De-Risk Your Investment in Additive
By Ed Tackett, Additive Manufacturing Lead Technologist at Würth Additive Group, previously Director of Engineering Solutions and Industrial Relations at the University of Louisville
How We Work at Würth Additive Group
Let’s start with a humble brag. We at the Würth Additive Group sell a lot of equipment, we have a lot of access, a lot of really cool technologies. But at the core it's not about us. It's about the customer, and that’s reflected in our approach. We partner and work closely with multiple key stakeholders to formulate a bespoke plan that is tailored to that customer's specific needs and requirements. Our global presence and level of integration with our customers’ industrial supply chains allows us to see a level of detail most don’t, and detail matters.
One of our key strengths is our ability to identify and solve the unknown. With a team of seasoned professionals who have decades of experience in this industry, we're able to quickly bring the right people to the table and find innovative solutions to complex problems. If you’ve got a product for the oil & gas industry, we got someone for that. If you’re in arts and entertainment, we’ve got someone for that. I think with our broad range of experience, it gives us some useful insights that can save customers a lot of trial and error time. I love this saying from Mike Tyson: Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the nose. We want to be the team that can help you work through the plan and we’ve probably been in that specific unknown area before.
How do we enable our customers? Most people at this point have heard about 3D printing. Maybe they’re already using 3D printing, but 3D printing in an industrial environment or production environment is different. We have federal regulations we have to follow regarding waste disposal. We have operational safety considerations. We're usually dealing with materials that require some scientific or engineering background to make work.
So how can Würth Additive Group help you? Well, we provide training and have partnered with several major universities. We can actually get you in front of people who are literally the key person, the expert in that specific technology sector. We can review applications and we’re not shy to tell you if it’s not a great idea. We can figure out quickly whether the application or your range of use cases is going to produce the ROI that’s required to justify the investment.
For example, if you spill metal powder on the floor, what is the best way to clean it up that conforms with OSHA, EPA and NFPA guidelines? Industrial 3D printing is still a fairly young industry so many processes are not yet standardized. We're curating libraries of training videos with standard operating procedures so you don’t have to figure it out on their own, because if you're not successful, we're not successful.
We see a lot of time wasted and malinvestment because companies and teams get into additive manufacturing for the wrong reasons—maybe their competitor is in, or they think it helps them sell. What they really need to ask themselves is: why am I doing this and what's the value proposition?
Then, obviously, how risky is it? We can help you on that journey and de-risk your investment by asking the right questions early. We can help you figure out which projects are appropriate for additive and which projects really aren't.
We get customers that come in and want to 3D print everything. We can look at their parts and components and actually work through it and determine which ones are suitable for additive or turning into digital inventory. Having a rock solid prioritization early means less waste, less “we should’ve done this differently” moments.
Access to technical and engineering expertise in additive is very important as you’re starting your journey. The Würth Group has always had a long term approach to business. To us, the customer relationship and journey is more critical than just selling a piece of equipment.
De-risk Your Investment
How? Invest in long-term relationships. We will continually support you. If you have a problem, call one of us, and we can get to the bottom of it. We had a client a month ago that had a problem with a resin print. They couldn't clean the resin off the parts correctly. We investigated whether it was a cleaning solution or a wash process problem, and it was actually neither.
The orientation of the part during the printing process made cleaning almost impossible. Well, the client had called the resin vendor and the resin vendor goes, oh, you’re cleaning it wrong. They called the machine vendor. Oh, you need to buy a training course. When we got in contact with the company three of us immediately said that the part was oriented wrong. We helped the client set up a functional test, they went through their standard cleaning process, and the part came out as intended.
What you assume is causing the issue might not even be close to the actual problem and you need experience in this to understand common blind spots. As our customers expand their industrial 3D printing operation, we want to be the first person they come to with issues or project ideas.
Generally speaking that’s where we see teams and companies stumble a little when they start out. They don't have the experience. Think about resin 3D printing. One of the challenges is dealing with different viscosities of resins and some are very difficult to print. Detail matters—just by changing the temperature in the vat by a few degrees you’ll get a huge variability in the quality of prints. An inexperienced user might not know that. It's not apparent and it's not on the material sheets, it's not in the user guides. That is tribal knowledge.
If you don't have anybody to run the production that's familiar with it, that's going to always be a bottleneck within your ecosystem. So we're partnering with community colleges, universities and technical schools to develop the next generation of your workforce. Our work with leading manufacturing organizations shows us where the shortages are. We carry that information back to our university or college partners and help them develop better programs to provide the workforce of the future.
Supply Chain Stability
If you look at manufacturing as a whole during the years of pandemic, we saw supply chains fragment significantly and we are still dealing with the fallout. I hope corporations learned some very important lessons from that.
Self-reliance is one of them. You can't always expect your supply chain to be stable during global events. So how do you leverage additive manufacturing to help you condense your supply chain? I mean, in a perfect world, you would take your digital file and print at the point of use, but you've got to be able to do that reliably and safely every time. Plus, there is a whole lot of digitization work that needs to go into this first to make it work.
Further, the product has to perform as specified. We have several initiatives underway that are demystifying that whole process and ultimately it will make sourcing products globally and locally easier through a single digital source that makes sense.
A supply chain is an ecosystem and all parts of that ecosystem have to work together to deliver products on time when they're needed. During the pandemic, people did magnificent work to fill gaps quickly. Still, we had idle manufacturing facilities because they couldn't get raw feedstock because of global issues. They couldn't create components to keep their products in the pipeline.
You look back at COVID and you look at how 3D printers were leveraged across the world to solve problems. We couldn't get face shields. We couldn't get airway splitter valves. So what happened is we turned that into a digital inventory system and we're able to deliver splitter valves printed within 5 to 10 miles of where they were actually needed.
This type of ecosystem is the future. We're going to see companies moving to complete digital inventories for both low and high-complexity parts. That outlook is really great, but what do you do about the ecosystem? Because that's only one part of it. Nothing happens without people. We need talented people that know how the digital supply chain works but are trained in such a way that the equipment really doesn't matter.
Everybody's really excited about buying the equipment, but we don't want to train technical people and engineers to run a specific piece of equipment. We want them to have a rock-solid understanding of the fundamentals so that they can apply them to any type of machine. We want to build an awareness that can be leveraged within that local and global ecosystem of supply chains and manufacturing.
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