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3-D Printing and the Cloud: A Natural Fit for Manufacturers

For 3-D printing to live up to its potential, manufacturers need an enterprise software foundation engineered for flexibility, global collaboration and integration.

The potential for 3-D printing is like something out of Star Trek.

Fans of the TV and film series got a glimpse of 3-D printing with the "replicator," a device that could produce spare parts, food and other necessities aboard the USS Enterprise.

A few decades later, 3-D printing has leapt from science fiction into the mainstream.

For manufacturers, the disruptive implications of 3-D printing are massive. Evangelists envision that manufacturers can slash lead times and net huge cost savings in materials, labor and transportation.

The global supply chain shrinks, and R&D cycles hit warp speed across collaborative design networks. Mass-personalized goods can be manufactured in a batch size of one, meeting business and consumer demand for products built to exacting specifications.

3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is still in its infancy, but many manufacturers are not waiting on the sidelines.

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Gavin Davidson, NetSuite
Monolithic and inflexible on-premise ERP is distinctly at odds with the requirements of 3-D printing on a significant scale. Cloud computing offers an alternative."

A survey by the global consultancy PwC found that 67% of manufacturers are adopting 3-D printing in some way, most frequently in prototyping. Just 9% of manufacturers don't envision ever adopting 3-D printing. The availability of 3-D printers through Amazon, Home Depot, Sears and others is helping fuel momentum in the nascent industry.

"For some industries and some products, the concept of 3DP-enabled 'on-demand' manufacturing could radically change business models and supply chains," said PwC's Robert McCutcheon, partner, U.S. Industrial Products Sector.

"It holds the potential to transform some manufacturing business models—and the complex, costly supply chains and distribution networks upon which they were built."

The Software Foundation for 3-D Printing

The value that manufacturers derive from 3-D printing will depend on more than the quality and performance of the 3-D printers they implement.

For 3-D printing to live up to its potential, manufacturers need an enterprise software foundation engineered for flexibility, global collaboration and integration with design and engineering software, such as product lifecycle management (PLM).

For decades, manufacturers have relied on enterprise resource planning (ERP) software to help manage inventory, production, logistics, partners and financials. ERP has helped manufacturers streamline processes, manage costs and better meet customer needs.

While manufacturers have realized significant value with ERP, many manufacturers continue to operate on ERP systems designed a decade or more ago.

The limitations of first-generation ERP software, typically implemented on in-house servers, are becoming more apparent as the bar is raised for greater speed and agility in global markets.

On-premise ERP can be notoriously difficult to customize as needs evolve. Data for production, distribution and inventory control can be outdated and not easy to access, especially remotely. The high costs of IT infrastructure, IT personnel and upgrades detract from the lean manufacturing ideal.

Monolithic and inflexible on-premise ERP is distinctly at odds with the requirements of 3-D printing on a significant scale.

Cloud computing offers an alternative.

Cloud ERP aligns with a 3-D printing environment in terms of flexibility and customizability, collaborative on-demand access and integration with design and engineering technology such as PLM.

  • Flexibility and customizability: Many manufacturers are acutely aware of the inflexibility of on-premise ERP. Implementing a customization for a new workflow or materials needed for a 3-D build could take IT developers weeks if not months. The best cloud ERP solutions put customizability into the hands of operational and business personnel to adapt the software to the needs of the business, rather than adapt the business within the constraints of the software.

    Flexibility is particularly important in 3-D printing because of the dynamic, fluid, one-off nature of the practice. 3-D printing requires that a manufacturer can efficiently manage and adapt requirements and workflows across design, engineering, production, quality assurance and fulfillment. The objective of shorter lead times can't be realized if it takes a month of arduous workarounds to produce a single custom product.
     
  • Collaborative on-demand access: 3-D printing is sometimes referred to as the "democratization" of manufacturing. In a democracy, all stakeholders can influence direction. Cloud ERP, accessible through a web browser, promotes that collaborative ideal with a single system of record to house all data associated with projects, from digital blueprints to QA documentation and case management. Global teams can "follow the sun" across time zones, each iterating by role and increasing the speed of delivery.
     
  • Integration with PLM: The integration of ERP and PLM, which helps manufacturers coordinate the end-to-end product lifecycle, is emerging as a key differentiator for innovation and faster time to market in conventional manufacturing, and the 3-D world as well. Product concept, design and engineering data in PLM can feed into the ERP system to assemble work orders and bills of materials (BOMs), schedule production and source components. Post-production, feedback from service and support modules associated with ERP feeds back into PLM for continuous product optimization.

From Science Fiction to Fact

These concepts are not science fiction—they're in use at manufacturers today. One example is Quirky, the revolutionary social product development business that collaborates with more than 1 million "member-inventors" and has brought about 412 innovative consumer products to market.

Based in New York City, Quirky uses 3-D printing to prototype products, with large-scale production outsourced to contract manufacturers.

Quirky also uses cloud ERP.

The solution has given Quirky the agility, accessibility and scalability needed to help the company orchestrate complex business processes across a global network of citizen inventors, suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and ecommerce.

"Velocity is the challenge for Quirky," said Tim Brindamour, Quirky Director of Systems. "[This system] allows us to really leverage our data and act on it very rapidly. It provides the flexibility we need to run an extremely agile business and outstanding data visibility to all our teams to drive the company forward."

3-D printing is already beginning to reshape how some manufacturers bring products to market, and more changes are on the way as the technology continues to mature and adoption rises.

By exploring the viability of a cloud environment for 3-D printing operations, manufacturers can take a first step towards future-proofing their businesses with the adaptability needed to take advantage of all that 3-D printing offers.

Quirky also uses cloud ERP.

The solution has given Quirky the agility, accessibility and scalability needed to help the company orchestrate complex business processes across a global network of citizen inventors, suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and ecommerce.

"Velocity is the challenge for Quirky," said Tim Brindamour, Quirky Director of Systems. "[This system] allows us to really leverage our data and act on it very rapidly. It provides the flexibility we need to run an extremely agile business and outstanding data visibility to all our teams to drive the company forward."

3-D printing is already beginning to reshape how some manufacturers bring products to market, and more changes are on the way as the technology continues to mature and adoption rises.

By exploring the viability of a cloud environment for 3-D printing operations, manufacturers can take a first step towards future-proofing their businesses with the adaptability needed to take advantage of all that 3-D printing offers.


 

Gavin Davidson is a vertical market expert for manufacturing at NetSuite.

 

 

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