The economic downturn is definitely affecting all aspects of the manufacturing industry. Job cuts and budget freezes are happening throughout the industry - from designers and engineers through to the production line itself.
But despite the decline in confidence, manufacturing companies still need to carry on producing. They have to do business with less, which means greater efficiency at a lower cost.
But what does this mean? Is this an end to new designs and development, or simply a short term shift in priorities?
With news of the increasing decline in manufacturing and job cuts in the automotive industry, it is easy to think that the design and development industry is heading for dire straits. The recession may mean a reduction in projects and a call for leaner processes, but most manufacturers are not halting production altogether. In the last economic downturn, this need for greater efficiency and innovation meant that some makers of additive fabrication equipment for direct digital manufacturing (DDM) fared well, as the technology provided a viable, cost effective solution.
Large and small manufacturers alike have low-volume manufacturing needs, for which DDM is suited. For example, automotive manufacturers have on average 400 unique assembly tools, and each one in low quantities. Many manufacturers make products in quantities of a few thousand or less and an increasing number are producing customised products in low volumes.
These lower production volumes do not necessarily mean higher cost per part or sacrificing design and detail. Because DDM uses an additive process to manufacture the parts, it is much easier to produce complex designs than traditional manufacturing processes. Detailed parts do not take longer or cost more, as they often do with conventional manufacturing methods. In fact, the technology can help manufacturers manage tighter budgets. DDM also gives manufacturers the advantage of speeding up the production of parts, while allowing them to make design changes and customise parts during the production process.
Besides performing DDM, manufacturers can use the same additive fabrication technology to manufacture prototypes and help cut development costs. The same machine that builds final parts can produce fully functional prototypes for testing - saving costs and time, by bringing rapid prototyping in-house. The largest savings comes from the reduction in tooling costs and tooling rework, because in-house rapid prototyping allows the components' designs to be proven and perfected prior to machining a tool.
Another fundamental advantage of additive fabrication is the freedom of design that it allows. Using this fabrication process to produce parts means that a design engineer can essentially reject the rules that apply to 'designing for manufacturability' and focus on the function a part needs to perform. Design is no longer constrained by the limitations of conventional processes, such as injection moulding. DDM frees the product development team to design the perfect part for the application - without having to worry about adding costs or slowing down the project. For example, wall thickness can be varied throughout a DDM part and sharp corners can be included, rather than relying on using only rounded corners required for injected moulded parts.
As opposed to designing for manufacturability, designing the best part for a given function is suitable whether manufacturers are cost-cutting or not, and DDM can make this happen. Its speed and ease of use means that multiple iterations of a design can be tried and tested - and changed - during the production process without losing valuable time and money.
In short, DDM is a valuable investment to help designers and manufactures through lean times, but its flexibility and speed mean that even as the economy improves, an additive fabrication machine will never be one to sit and gather dust on the shopfloor.
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Tim B. Heller is the managing director of Stratasys EMEA, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. www.stratasys.com