What is a Smart Factory?

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.

About Smart Factories and the Innovation Process

Different industries have varying definitions of the term “smart factory.” Some industries focus primarily on connectivity with manufacturing machines to limit unexpected downtime and increase throughput and productivity. Smart factories built around 3D printing technologies for flexible on-demand manufacturing can support innovators throughout product development. These smart factories are more than “connected factories.” They streamline production with flexible processes and increase capacity without additional capital burden.

Innovators leverage smart factories to help them quickly move from prototyping through low volume and high volume production. In addition to new product development, companies can withstand supply chain disruptions by leveraging 3D printing in a smart factory as an on-demand production method. Smart factories provide more flexibility for manufacturing various products with predictable fixed and variable cost structures.

3D printing helps innovators streamline each stage of the innovation process:

Building 3D-printable models: The initial CAD model is imported and assessed for printability based on selected printer type and material. Estimated material use, batch size, and printing speed assist with material and printer resource planning. Light Weighting: Before printing, latticing can be applied to the structure – as needed – to ensure the printed product will satisfy its mechanical properties and minimize weight. Simulation and analysis: The initial digital model of the product is examined using finite element analysis (FEA) and other simulations to ensure the part achieves the mechanical properties required for the application.

Aesthetic prototyping: Easily printing an initial prototype helps the aesthetic evaluation of the finished product. The appearance, texture, and color can be assessed and modified before producing a functional prototype. Part orientation, printing batch size, and support structure are also evaluated to achieve aesthetic goals.

Functional prototyping and testing: A functional prototype is printed to evaluate production part performance. Part orientation, printing batch size, and support structure are optimized for production quality, yield, and speed. This process gives the production and design teams the ability to quickly make final design modifications to maximize production throughput, scalability, and cost.

3D Printing Smart Factories Simplify Manufacturing

3D printing smart factories are uniquely positioned to provide flexible, agile, and distributed production capacity on-demand and at scale compared to traditional and in-house 3D printers. 3D printing smart factories simplify manufacturing and can easily support low and high-volume production. Designers use a cloud-connected 3D printer to produce and iterate their designs locally throughout the prototyping process. Once the product is finalized, the digital 3D-printable design is sent to the cloud-connected smart factory for production. By replicating the product at the smart factory, designers have greater control over the manufacturing process and final product.

3D Printing Smart Factories Simplify Manufacturing

Once a 3D-printed product is perfected and qualified to ensure high yield, production can be scaled up with a cloud-connected smart factory. The design can be sent into full-scale production without additional tooling costs or redesigns. Increased production will happen on the same machines and with the same production resins in the connected smart factory. No other tooling, CAPEX, or development is required. Contrast this with traditional processes like injection molding, which require expensive custom tooling to bring on new production capacity and design modifications to ensure high yield, high-quality production. With 3D printing smart factories, there is on-demand capacity, and the process from innovation through production scale is faster, more agile, and cost-competitive.

Companies that use 3D printing for prototyping and production eliminate many of the inefficiencies that occur in traditional manufacturing processes and the risk when transitioning from prototyping to production. 3D printing is adaptable to a broad range of products, and no tooling is required for production runs. Companies that utilize 3D printing solutions with a connected smart factory for on-demand production scale achieve an agile manufacturing strategy supporting distributed global production and can produce multiple products on-demand with predictable costs and lead times.

Vertically Integrated Solutions

Smart factories are data-driven and use production and yield data to optimize processes, ensuring high yield and throughput and consistent production between machines. With machine learning and a vertically integrated solution consisting of hardware, software, and materials, smart factories can deliver quality and consistency from batch-batch and printer to printer while simplifying the scaling process. 3D printing companies that offer a fully integrated design software suite, fast production 3D printers, access to 3D printers in a cloud-connected smart factory, and a line of advanced materials can support and guide customers through the end-to-end process of producing at scale.

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.

Production Strategies

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

Cure box

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.

Reinvent Smart Manufacturing with LuxCreo

Manufacturers need to be agile and better respond to changing demand and supply chain risks. LuxCreo is transforming how manufacturers do business by giving manufacturers access to flexible, on-demand production capacity and greater control from prototyping to production. LuxCreo’s cloud-connected 3D printers allow manufacturers to qualify their designs in-house and instantly scale on the same technology platforms in a smart factory. Users can control production at scale and adopt an agile manufacturing business model with predictable cost structures and lead times.

To learn more on how LuxCreo’s smart factory is transforming a consumer business, please read this case study on the mass customization of eyewear.

Manufacturers who want to implement an agile manufacturing strategy should explore LuxCreo’s advanced 3D printing systems that use a patented LEAP™ (Light Enabled Additive Production) process. Companies in various industries and verticals can leverage flexible, on-demand production in-house or in a Smart Factory with cloud-connected 3D printers and advanced materials. For more information on how our services can improve your supply chain and manufacturing processes, visit our contact page or call (650) 336-0888.