In the era of digital transformation, aerospace and defense (A&D) manufacturers aren’t asking if additive manufacturing (AM) can work for them — they’re asking how soon they can implement it.
The answer to that question is multi-layered.
AM (otherwise known as 3D printing) has created a great deal of interest in A&D manufacturers, due to its potential to save time and costs in the production of components. In 2013 alone, A&D contributed one-eighth of AM’s global revenue.
While some A&D companies are already embracing and experimenting with the technology, the industry as a whole isn’t ready to fully adopt AM just yet. Integrating AM into existing workflows is a long-term process, so preparation must begin long before implementation. A&D manufacturers cannot successfully embrace AM without first having the right technology, skill sets, and processes to support it.
As an A&D manufacturer, here’s what your business should have in place, prior to adopting AM.
Technology Foundation to Support AM
AM is one of the key technological advancements of Industry 4.0 and the AM process is designed to flow effectively with other modern systems. If your manufacturing business hasn’t embraced digital transformation in other ways, implementing AM smoothly will be near impossible.
The A&D companies leading the pack in digital transformation already report improvements in their operations, revenue, and innovation thanks to new technology. By broadly embracing digital transformation — through Big Data, predictive analytics, IoT devices, and more — you can prepare your company with a strong foundation before considering AM.
Before considering AM, manufacturers should be able to employ predictive analytics, by adopting digital tools that can gather and report on data in real-time to track changes and make predictions about trends in supply and demand.
Access to real-time information is essential, especially when implementing a new production process, as it enables leadership to make informed decisions quickly for the entire company. With a technology as robust and costly as AM, leadership must be able to respond to changes in production schedules, productivity, customer demands and more.
Supply Chain Visibility
Manufacturers should also have digital tools that enable full visibility into their supply chains. As the A&D supply chain has become more complex, manufacturers have struggled to mitigate costly risks in the chain. This becomes even more important when you add the complexity of managing cost and variety of materials for AM.
Real-Time Data and Communication
The use of IoT devices, ERP software solutions, and cloud technologies all lay a strong foundation for adopting AM. These technologies enable your company to gather and store data in a centralized location that all relevant team members can access. IoT devices can communicate with ERP systems to alert you when there’s a delay in production, an issue with a machine, or when equipment is in need of routine maintenance. These technologies also allow teams to communicate more efficiently, by enabling digital communication between you and your employees, suppliers, and customers. Smooth communication, data gathering, and equipment maintenance will all be crucial in smoothly adopting AM.
Education and Skilled Workers
Manufacturers will need workers who are skilled and knowledgeable in AM technology, and that will likely mean a blend of hiring experienced talent and training existing employees.
To find success in adopting AM, it’s important for your teams to not only understand the technology but be willing to embrace new mindsets; and think about the production process from new angles. The successful companies in this arena will be those that invest in both tools and talent with AM-specific skills, and spend the necessary hours training existing employees.
Top performing manufacturers are more apt to designate someone as a chief digital officer — even if that means widening a talent search outside of existing employees to other companies and universities. This chief officer should oversee new protocols associated with the AM process, like systems-wide pilot programs and quality management processes.
Digital tools that help to standardize business processes and store information can noticeably lessen the knowledge gap between your employees current skills and the skills they’ll need to use AM.
Quality Management Processes to Support Compliance
A&D companies will need to implement systems to reduce the potential for counterfeit 3D-printed parts entering the supply chain. Manufacturers should adopt digital tools to help track materials and parts throughout the supply chain, from the original source all the way through the production line.
This capability will be essential for AM adopters, as quality control methods are still being developed for this emerging technology; meaning the risks for safety and quality are still fairly high compared to more traditional manufacturing processes. Tracking and recording data such as part serialization and material sourcing will be paramount to success with AM, especially for A&D companies who must remain compliant with standards such as ISO 9001, AS9100, and ITAR.
Additive Manufacturing is Growing — Start Preparing Now
To see AM adopted successfully across the A&D industry, manufacturers must have the right technology, training, and quality management processes in place first. These preparations are non-negotiable if you want to reap the benefits of this advanced process.
AM has the potential to overhaul the way manufacturers handle product design, prototyping, equipment maintenance, and more; but diving into a complex new manufacturing method without a foundation in place will undermine a company’s success. If you’re aiming to embrace AM and be on the cutting-edge of manufacturing capabilities, it’s time to invest in technology that enables real-time data management and predictive analytics, in-depth training to promote a skilled workforce, and the latest standards for stringent quality control.