3D printing meets industrial production: What it needs to succeed

Technology moves from producing prototypes to producing parts for mission-critical environments.

Additive manufacturing is on the march in industrial production. Research shows that while two years ago, prototyping was the most popular use of the technology, today even more complex use cases – such as production parts, bridge production, repair or jigs, fixtures and tooling – have seen utilization rates soar, and in some cases double.

There are many reasons manufacturers are increasingly adopting 3D printing to produce parts, not the least because of its capability to work with commonly specified alloys, aluminum, titanium and even tricalcium phosphate – a ceramic used as bone substitute for patient-specific implantable devices in the human body. This means that regardless of whether a part will be subjected to conditions and stresses in the human body or in a jet turbine, 3D printing now produces parts durable for even the most demanding industrial application.

As 3D printing becomes integral to modern manufacturing operations, it must become integrated into supporting enterprise systems and interwoven with the latest industrial manufacturing methods to make a difference to operations and the bottom line.

3D printing is not vastly different from traditional methods. It’s typically part of a three-step production process which also includes blasting or shot peening and a machining step, which means relying on two different types of machines to complete an entire part and scheduling human resources to do the machining.

It also has limited capacity in terms of numbers of parts, so planning around these constraints may require a manufacturer to consider buffer capacity in the number of printers or at least strategic sourcing of otherwise unfillable orders to other entities with excess. This is where having enterprise resource planning (ERP) as an overarching system to aid additive manufacturing operations is crucial.

Adopters of additive manufacturing will need to plan production around the low volume constraints of 3D printing machinery and plan inventory of materials based on the demand plan. This requires the ERP software to recognize 3D printers as productive assets or workstations.

With 3D printing, the design is less constrained by manufacturability. 3D printing turn times can be lightning fast, so it’s imperative to make sure it is simple and intuitive to schedule both steps in the 3D printing of production parts for the same day. But without properly defined workflows in ERP for project integrated manufacturing, the organization itself will place constraints on what can be accomplished.

Best from the rest

ERP software plays a key part in optimizing production sequencing. The software must sequence parts based on certain characteristics so they can go through the printing and subsequent processes as quickly and inexpensively as possible. Optimal production sequencing gets the right parts into each step of production at the right time for faster turn times. Work should be handed off directly from one workstation to the next instead of allowing parts to linger as ‘work in progress’.

As more manufacturers get involved in 3D printing, those with the most refined ERP scheduling and sequencing system will achieve the fastest turn times and best part availability. Simple as it sounds, this can provide a manufacturer with a competitive advantage.

In configuring the software to accommodate additive manufacturing, manufacturers will also need to make good use of whatever demand-driven materials requirements planning (DDMRP) functionality they have access to. Ensuring high profitability without having to turn away orders during peak periods is key to see return on investment. When DDMRP capability is embedded, it helps manufacturers prepare for demand shocks with strategic buffer inventories of specific materials.

Leveraging DDMRP and ERP in the additive manufacturing process supports this goal in four different aspects:

Faster parts production. 3D printing enables manufacturers to design and produce parts that would be difficult or expensive to manufacture using traditional methods. However, to make production faster and more efficient, it needs to make use of DDMRP to plan around bottlenecks and constraints in the process.

Since one significant bottleneck will be the 3D printing unit itself, it is crucial to determine how many of these machines a facility needs – given a balance of demand and required utilization rate – to achieve ROI.

Reduced spares and repairs inventory. Additive manufacturing reduces the spares and repairs inventory, which has further cost-saving and business-boosting potential. A streamlined inventory enables manufacturers to focus efforts on maintaining their own assets, manufacture engineer-to-order products and even move into new revenue streams to support customers in aftermarket service contracts.

Waste reduction. Producing a part involves deburring, machining and blasting it to get it smooth and to specification—a process which generally creates excess material. Since 3D printing is an additive process – producing a discrete item or part – material removed during blasting and machining may be reground and used over again, which makes the method a good choice for manufacturers prioritizing waste reduction.

Keeping up with service needs. As additive manufacturing is asset-intensive, quality will almost entirely depend on the printer functioning within a tight range of values. Various quality problems associated with 3D printing are due to miscalibration of the machine in terms of temperature, nozzle size or speed.

Many manufacturers rely on annual service contracts with their equipment vendor to handle inspection and re-calibration. The manufacturer should make sure they have the software tools to support a condition-based maintenance program or the contract management tools to proactively manage deliverables against a contract. ERP can provide visibility and traceability into the service process to keep 3D printers operational.

The benefits of 3D printing don’t stop at new product development and regular design improvements. Even if an organization doesn’t use additive manufacturing for production parts, there is still substantial benefit to the iterative design process.

A company using 3D printing by default has a digital twin of each part, without having to go through a separate process to create it. In theory, a manufacturer should be able to assemble a digital maintenance model and use it to support a product such as a piece of machinery over its lifecycle.

With an optimum number of 3D printers, a strong business case and the right ERP software, manufacturers can unlock business value in design flexibility and lead times — all while reducing inventories.

Bill Leedale is a senior advisor at IFS in North America, a global enterprise software vendor with Canadian offices in Mississauga, Ont. and Ottawa. Visit


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