Part Two: A new era of personalized customer experiences: direct digital manufacturing
Who knew!? Surprising facts and future promise for additive manufacturing.
Read time: 5 minutes
If asked to name the most commonly 3D-printed object, what would you guess?
If you guessed custom teeth aligners, you are correct.
In fact, manufacturers of a variety of consumer healthcare accessories — from aligners and hearing aids to orthotics and casts — are turning out millions of person-specific products every day.
Mass customization via direct digital manufacturing, which includes additive manufacturing or 3D printing, has arrived in the healthcare accessory space and is growing fast.
Direct digital manufacturing is different from traditional manufacturing (e.g. injection molding). The "direct" in "direct digital manufacturing" reflects the fact that a part can go from CAD designer to production seamlessly. This eliminates the manifold process of creating shop drawings and milled molds found in traditional manufacturing and expands the designer’s possibilities through the new benefits of digitally controlled production equipment including additive manufacturing (3D printers), CNC machines, laser cutting machines, etc.
Additive manufacturing in particular brings a host of new capabilities that subtractive manufacturing of any kind (digital or traditional) do not because it creates an object by adding feedstock material layer by layer instead of starting with bar stock that is processed mechanically.
In the healthcare accessory market, companies like AlClair are even bringing competition to the earbud space by offering fully customized products. These vary by purpose (e.g. for a guitar player versus singer) but are also 100 percent personalized to a consumer’s specific ear. This is thanks to additive manufacturing.
In part one of this series, we talked about direct digital manufacturing being one of the fourth industrial revolution’s three tenets. The others are hyper-local production and mass customization of individual items.
What role does additive manufacturing (3D printing) play in this revolution? A big one.
Let’s explore why and how these revolutions can change the game for businesses looking to provide superior customer experiences.
Hyper local: delivering better service
Consider an auto parts manufacturer that has contracts with repair shops with SLAs to deliver parts within a specific timeframe. They have a traditional supply chain relying on mass-produced parts coming into a primary warehouse from overseas.
A call comes in from a customer who wants a part delivered, per their contract within a certain timeframe. If the manufacturer cannot deliver due to stressed supply chain factors or any other reason, they have an unhappy customer and are potentially in breach of contract.
However, if the part could be 3D printed nearby, it would fortify the manufacturer’s traditional supply chain. This would give them greater resilience to produce parts on demand. It would also empower the manufacturer to:
Reduce reliance on physical warehouse inventory
Eliminate additional shipping expenses
Deliver a better overall customer experience
Having access to both stock and print models can help this manufacturer better understand the financial benefits of keeping a specific part in the traditional supply chain, using local or dispersed advanced manufacturing to move it to on-demand use, in-country direct digital production, or set up approved suppliers who can enable a hybrid approach.
As illustrated in the eyeglass frame example, additive manufacturing opens the doors for mass customization versus mass-production. Once we are designing for “use” and not for “manufacturability,” personalization takes centerstage. With 3D printing, it doesn’t matter if you’re building 10 of the same object or 10 different objects. Each are treated as a production unit of one.
This is the concept of mass customization, allowing for a design to be adapted not only to the individual — such as custom prosthetics and orthotics — but also to the situation. This could be reverse engineering a spare part to account for warped fit.
Direct digital manufacturing
Direct digital manufacturing allows this all to happen. It’s the process of going from design to production in one seamless thread. Keeping these concepts in mind can enable new design strategies to include the production freedoms of additive manufacturing/3D printing.
This could include the capacity for organic shapes or complex geometry not possible with traditional manufacturing (such as the GE fuel nozzle example detailed in part one). It also minimizes material use, by only building from raw materials versus carving out a design from a block of existing material.
If you only need a few of something, and there is an advantage for that thing to be unique, then we live in a world where you shouldn’t have to negotiate shipping and customs to have that thing made for you.
Distributed manufacturing — also known as distributed production, local manufacturing, or decentralized manufacturing — seeks to leverage digital technologies to bring the locus of production closer to the source of consumption. The result will be bespoke, on-demand, domestic manufacturing that can address specific needs as they occur.
After reading the many benefits of additive manufacturing, it may be hard to understand why so few things in our day-to-day lives are produced on a 3D printer. As you might guess, there are some significant barriers to adoption, from skillset and regulatory considerations to reliability and supplier consistency. All of which we’ll delve into in part three in this series.
However, things are changing. As the fourth industrial revolution continues to evolve, there are many ways companies can leverage 3D printing now and prepare for expanded use in the future.
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