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The technology for 3D printing in manufacturing has been around for a number of years, yet adoption for actual production is not widespread. One possible reason is the lack of a support ecosystem for on-demand printing services.
However, there are indications this stalemate is changing, as evidenced by a recent partnership between SAP and APWorks, a subsidiary of Airbus Group that provides 3D on-demand printing of parts for aerospace, automotive and other industries.
"This is a sign that we're in the early stages of addressing a critical part of the 3D printing process, and that's workflow software," said Pete Basiliere, research vice president of imaging and print services at Gartner. "Only in the last three or four months has there been commercially available software that helps a company or an educational institution to manage the 3D printing workflow."
The announcement comes on the heels of SAP's partnership with UPS Inc. to provide collaboration and certification cloud services for on-demand manufacturing, based on SAP HANA Cloud Platform, as well as an on-demand 3D printing manufacturing network. According to SAP, the services include digitization and simplification of the part approval process, analytics to determine the financial viability of on-demand printing versus traditional manufacturing of a part, and the routing of orders for part production and delivery.
APWorks plans to use these services to operate a network that connects it to its customers, including Airbus and other aerospace and automotive manufacturers.
Reduced costs and improved efficiencies with on-demand printing
APWorks was spun directly out of Airbus to use on-demand printing, also known as additive manufacturing, to produce parts, said Joachim Zettler, CEO of Airbus APWorks GmbH. It uses innovative technologies and materials, including a metal powder it calls Scalmalloy, to print parts that are as strong as titanium, but light as aluminum.
Scalmalloy allows APWorks to produce parts for aircrafts, such as the Airbus A300 and A310, that can reduce weight and increase fuel efficiency. On-demand printing also allows companies to create parts that combine several pieces into one assembly or take advantage of design capabilities that are not possible with traditional parts manufacturing.
On-demand printing is becoming an integral part of the manufacturing process, but up until now, it has lacked the back-end systems to manage workflow and business processes, according to Zettler.
"This is still the big question today. Additive manufacturing is always seen as, 'We can print whatever we want, whenever we need it and with the quality we want,'" he said. "But the reality looks a little bit different, especially for industrial applications."
This reality, Zettler explained, is in order to produce parts that meet the qualifications for the aerospace or automotive industries, many process steps need to be followed to meet customer demands. The partnership with SAP helps APWorks manage the process of producing parts by allowing it to tap directly into ERP systems that contain the parts information. This arrangement can help APWorks to determine what parts make sense to print, where and how they should be printed, and how the parts can be qualified in the end.
"In additive manufacturing, it's not only just about printing as most people think," Zettler said. "It's more to cover the whole additive manufacturing value chain -- from design, to production, to the quality check. You need to cover everything, or at least have knowledge about all those different processes."
On-demand manufacturing gains mainstream acceptance
The on-demand printing market is becoming more integrated into the manufacturing process, according to Bob McCutcheon, U.S. industrial products leader at PwC.
Recent advancements in the types of materials being used, the speed of the process, and the affordability of the machinery has helped gain mainstream acceptance and moved 3D printing from research and development and prototyping to final product production runs.
"This evolution has actually been pretty rapid, and I see this as being similar to other technologies that once you begin to get some mainstream acceptance, the ramp-up can be exponential," McCutcheon said. "I think we will see some widespread use of 3DP technology in a wide array of manufacturing environments in the next three to five years."
McCutcheon said he also believes the on-demand manufacturing market will inevitably spawn an ecosystem of companies of all sizes and types to provide services and support.
"There are technology companies who see themselves as players in this space, given the digital aspects of this, so I think you've got those tech companies and you've got traditional manufacturers," he said. "You have large players and small boutique players who often have innovative platforms that may ultimately grow into something larger, so there's a lot of innovation out there, and there are a lot of players starting to feel through where they can play in this space, because there's a huge potential market yet to be captured."
Filling the workflow gap
The partnership between SAP and APWorks addresses this need to make on-demand printing a more prominent part of the manufacturing process, Basiliere said.
Only SAP and a few smaller companies, including Materialise and Stratasys, currently offer software tools to manage the 3D printing workflow, but they will be essential as on-demand printing grows more ingrained in manufacturing, he said.
The ideal 3D printing workflow software ties together the company that produces the part with the customer. For the customer, this can mean creating a part's file, getting a cost estimate and filing the order to get the part made. For the producer, it can include generating a cost estimate, scheduling and tracking the job, keeping track of quality or rework, comparing the finished costs against the estimate and storing the part file after shipment.
The deals with APWorks and UPS show SAP recognizes the opportunity for these workflow applications to manage on-demand printing, Basiliere said.
"We're at the point now where 3D printing technologies are well-established and the number of users in enterprises of all stripes worldwide is growing," he said. "They're trying to account for these traditional manufacturing workflow kinds of problems, and what SAP is doing with UPS and APWorks is an example of a software provider seeing that opportunity and acting on it."
Integrating more on-demand printing in manufacturing involves processes that SAP enables, said Gil Perez, SAP's senior vice president of digital assets and internet of things. The first process is digitization of the parts files to prepare them for on-demand printing. Because many manufacturers have part catalogs that run in the millions and it doesn't make financial sense to print everything, SAP analytics allows companies to determine which parts are best suited for 3D printing.
"It costs money to do the digitization, so there needs to be some analytic tools to help you figure out -- based on inventory, based on usages, based on probability -- what parts should be digitized," Perez said.
Other processes includes screening and validating parts for 3D printing, designing and redesigning of a part or system to optimize for 3D printing, and accelerating and standardizing how to certify the manufacturing of parts by 3D printing firms.
"We want to integrate on-demand manufacturing as a native option in the manufacturing landscape," Perez explained. "For that to happen, you need integration with multiple systems -- with the PLMs, manufacturing, the network -- and if you talk to people in the industry, they say they don't want to create a shadow system. It needs to be integrated into existing workflows and processes."
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