge amounts of time and effort.

Read also: 4 Ways Digital Inventory Can Support Your Additive Manufacturing Operations

4. Increasing efficiency of AM operations

Increasing the operational efficiency of AM departments and factories is no mean feat. Many such facilities rely on static production planning tools offering little to no real-time visibility. Without visibility, fully understanding AM system utilisation and capacity becomes difficult. 

At the same time, maintaining and/or increasing AM product consistency and quality presents another challenge for manufacturers. Process variability remains common in additive manufacturing, making repeatable quality a goal that many struggle to achieve. 

To increase efficiency in AM, companies need a centralised management system to control the entire process and drive quality while managing costs.

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

For example, additive MES facilitates a paperless workflow that helps keep stakeholders on the same page while enforcing repeatable processes through automation. 

Furthermore, advanced MES can create a fully documented and secure audit trail and provide revision control, essential for complying with standards, such as ISO 9001. 

Importantly, leading-edge AM management solutions allow companies to link their AM systems and feed machine data into MES. Access to AM systems’ data can make it easier to schedule AM jobs and monitor build statuses, material levels, machine uptime and utilisation rates. 

Armed with the data, AM managers can work with the operators to identify bottlenecks, such as underperforming equipment, and take proactive actions to improve throughput and quality.

Streamlining AM operations for competitive advantage

As consumer goods companies adopt additive manufacturing for prototyping and production, they need to be ready to deal with the challenges in managing complex AM workflows. 

Additive MES software has been designed to ease 3D printing workflow complexity through automation and coordination of processes. By streamlining additive operations, companies in the consumer goods sector position themselves to 3D print parts faster and more reliably. 

At the same time, they can lay the groundwork for enhanced traceability, team communication and decision-making with the help of advanced additive MES software. 

Taking it all together, it’s plain to see that companies that bring to bear the right solutions for AM will be rewarded with superior performance, unlocking more resources for innovation and growth. 

Discover how AMFG can help you

With system connectivity, workflow automation and an extensive range of software integrations, our additive MES and workflow software offers a complete solution to help consumer goods companies achieve connected, scalable AM processes across their organisations and supply chains. 

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