10 Ways Digital Manufacturing Can Improve Your Supply Chain

Posted On April 12, 2018 By Kevin Ashton

A handful of forward-thinking manufacturers have evolved significantly over the past decade into digital supply chains that are far more agile, efficient, reliable, and versatile than their traditional predecessors. This is great news for like-minded companies and procurement teams wanting to partner with manufacturers that place importance on technology.

So how do you find the right digital manufacturing company? From cost and quality to equipment and capacity, here are 10 areas to assess in a supplier.

multi cavity mold
Aluminum tooling provides a faster and more affordable entry point into low- to mid-volume production compared to steel tooling.
1. Cost

Start with one of the most obvious points of critique that a procurement team is tasked with: the reduction of overall manufacturing costs. Lowering your piece-part price in injection molding without sacrificing part quality, for example, is certainly important, but what is the most efficient way to do that? Increase volume and invest in steel tooling to shrink piece-part price, right? Perhaps, but then you’re strapped with a significant and risky financial investment in tooling that could make or break your project if there’s an unexpected market reaction and major design iterations need to happen to your product. 

There are other options. Find a supplier that has different manufacturing levels to step in to; if you’re prototyping molded parts, use prototype tooling, and if you need low- to mid-volume part quantities in the tens of thousands, then use low-volume or bridge tooling. Mold costs with aluminum-based tools are often dramatically more affordable (think $10,000 vs. $100,000 for a steel tool) and the integrity of piece-part price remains intact when total cost of ownership is considered. And guess what? No minimum order quantities with low-volume tooling and resulting storage fees for excessive inventory.

Digital manufacturers like Protolabs have implemented these tiered levels that are tailored to the company’s needs. Then when you need more than 100,000 or 200,000 parts, and your engineering team has fully vetted its design (and the market has verified it), you can make a smarter, less financially risky move to a capital investment in production tooling. If you’re still not convinced, look beyond pricing for further savings in softer costs like quoting, design, and development time along with the time (read: money) saved by cutting aluminum tools instead of steel.

2. Turnaround Time

Accelerated, reliable production speed is another critical characteristic that provides companies with agility at all product phases—from development to launch to growth to sunsetting. Sure, your 3D printer is fast. Your team may even have a few sitting on their desktops. But commercial-grade 3D printing equipment (that offers precision, repeatability, and low-volume production) is nearly as fast with digital manufacturers regularly shipping parts in as fast as 1 day.

This isn’t really a huge surprise though as commercial 3D printing has taken significant steps as a major manufacturing player over the past five years. What is more welcoming is the concept that “rapid manufacturing” is no longer limited to and associated with just 3D printing. Traditional manufacturing methods like machining, sheet metal fabrication, and molding have all been digitized to consistently deliver low-volume production components in the same timeframe of days, not months. Find a manufacturer that embraces a technology-agnostic approach to digital manufacturing so you have a true “on-demand” manufacturing source across many different manufacturing methods.

boeing airplane 787
Digital inspections start by analyzing the final part with a laser-based 3D scanner. The digital scan is then used to generate a report that includes verification of critical dimensions and color map to directly compare the final part to the original CAD model.
3. Quality System 

In few areas of manufacturing is the concept of digitalization more important than a supplier’s quality system. Automated software and hardware breeds speed and consistency. Sorry humans, the machines have us beat here. This concept of the “digital thread,” which stretches from CAD model to design analysis to production to shipping, is becoming essential to suppliers and should be a requirement of procurement teams looking for legit digital manufacturing companies to work with. Here are a few digitalized areas to look for:

  • Automated Design Analysis. Manufacturability feedback within hours (vs. days or weeks) not only enables engineering teams to iterate designs before any actual manufacturing begins, it’s fast. This saves the company development time and production costs by avoiding design reworks.
  • Traceability. Digital traceability by way of rigid document, record, and revision control is crucial as the thread moves toward the production floor. Digital manufacturers use the CAD model and the part’s online configuration as the record of customer requirements and are able to reference this data at any point in the manufacturing process. The software ensures revision control of customer data and tracks the digital history of key manufacturability communication.
  • Inspection. Make sure the supplier’s scope of its monitoring and measurement system includes receiving inspection, machine-based inspections such as automated part probing and tool checks, in-process inspection, and final inspection. Does the supplier have digital inspections or first article inspection (FAI) quality reporting, or processes that satisfy FAI requirements? A robust quality system should.
  • Visibility. A supplier that outsources its customers’ orders (ahem, brokers), inherently loses visibly and quality monitoring without an in-house quality system at work to monitor parts at every stage.
4. Certifications

Certifications are really a subset of our aforementioned quality system point, but nonetheless deserve their own mention. So, how qualified is your supplier? If you work with a service broker, are its manufacturers qualified? Do you work with a supplier that is ISO certified? Certification is important because it provides independent validation and assures companies that suppliers are meeting verifiable standards. The requirements represent a solid foundation of planning, control, and improvement. In many industries, companies will only do business with certified suppliers because there's inherent confidence that suppliers are working to accepted standards and procedures. Protolabs is ISO 9001:2015 certified and its metal 3D printing and machining processes are AS9100 certified, particularly enticing to industries like aerospace.

5. Material Selection and Monitoring

You might have an amazing supplier that manufactures quality parts fast and cost-efficiently, but if it has a limited selection of materials or its own material supply chain issues, all of the attributes that make it amazing in the first place—speed, quality, cost—can be impacted. Find a manufacturer that has a wide selection of in-house plastic, metal, elastomer, silicone rubber materials and one that accepts customer-supplied resins, but also a supplier that has good visibility to its materials. This is an important subtlety.

A good example here is the service bureau vs. service broker argument. Brokers outsource the actual manufacturing of their customers’ parts, so in theory, more manufacturing options including material selection. However! (And there always seems to be a “However!”) The broker’s line of site to material control can be obstructed when compared to a bureau since the bureau’s materials are at its fingertips. A broker is also at the material monitoring mercy of the manufacturer it outsourced its customers’ parts to. As a result, inconsistencies can emerge.

Each of our 600 Haas CNC machines at Protolabs are specifically configured for our digital manufacturing processes.
6. Equipment

A manufacturer’s equipment list is important—Haas, Toshiba, Cincinnati, Arburg, Concept Laser, Viper, Projet—but touting an impressive inventory of machinery isn’t necessarily where the conversation should end. What is the manufacturer’s overall purchase and implementation strategy? An equipment-agnostic approach is a customer-focused approach; it simply involves using the machines that are best suited for the production of parts, preventing the manufacturer from being anchored into a particular equipment brand. Within each particular manufacturing process, however, equipment redundancy can help drive consistency.

A quick example. Protolabs has invested in more than 600 Haas CNC machines, 200 Toshiba presses, and a handful of Arburg silicone rubber presses, which are all configured specifically for Protolabs. It also houses more than 150 3D printers whose maker varies by manufacturing process from Concept Laser to 3D Systems to HP. Equipment agnostic by manufacturing service; equipment redundant by manufacturing process. Standardization of equipment across processes ensures in-process quality and production repeatability. You know you’re going to get the same part quality during each every run.

7. Capacity

Like many of the points on the list, capacity is dependent on other areas like equipment and technology, and capacity issues can inherently impact turnaround time. Has your part order ever been de-prioritized due to another company’s larger order? That shouldn’t happen if capacity is stable. A reliable supplier will typically run at 70-80 percent of its capacity so it has flexibility in its production schedule to avoid shipping disruptions. Ask your supplier what its on-time delivery rate is; it should have that data and it should be in the upper 90 percentile.

Another benefit of large capacity is that idea we mentioned earlier of on-demand manufacturing. If you’re working with multiple suppliers at any given product phase and one of those suppliers runs into capacity issues, it’s good to have another supplier with open capacity; one that’s willing to produce parts on demand so your company’s procurement schedule remains linear and absent of production hiccups.

8. Technology

Manufacturing as an industry has been notoriously slow to adopt digitalized processes but for some manufacturers, technology-minded operations are the only way forward. Find a supplier that embraces technology—not one that hides from it—because it’s highly beneficial to your company at every point of supplier interaction.

How? A manufacturer that’s data-driven can collect, analyze, and leverage its data to create efficiencies. Automation and connectivity (the digital thread) between software and hardware manufacturing systems produce efficiencies in cost and time, which ultimately get transferred to procurement teams that are ordering parts. Quicker turn times, cost-effective bottom lines, happy companies.

9. Experience 

An experienced manufacturer is an intangible benefit worth factoring into an overall supplier audit. Years of business is important since the manufacturer has most likely produced millions of parts and analyzed tens of thousands of part geometries, and as a result, can recognize the most efficient ways to manufacture those parts. If you peel away a few layers, experience means also having engineering expertise and a procurement team within the manufacturing company to answer questions that machines can’t. This helps validate processes in pre-production, during manufacturing, and post-production, inspection, and shipping.

10. Ease of Business

This is another intangible and underrated supplier attribute. Is your experience with your supplier smooth—how is the quoting engine? Do you have full transparency into costs? Is it easy to order parts? Do the parts arrive on time? Are there in-house points of contact that are responsive with any questions that arise? Just a few questions to ask on your way to finding the ideal supplier.

If you’d like to see how Protolabs fits into these areas, check out our Quality Handbook or request a detailed Procurement Guide at customerservice@protolabs.com or 877-479-3680. Just want a quick tour of Protolabs’ largest facility? Right this way.