We are living in an on-demand world, where your pullover, sofa, or even house can be created on-demand, not mass-produced. This is great for customers, as it enables them to express their personalities by purchasing commodities that uniquely reflect their tastes. On-demand manufacturing is also great for smaller retailers, who can cater to the demands of their customers. This model can give them an advantage over large industrial manufacturers, who are quite satisfied with their dominating position in traditional mass-production models.
Industry-leading manufacturers have the ability to combine the latest hardware, software, sensors and Big Data analytics to turn their facilities into Industry 4.0 installations, following the best practices and innovative approaches. This can result in smarter production with more cost-efficient processes and more closely connected customers, manufacturers and suppliers. However, while more and more companies plan to embark on this transformative journey, executives (naturally) have some questions they want to be answered:

  • What latest technologies are the most innovative?

  • What is the expected impact of adopting and implementing these innovations?

  • How can the manufacturing industry leverage these technologies in disruptive ways to solve the business challenges we currently face and transform the future?

  • What changes will we have to implement in our organizations and broader business ecosystem to overcome said challenges?
To better define these business challenges and highlight the opportunities for manufacturers, where embracing new technologies can ensure competitive advantage in the future, Globalluxsoft has conducted a survey of several dozen on-demand manufacturing CEOs. This THE FUTURE OF ON-DEMAND MANUFACTURING: KEY TECHNOLOGY AND OPERATIONAL PRIORITIES report is now at your disposal.

Key findings and insights

The top-3 operational priorities that all manufacturers share are a common focus on finding talented people (37%), improving production processes (33%), and enhancing product/service quality (26%). Efficiency has never been more important, so many are turning to advanced technologies.
The top-5 technology solutions that can impact future success in manufacturing are:
  • 3D printing (additive manufacturing);
  • quality management systems;
  • modeling, simulation and virtual prototyping;
  • demand planning and forecasting systems;
  • product lifecycle management.
Innovation enabled by Industry 4.0 technologies can help manufacturers respond to customer orders and requests faster, increase productivity and enhance collaboration with customers and suppliers opening up markets for even small manufacturers to enter.
While the automation role is more important than ever, the pace of its implementation cites several barriers including budget and resource limitations, as well as talent constraints. Interviewed executives point out that the biggest pitfall that stops most technology projects in their tracks is short-term software fixes that are not scalable, need frequent maintenance, and upgrading.
Customer retention rates can be boosted through providing an intuitive end-user journey, regularly adding extra features, gamification.

The end of the huge minimum order volumes era

On-demand manufacturing is an example of a new approach to fabrication. The currently dominating system is based on programmable machines that can mass-produce parts or commodities according to a preconfigured set of parameters. The volumes of such series go in tens of thousands and millions, and all this variety of parts and products has to be stored somewhere. Therefore, large-scale manufacturers able to afford mass-production and mass storage have an advantage over smaller businesses. Unfortunately, as adjusting the configurations of equipment cannot be done quickly, the customers are left with a very limited set of customization options.

The situation is rapidly changing now, as on-demand manufacturing becomes ever more popular. 3D printing allows creating small series of products or parts quite cheaply. The era of orders by the thousands is coming to an end. as well as the era of long lead times, where the customers have to wait for months for an adjustment in the product. With an on-demand manufacturing ecosystem, the customers can place orders and the manufacturers can process them quickly.

This negates the need for standardization and economies of scale, replacing it with easily customizable products. Huge factories and warehouses can soon become a thing of the past, while every customer will be able to personalize the products they purchase.

This is how the executives we interviewed see the most valuable advantages of on-demand manufacturing.
Small order volumes

On-demand manufacturing is perfect for prototyping and small-scale production runs. This allows startups and companies looking to prototype new products to deliver a limited series of commodities — be it one unit or five or a hundred or a thousand. In an on-demand manufacturing ecosystem, every customer can find a manufacturer willing to do the job.

Cost-efficient production

With 3D printing and on-demand manufacturing, the expenses of producing the commodities are minimized. The manufacturers can produce as many parts and goods as needed, instead of keeping large quantities in stock just in case they are needed. This also provides sourcing benefits when ordering raw materials, minimizing the costs even further.

Shorter lead times

On-demand manufacturing is much cheaper to begin locally, meaning shorter product lead times. This is especially interesting for businesses that want their product to get to the market in the shortest term possible. This allows the clients to order small lots of products, have them produced locally and delivered to the shops quickly. They can analyze sales and make informed decisions on whether they want to produce more goods or minimize their losses.

Mass customization

Innovative technologies allow customizing every single unit of the product, drastically shortening the supply chains between the manufacturer and the customer. While still making its first baby steps, the technology allowing customization of every commodity to meet the needs of every particular customer holds the promise to alter the whole manufacturing landscape and allows smaller manufacturers to conquer their market share and successfully compete with traditional large-scale manufacturers. This also compels established manufacturers to adopt new approaches to production models to be able to provide personalized local manufacturing choices to their customers.

Automation in on-demand manufacturing

For enterprise-scale industrial manufacturers, automation of various aspects of production can lead to greater cost-efficiency. For example, replacing manual production line control processes with advanced tracking and analytics systems can help save on both salaries and potential factory incident losses.

We asked the executives: what stage of production needs to be automated or improved with new technology primarily to scale on-demand manufacturing workflow processes?

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Based on the evenly spread values, the whole manufacturing process still needs a good degree of automation.

When we talk about "design for manufacturing", we mean optimizing the product design to match the product's function and market demand using the most cost-efficient manufacturing methods and materials available. This also means the most feasible use of labor and material in the process of fabrication.

There is an old rule that is proven right time and again: the decisions made at the beginning of any process have the ultimate impact on its outcome, cost and product development process. The importance of first decisions lies in the magnitude of 70%. When we talk about on-demand manufacturing, such decisions add even more to the project outcomes, just because the supply chain is that much shorter. People that affect the first 20% of the product development budget lay the foundations that influence the rest of the product's life cycle and all its financial parameters.

Nowadays, manufacturers have a huge range of software products at their disposal, from lightweight 2D design solutions (like freely available CAD tools) to heavyweight CAD systems costing tens of thousands of dollars per user, which allow designing and implementing the full cycle of development for a product of any complexity.

Simulation software, which is an indispensable part of 3D printing, is a great example of how automation software can facilitate the pre-production stage. Using such tools, engineers can easily visualize complex geometries of future product parts and predict potential deformities during the printing process. This greatly reduces the cost and length of the trial-and-error phase, which was the huge cost factor previously.

The overarching objective of automation for any manufacturer is to obtain as much long-term value from the process, as possible. This, in its turn, depends mostly on how far along the journey to automation maturity the particular company has progressed. This progress can be impeded by the initial investment costs, which can be quite significant for startups or small-to-medium enterprises — and the installed systems are quite costly to maintain.

Various production and operational processes can be suitable candidates for automation, in case they meet the following criteria:

  • are time-consuming,

  • highly depend on employee attention and qualification to succeed,

  • are impacted by fluctuations in transactional demand.
Such processes can — and should — be automated using various tools:

  • Business process management (BPM),

  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP),

  • Product Lifecycle Management (PLM),

  • Robotic process automation (RPA), etc.
Such systems capture data, run applications, trigger responses and communicate with other systems to perform a variety of tasks.

One of the least automated production stages is the post-processing, and 25% of surveyed executives state the need to remove this bottleneck in order to scale their on-demand manufacturing processes.

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Importance of technology for future business performance

Let's assess the priorities that drive the manufacturers in their effort to invest in innovative technologies.

New technology investment priorities (please choose three with highest priority)
As you can see, a quicker response to new customer orders and higher manufacturing productivity top the list of priorities. This correlates perfectly with the key goals of on-demand manufacturing — zero lead time and reduction in overall manufacturing time.

However, easier product customization and deeper knowledge of customer preferences are currently in the lower positions. The reason for that is that on-demand manufacturing has not been truly mass-adopted yet, so these are not the most pressing needs.

What technological solutions can help scale the business and are critical for long-term business success?

Please rate the importance of technology solutions for the future success of your business (up to 3 items):
Additive manufacturing (3D printing)
Moduling, simulation and virtual prototyping
Quality management systems
Demand planning/forecasting systems
Product lifecycle management
Smart machines
Product data management
Industrial Internet of Things
Advanced analytics/big data
Advanced robotics
Performance dashboards
SaaS/Cloud computing
3D printing is an undoubted leader when we talk about on-demand manufacturing. Its benefits are obvious:

  • Quick low-cost prototyping,
  • Great geometrical complexity and freedom of design that cannot be achieved with traditional manufacturing methods
  • Generating significantly less waste, when we compare additive manufacturing to traditional mass-production
  • Distributed manufacturing allows designing the products centrally and manufacturing them close to the consumer's local markets
  • Short distribution chains enable speed of product delivery, rapid replacement of parts and reduction in shelf time.
Thus, it is obvious why quality management systems, as well as tools for modeling, simulation and virtual prototyping, are within the leaders of the list. Quality is what any manufacturer must ensure to enter any market today. Rapid prototyping is vital for accelerating speed to market and keeping a grip on demand volatility across the whole product life cycle. Modeling is essential for real-world commodity development before the manufacturer is forced to invest heavily in fabrication tooling.

Yet another priority is demand planning and forecasting. It helps address the labor costs concerns and plan for productivity, which are primary issues the automation should solve.

Focus on operational challenges

There is no easy KPI to measure manufacturing agility. The reason for that lies within the fact that the ability to sense the needs of your customers relies both on tactical and strategic data and expertise.

When we talk about business strategy, agility means the ability to reallocate resources and efforts to expand on growth opportunities or mitigate risks. On the tactical level, agility is all about rapid response to customer requests and accomplishing orders. Improving these tactical choices by optimizing daily operations and aligning resources can help achieve long-term strategic objectives.

The question about rating the top operational challenges yielded 2 most popular answers:

  • the need to improve the internal efficiency of production processes
  • the need to find enough people with the right skills and talent for the job
CEOs of companies in any industry (manufacturing included) consistently state that finding the right talent is the top driver of competitiveness for their business. The market currently experiences a severe shortage of specialists able to use 3D printers in production and automate the resulting work processes. The challenge is quite real: the existing workforce is reluctant to adopt new technologies, the youth is barely interested in pursuing careers in manufacturing, and there are huge skill gaps regarding using Additive Manufacturing (AM) technologies.

Global enterprises have learned the hard way that the best way to ensure long-term customer satisfaction is through standardizing internal processes to ensure predictability of operations and the ability to deliver on your promises. Thus, all companies dedicate vast amounts of time and resources to improving their internal processes in order to deliver better customer care. ERP systems are the smart tools that enable collaboration and integration between different departments, leading to the transformation of the business models, production and supply chain.

Thus, the necessity and benefits of automation are doubtless, but what about the challenges the businesses face when trying to implement it?
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Every third executive is stopped by budget and resource limitations. The main roadblock is the cost of AM implementation. The rest of the inhibitors include the limited capability to identify and design the needed applications in-house, along with overseeing the machinery during the manufacturing process. Manufacturers with limited budgets find it particularly harsh to access the systems required, which forces them to partner with service providers instead of investing in their own equipment and talent.

Speaking of talent, constraints of finding talents with skills and knowledge of new technologies hinders on-demand manufacturing implementation for one in six surveyed executives. Equal numbers of respondents have trouble dealing with short-term software fixes that need continuous updates, don't scale well, and are costly to maintain. Lack of readily available talent, coupled with the perception of the manufacturing industry as not innovative, high rates of the exodus of potentially tech-savvy specialists to other, more high-tech industries and sectors. All of these reasons slow down the AM, IoT and other technology adoption in manufacturing.

There always is a risk of going for the low hanging fruit and pursuing short-term "fixes" instead of deliberately changing the approaches to manufacturing. This can cause long-term problems and hinder the efficient adoption of automation at scale. Thus said, a thorough assessment of the existing toolchain and workflows can uncover bottlenecks that can easily be removed by adopting new technology or updating the processes. Staff training and good work organization will result in a safe work environment and can even lead to workers suggesting solutions for repetitive issues they have to deal with every day. This will prevent unexpected production stops for fixes, which costs a lot of time and money.

To wrap it up, automation of work processes results in increased revenue and provides an opportunity to quickly expand the business when there is room for growth, increase the wages and purchase new equipment. However, this requires consistently reviewing your processes and being ready to adopt new materials, techniques and equipment as they arrive, if they provide value for your business.

Getting Automation Right

While automation can solve various manufacturing problems, it should not be adopted as a quick fix for them. If a process is poorly designed, making it work faster will not make it yield better results. Restructure the process first, then automate it to make it more efficient. Automation implies quite a large investment in equipment and software, so you should plan it from an operational and strategic perspective in mind, in order to bring value to your business today and in the foreseeable future.

To maximize the positive impact of automation, select the most pressing problem that slows your manufacturing process. Define the reasons and results you expect to receive from automating this process. You should clearly understand the benefits for your business and your customers from your automation initiatives. When they help solve the pressing issues while laying the ground for flexible adjustments in the future — this is when your automation efforts bring the best results.
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