5 Supply Chain Makeovers Powered by 3D Printing
Talk to any manufacturer, and you will hear the same story, I can't get my part to make my products, or my product is stuck at the port, and I have no idea when to expect it. For the global manufacturers, supply chain issues present the biggest threat to productivity and their ability to meet the critical business deadline.
These ever-persistent supply chain issues continue to antagonize businesses of all types and sizes, manifesting as anything from a tequila drought at your local bar to medical supply shortages to companies like Apple leaking billions at the hands of chip shortages. The expert prognosis is that external supply chain issues are likely here to stick around for the foreseeable future.
However, by bringing in a fast and reliable professional 3D printing platform, manufacturing businesses can bypass many of these risks — while also making their supply chains tighter and more efficient than before, with full control.
So, how specifically are companies using 3D printing to regain more control over their production processes by lowering their dependence on suppliers while streamlining the supply chains to be more efficient and less disruptable than ever? Read this article to learn how, with Five real-life examples — organizations from the U.S. Army to manufacturers of aircraft parts and wind turbines.
Vestas, based in Denmark is a global leader in wind energy. With 15 manufacturing plants and +151 Gigawatts (GW) of wind turbines in 86 countries, Vestas is the world's largest on and offshore manufacturer of both wind turbines and wind turbine blades.
Supply chain challanges
For Vestas, many critical tools and parts are needed at each manufacturing facility and installation site. Tools like inspection gauges are needed to ensure precision and accuracy in the manufacturing and installation processes. Vestas has no room for error during manufacturing and installation: wind turbines are expensive machines, and downtime can be costly.
These critical tools have traditionally been sourced from multiple vendors around the world with detailed manufacturing instructions, such as the inspection gauges and top center (TC) marking tools. The finished parts would be sent to the various Vestas sites, inspected for compliance, and — once approved — put to use.
Unfortunately, some of the final parts supplied by local manufacturers were not 100% to spec and did not pass final inspection. This resulted in final product delivery and installation delays. Lead times would average about Five weeks for some parts and a minimum of 12 weeks for others.
Supply Chain Solution
Due to the strength and material properties of Markforged's continuous fiber-reinforced (CFR) composite parts made with Onyx, many parts that were previously machined could be 3D printed on-site on the Markforged indutrial 3D printer - the X7, instead of using third party manufacturers.
Vestas turned to the cloud-based Digital Forge to solve these supply chain problems with additive manufacturing, and launched its direct digital manufacturing (DDM) program in 2021. With a network of 3D printers at Vestas's many different sites, connected by Markforged Eiger™ 3D printer software, employees at any Vestas location — with little to no expertise in additive manufacturing — can easily access a cloud-based digital inventory of 2000+ Vestas parts.
Thanks to this digital repository, Vestas employees can print up-to-spec parts on a moment's notice, anywhere in the world, without the need for specialists. Printed using exact digital specifications with the accuracy of the Digital Forge, Vestas does not have to worry about parts failing compliance tests. Vestas can verify the accuracy of their tools during the fabrication process using Markforged Blacksmith™ software for in-process inspection, analysis, and reporting.
Manufactured lead times are dramatically reduced, from 5-12 weeks to just 1-2 days. Costs for each part were dramatically reduced, and ongoing shipping and freight costs were eliminated.
3D printing applications expanded in many new directions. The range of available materials has also grown to fit new needs. Materials now fit specialized purposes, such as aerospace-grade composites that are stronger than machined aluminum but with just a fraction of the weight.
Supply Chain Challenge:
The Fort Irwin National Training Center requires many specialized resources, such as military-grade vehicles and equipment, to provide realistic battlefield training. The equipment receives a tremendous amount of wear and tear due to repeated use, as the NTC is constantly training new sets of soldiers for deployments.
If any part broke during training, it historically meant that soldiers would simply have fewer resources to use at the training center. Due to the Fort Irwin National Training Center being based in a remote location, replacement parts would carry lead times of up to 3 months.
A single part breaking could have severe ramifications on the quality of training for a squadron — even just a single component could render a piece of equipment or vehicle completely unusable.
Supply Chain Solution:
With metal 3D printing (Metal X system), a Markforged X3, and a desktop 3D printer (Mark Two), bringing additive manufacturing on-site to Fort Irwin through the Digital Forge has helped the Army NTC create readiness factors and maintain availability of equipment and vehicles to be used in training.
The U.S. Army's Markforged composite printers have been used to print personal protective equipment (PPE), military vehicle parts (window wiper brackets, hatch plugs, and more), an assortment of tools, and other low-volume production parts.
One specific application has saved the U.S. Army $244,000 alone — hatch plugs that sit on top of vehicles, used in low-light scenarios to help the driver see at night. The hatch plug is a critical low-volume replacement part for a specific component that is not in production and no longer available anymore. Without in-house additive manufacturing, each hatch plug would cost roughly $10,000 to reproduce and carry a 3-month lead time. On the Digital Forge, hatch plugs could be printed in Onyx for $230, or with 17-4PH Stainless Steel for $800.
Nieka Systems creates sample preparation equipment that enables their customers in the mining and cement production industries to analyze and ensure quality in their manufacturing processes. Nieka's machines convert ore or cement samples into glass discs that are later used to make precise compositional analyses of the samples.
Nieka's machines work by mixing and dissolving material samples in molten borate flux in a platinum crucible at temperatures exceeding 1000 degrees Celsius. These platinum crucibles are suspended over gas burners or electric heating elements by thin metal clips which connect the crucible to the machine. When the sample is fully dissolved in the flux, the machine upends the crucibles and pours the molten contents into a platinum mold to cool. Later the room-temperature prepared samples can be removed and analyzed via X-ray in a separate machine.
Supply chain challenge:
Initially, Nieka outsourced manufacturing of Inconel-based crucible clips to a third-party service bureau to 3D print. However, lead times were slow, highly variable, and difficult to forecast.
Nieka was a growing business: its products were available to customers in over 20 countries around the world. But due to the slow lead times and uncertainties associated with using the service bureaus, Nieka faced growing uncertainties about their ability to keep up with global demand for their products.
Supply chain solution:
Bringing additive manufacturing in-house with the Metal X system, Nieka has been able to manufacture its Inconel crucible clips in drastically reduced lead times that are consistent and predictable.
From start to finish, each batch of Inconel crucible clips can be made, and put to use, in just four days. Compared to the third party manufacturer's average lead time of over four weeks per batch, this is an 86% reduction in lead times.
Producing each batch of the crucible clips is also ten times cheaper than the price of outsourcing their production to the third party manufacturer. Louis Croisetiere Ph.D, Founder of Nieka Systems, estimates that Nieka saves an average of $108,000 CAD per year from this application alone.
3D printing technology could dramatically change the future of supply chains. From a reduction in costs, production speed, and supply chain risks to accelerating innovation, the technology may be at the forefront of an industrial revolution.
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