Building a business case for digital transformation one printer at a time

The benefits of smart factories are undeniable.

They can range from more aligned processes and lower costs to reduced downtime and waste. However, for industries steeped in history and legacy automation – such as packaging, food and drink or pharma –

‘digital transformation’ can be a slow moving and challenging proposition.

Even without the added pressure of tightening belts in the current economic climate, few businesses have the time or resources to replace all of their old production lines with newer, more connected machinery – no matter how tempting the benefits may sound.

Many companies in these sectors have successfully been using the same manufacturing lines for more than 10 years, some for up to 40 years. There is often a culture of ‘if it’s working, why change it?’ on the shopfloor and, understandably, the upheaval and investment required to make the shift to ‘smart manufacturing’ can be a daunting prospect.

Building a business case step-by-step

When it comes to modernisation, understanding the cost of maintaining the status quo is a good place to start. Building a picture of how often lines go down and how much even a short blip in operations can cost the business (as a whole), can help to build a case for investment in change.

To do this, it helps to take things one step at a time. Start by investigating small issues that are slowing things down. For example, we’ve seen situations at customer sites where bottles regularly bumping into end-of-arm-tooling on robotic lines cause wear and tear and slow down lines. Day-to-day, this isn’t a huge issue, but left uncorrected this seemingly small malfunction eventually causes the tooling to break, bringing the line to a halt. This can cost the business greatly in terms of downtime in man hours, not to mention in spare parts.

This scenario introduces another key set of questions: Do you know what you’re spending on replacing tooling and parts? How many spares do you keep in stock to avoid too much downtime? How much storage space (and cost) does this require? What do you do if you need a new legacy part for an outdated machine?

Having the answers to these questions helps to paint a picture of the overall cost to the business of keeping things as they are. Assigning numbers and values to what can be easily dismissed as quirks and hiccups – as well as larger issue like line downtime – is a helpful first step in building a solid business case for investing in technology that can improve the status quo without causing mass disruption to the factory floor.

Proof of concept

Once you have a clear picture of the need to save costs by investing in improvements, it is important to make incremental changes. Taking small steps rather than committing to a singular behemoth ‘transformation’ project not only helps to manage spend, but also makes it easier to engage staff in the process, ease the transition and ultimately prove ROI.

Start with a proof of concept and involve your teams on the ground. Understand where their issues are, what causes them the most frustration day-to-day, and where mounting costs may be occurring. For example, look at what parts in your lines are failing most often, which are the most expensive to replace, and/or what parts are the hardest to obtain.

Investing in a single 3D printer can help to solve these issues, give the team the opportunity to troubleshoot them, as well as save time and costs by printing replacement parts at the point of need. This not only helps reduce downtime by printing parts in hours or overnight rather than waiting weeks to order spares, but can help lay the groundwork for investment in additional printers to keep things running and replace a physical space-intensive inventory of spares with a digital one, saving time and storage costs.

Adopting new technology to run alongside traditional lines is also proof positive that the two can co-exist, dispelling the myth that ‘smart manufacturing’ requires a complete overall of operations.

Find internal champions

Even small technology investments can be met with scepticism from teams – especially if they see it as a threat to their jobs or yet another obstacle they need to overcome. Personalised training and education can go a long way to overcoming resistance and finding a champion within the team can help make the transition not only easier, but turn reticence into an exciting opportunity.

Engaging tech-friendly team members can really help manufacturers to manage change. Giving them ownership of projects involving the 3D printers and the time to ‘play’ and experiment, which can result in innovation and new product development as well as saving time. This interest and excitement is often contagious across teams. We’ve witnesses even the harshest critics give 3D printing a try when they saw their teammates saving time by simply modifying designs and printing parts to fit specific functions, rather than having to start from scratch and redesign the entire part to achieve a similar result using CNC machine.

Change is never easy, especially when it comes to manufacturing operations that have been running effectively for decades, but you don’t have to overhaul entire factories to reap the benefits of ‘smart manufacturing’. Starting small and investing in technologies like additive manufacturing that can run alongside your existing operations is a great way not only to build a business case for digitalisation, but to ensure your team embraces the problems it can solve, opportunities it can create and, yes, costs it can save.

About the Author

Alan Yu is senior application engineer at Markforged. At Markforged, we are on a mission to unlock the next 10x innovation in design and manufacturing. We build an Industrial 3D Printing Platform to liberate designers and engineers from decades-old, slow part creation processes.

Featured image: artegorov3

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