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Leveraging On-Demand Additive Manufacturing To Overcome Inventory Challenges

Donovan Weber, President of Forecast3D

It’s no secret that today’s original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) face an array of supply chain management issues. These challenges include the financial burden of housing spare and replacement parts, the negative environmental impacts of managing physical inventories and maintaining ownership over production schedules.

To address these varying levels of complexity, many in the industry are supplementing conventional methods with emerging technologies such as additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing.

AM is a computer-controlled process that creates three-dimensional objects by depositing layer upon layer of material to produce smaller batches of production parts. This method is especially ideal for small-batch or on-demand production. Based on my experience in the industry, the following are a few scenarios to consider when looking into AM.

Product Storage: Automotive Parts As An Example

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Traditionally, product components have been stored on warehouse shelves and can take up physical space for years. The automotive industry is a prime example, as a host of aftermarket vehicle parts are produced in mass quantities and often stored at multiple locations to meet consumer demands. There is no exact science to this projection-based manufacturing method for spare parts, and as a result, OEMs are likely to be left with what’s known as dead or obsolete inventory. Since it is difficult to predict how many spare parts will be needed, this makes buying soon-to-be-obsolete parts a big gamble for OEMs in terms of potentially wasting money.

Instances like the above are when I recommend utilizing AM and when it truly shines as a method to create parts as demanded by consumers. Preparation is paramount to leveraging AM as a tool to mitigate product storage needs. When considering partnership options, be sure your team chooses an AM supplier that has machines on-site and certified quality systems in place that you can verify. Also, these manufacturing specialists should be keenly focused on the production process. A well-designed, highly organized approach will help to ensure OEMs receive quality parts every time they have on-demand orders.

But lost revenue is not the only concern when it comes to overstocking items. This practice takes up valuable warehouse space, and maintaining physical inventories also drains financial resources to support facility upkeep.

Environmental Concerns

According to a July 2016 peer-reviewed article published in the International Journal of Production Research, storage and material handling processes in warehouses contribute significantly to harmful carbon dioxide emissions. The use of 3D printing — particularly the application of digital inventories — offers a viable solution for OEMs that is more strategic and less wasteful of resources. AM supports manufacturing by turning designs into digital files that are readily accessible for needs ranging from rapid prototyping to mass production. This print-on-demand strategy reduces the need for long-term physical storage, especially when customer requests are fulfilled in real time.

As with other forms of manufacturing, there are best practices to reduce AM’s environmental impacts. Above all, make sure you’ve aligned, planned and executed your production plan to mitigate unacceptable parts. Not every part has the same dimensional, mechanical or cosmetic requirements. Look at the parts for what their end use is intended for and adjust accordingly. The freedom to print on demand still requires thoughtful preparation to avoid overproducing parts. Also, look at renewable energy options and how your AM production factory can benefit from utilizing these sustainable resources.

Limits To AM As A Solution For OEM Challenges

OEMs are already beginning to make the jump to leveraging digital inventories, but this is an ongoing transition that will not happen overnight. AM is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges OEMs face. Here are some examples to consider:

• Subassemblies that streamline repair and replacement processes for OEMs have many complex pieces and moving parts and are sometimes too difficult to produce with AM.

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• For highly aesthetic components, AM is not always the most cost-effective method because of certain manufacturability constraints.

• Conventional manufacturing methods may utilize different raw materials to produce parts; in these instances, alternative raw materials used in AM must be verified and validated to meet industry and regulatory standards.

An Evolving Model

As manufacturing processes and consumer demands continue to evolve, OEMs and AM will continue to intermingle. There will always be a need for physical inventory, but I recommend your business look into ways to minimize it and, as a result, reduce environmental impacts and improve your bottom line.

To incorporate AM into your operations strategy effectively, you need to work with your AM production supplier in a collaborative nature to formulate a game plan with measurable goals. Management needs to understand that the impact of AM will not be realized overnight; rather, it is a journey. You must trust the process, but do your due diligence in vetting AM suppliers.

Based on the need, industries can benefit from employing digital inventories as OEMs seek smaller physical footprints to store products. Without a doubt, I believe leveraging digital inventories is a step in the direction of progress. But keep in mind, proactivity and future planning will be crucial to evolving with the times.

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