Manufacturers are continually focusing on producing more goods efficiently, with less waste and higher throughput. A smart factory is the natural evolution of mechanized production and assembly, where manufacturing assets interconnect with command and control systems, giving production teams high visibility and more control into manufacturing operations. Two technologies enable smart factories: connectivity and networking assets like IoT devices and flexible production processes like 3D printing.
As 3D printing systems have become more advanced and flexible for a broader range of products, more smart factories incorporate 3D printing as a standard process. A modern smart factory is a cloud-connected factory that replicates local manufacturing success with 3D printing and increases production capacity without increasing capital investments. Companies that want access to flexible, on-demand manufacturing capacity should select an outsourcing partner that provides access to advanced 3D printing solutions in a smart factory. Accessible via the cloud, smart factories that incorporate 3D printing give companies an on-demand option for prototyping, high-mix, low-volume manufacturing, or full-scale production.
Manufacturing Processes in Smart Factories
Smart factories enable production globally, while 3D printing simplifies the production of a high mix of products. Bringing the two together creates an ideal solution for on-demand, scalable production for new and existing products. Companies can even leverage 3D printing in smart factories to transform businesses by offering custom products and same-day turnaround times.
The most advanced smart factories leveraging 3D printing use an advanced production process like DLP, or next-generation LCD, providing high-throughput and reproducibility. These production processes also incur much less post-processing than other 3D printing processes or traditional processes. Because of the unique characteristics of 3D printing as a primary production process, manufacturers can implement alternative production strategies, including localizing production closer to their customers, to help them stay more agile.
Manufacturers can implement novel manufacturing and distribution strategies, such as:
Customized products: 3D printers enable fully customized products, including dental devices (retainers, night guards, etc.), eyewear, and medical devices (braces, medical pillows, orthopedic inserts). Products can be produced with a quantity of 1 at costs competitive with products produced at a quantity of 1000.
High-mix, low-volume: Some products have many SKUs within a single product line. D printing enables multiple product SKUs to be produced in a batch because it requires no tooling. A single process can produce many product variations on-demand with mixed quantities for each SKU.
Just-in-time manufacturing: Smart factories allow immediate production capacity via the cloud, both for one-off designs or high-volume production. Companies can instantly respond to demand when their existing production capacity is full or offline.
Agile manufacturing: Companies testing the waters for new products or who expect fluctuating demand may take an agile approach, where products move in and out of production in response to customer demand and inventory levels.
With traditional automated manufacturing processes, these strategies are cost-prohibitive or infeasible. Custom products are mostly manual processes and incur high costs and material waste. 3D printing in a smart factory is the primary production choice to enable these strategies due to its fixed cost structure and eliminated or lower MOQs.
Technologies Applied in Smart Factories
Smart factories leverage hardware and software technologies:
3D printing machine
Advanced design software for converting physical scans and CAD models into 3D-printable files
Quality control equipment: scanning and testing
A suite of integrated machine sensors: vibrational, alignment (leveling sensors), vision, resin tank level, temperature, and other sensors for monitoring production equipment
Environmental sensors (temperature, humidity, etc.)
Networking equipment for connecting production equipment
Data acquisition and analytics software
With the introduction of machine learning in smart factories, data acquired by sensors is used for more than just streamlining production. Machine learning enables tasks like predictive maintenance, smart scheduling, generative design, and more. Additionally, smart factories take data captured during production and use it to make actionable decisions that ensure high efficiency, quality, and throughput.
Advantages of 3D Printing in a Smart Factory
3D printing systems have become steadily more advanced and useful for the full-scale production of many products. Manufacturers in multiple industries now see several advantages by outsourcing production to a smart factory:
Cost-effective, low-volume manufacturing: Manufacturers can produce low-volume runs on-demand without incurring tooling costs. The costs of production are fixed and predictable, even for low-volume production.
Agility and scalability: Smart factories allow production capacity to scale as needed. Fast production turnaround time and high smart factory utilization are possible when orders are produced across batches, 3D printers, shifts, and smart factories. This agility and flexibility enable those that use 3D printing to shift production capacity between products and production locations quickly.
Speed up design to production: Products developed for 3D printing can use the same process across design, prototyping, and production, easing the transition to full-scale production.
Reduce supply chain risks: The ability to scale or shift capacity to on-demand allows companies to adapt to demand volatility and supply chain risks.