About Jeff Schipper

Jeff Schipper is the global industry manager at Proto Labs. He has more than 10 years of experience in plastics,which has led to a specialized focus within key manufacturing industries including the medical, automotive, aerospace and lighting industries.

Auto-mation: Can Market Adoption of Autonomous Cars Match the hype?

The automotive industry, including the disruptive tech giants, are investing tremendous amounts of funding and human capital into the development of autonomous vehicles and related technologies. Evidence of this is General Motors’ $500 million investment in Lyft and $1 billion into the upcoming acquisition of Cruise Automation Inc. It’s difficult to read about the automotive industry without encountering discussions around autonomous driving. The auto industry is hiring software developers at a pace once that was once limited to mechanical and industrial engineers.

A rendering of possible autonomous driving interaction. Source: General Motors

Market Adoption … Eventually
So, why is the auto industry going down this path when a majority of the American consumers flat out do not want a driverless car or trust the concept yet? A recent J.D. Power survey found that just over half of Gen Z and Gen Y are interested — that’s surprisingly low, since these groups are more comfortable with public transportation and delay owning a car more than previous generations. And only about 41% of Gen Xers support self-driving technology, a rate that shrinks further for the baby boomers at 23%. It’s important to note here that the peak age for purchasing a new car is 43 years old.

The answer lies in the fact that the “R” in automotive R&D historically occurs 10 to 20 years before actually moving to production lines. This extended timeline frequently means the industry is working on things the consumer has not yet even taken into account. But as discussed in an earlier post, recent tech giant disruptions are shortening this product development cycle.

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Supplier Collaboration and On-Demand Manufacturing

Supply chain consolidation, value added manufacturing, vendor collaboration … terms we are all familiar with, but in today’s always on, always connected environment, manufacturers need something more. 

Just-in-time manufacturing (JIT) has been around for decades and was truly first implemented on a grand scale at Toyota. There is this mythology that was referred to as the Toyota Production System. The primary goal was to streamline operations including supplier activities and reduce inventories. In the 1990s, this concept transformed into lean manufacturing, literally meaning to remove waste. The most recent evolution of this fundamental thought process is on-demand manufacturing.

On-demand manufacturing simply brings the best of all of its predecessors together and is designed to supply components as needed with little notice, on time, every time. Think of it this way, you can procure custom parts nearly as easily as off-the-shelf fasteners, for example.

To do this, one must understand the supplier’s capabilities, limitations and areas of expertise, and how this complements the rest of their supply chain. Design for manufacturing is crucial. Not only does this give a customer valuable information about their parts or assemblies, but is emphasizes where the supplier will be able to add value on the project today and in the future.

Take note of the product life cycle image. It is all too common to have a sole supplier when a product moves to high-volume production — this can create unnecessary risks.

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We all know that developing dual sourcing can drive costs well above the comfort zone, but is often a necessary risk. Additional value is created when a supplier that helps develop prototype parts can also support future parts needs throughout the life of a product. When your prototyping suppliers can support low-volume orders reliably, the need for a traditional secondary production source is eliminated if production doesn’t exceed tens of thousands of parts. This also creates a nimble supply chain for fast turnaround without carrying costly inventory for bridge tooling, maturity demand spikes, and end-of-life or warranty support.

Read more about using rapid manufacturing for supply chain management in the white paper: Reducing Risk Through On-Demand Manufacturing

The New Automotive Disrupters: Tech Giants

The automotive industry has stood as the life blood of American manufacturing for decades. It is the heart of the Detroit economy and in recent years has faced many challenges, but some of the greatest challenges have just begun. Tech giants such as Google, Apple and Tesla, to name a few, are poised to drive new levels of competition. It’s fair to say these companies qualify as a Big Bang disruption that is a major industry change instigated by non-traditional players in the market.

Most of us still think of the automobile primarily as a tool to bring us from point A to point B, but cars and trucks have become so more than just transportation. Many modern cars are a fully connected infotainment system that just happen to be on four wheels. The automobile has become a mobile conglomerate of computer and technology devices — a true command center supporting the driver with much more than just driving.

Another way to look at this shift is with the electronic device industry. A decade ago, the handheld GPS was a very common and useful tool. Today, GPS navigation is almost an afterthought on your smartphone since it’s as simple as downloading a user-friendly app. This is just one of many seismic digital shifts in the past 10 years.

However, while the technology-based companies leading the electronic infiltration into the automotive world certainly have the computing chops, the knowledge, depth and infrastructure that comes with manufacturing electronic components for the automotive industry is still developing. These tech giants must acclimate to model years and multi-year platforms compared to frequent software updates — two fundamentally different ideologies colliding.

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INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: Evolving Health Care Demands and the Impact on Product Development

While there are a handful of major players in the medical and health care industries, there are actually more than 6,500 active medical device companies in the United States — most of which are smaller firms with fewer than 50 employees. There is little doubt that, with the combined industry efforts, research and development in the medical device space will continue to innovate and grow for years to come.

What drives innovation at these companies ranges from economic indicators to technology advancements to government regulations. But some of the most interesting factors driving development right now can be found in demographics and consumer behavior.

So, what does is mean? The fluctuation in demographics will translate to an increased demand for devices supporting later life care as the baby boomers enters their 70s. This includes everything from surgical devices to support orthoscopic procedures to at-home glucose measurement equipment. Furthermore, we’ll start to see an upward trend in births as Gen Yers move into their 30s and start families. These factors will start to shape how thousands of medical and health care companies re-imagine existing products and development new ones.

As a result, there is a heightened need to launch products and devices to market quickly. Iterative development of medical components and devices will reply on various rapid manufacturing processes and materials to ensure products have best chance at successful medical submissions and market trials. And because these products need to pass a significant number of functional tests before being approved for the market, prototypes need to be produced as close as possible to the finished product. This will mean using similar, if not identical, engineering-grade materials and manufacturing methods for prototypes as for production parts.

From metal 3D printing of extremely small surgical components to low-volume injection molding of optical silicone, Proto Labs is equipped to help large and small medical companies tackle the impending changes in the American demographic landscape.

INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: Carmakers Drive Innovation with Lightweighting, Powertrains

Auto fact #1: About 50 percent of a modern car’s volume is plastic yet it only accounts for 10 percent of its weight

Auto fact #2: 43-year-old men purchase more cars than anyone else.

Stats like this bring to life the changes taking place in the evolution of the automotive industry, as research and development move at a pace faster than ever.

Two major factors are driving these changes: regulations and market demands. We are all familiar with automobile safety regulations, but may be less familiar with CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards. These standards set mileage requirements for an automaker’s fleet. The 2025 target is 54.5 miles per gallon.

Now think of the 40-something guy that represents the largest demographic who are purchasing cars. Is this individual willing to give up performance, e.g., acceleration or leather seats or integrated entertainment systems, so that his new ride meets mileage and safety requirements. Probably not. Innovation is often times driven by necessity and the automotive industry is responding.

BMW started using magnesium for its N52 six-cylinder crankcases and cylinder head covers in 2005.

In recent years, there has been a major push around lightweighting to help address mileage requirements. Weight reduction is one proven method to improve fuel economy and minimize the impact on performance. This can achieved through the use of engineering-grade resins that possess physical properties well beyond what the average consumer thinks is possible.

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