3D Printing Takes First Steps Into Serial Manufacturing Production

[Editor’s note: Guest blogger Randall Newton continues his occasional series of articles on trends in engineering with this report from the recent FORMNEXT 3D printing conference in Germany.]

Automobile manufacturer Audi is using its A4 Limousine, a low-production model, as a proving ground for process innovation research. One large steel frame section of the A4 has always been difficult to manufacture, so the research team decided to try 3D printing. Audi engineers optimized the design for improved cooling and a 50% weight reduction, and then used Selective Laser Melting (SLM) to create 10,000 pieces.

For a generation, 3D printing has gradually gained acceptance as a useful adjunct to product engineering and manufacturing. In recent years, a few manufacturers have created end-use parts; GE Aviation recently celebrated the 3D printing of the 30,000th jet engine fuel nozzle. Now companies are looking beyond prototyping and limited editions and toward the day when 3D printing can produce final parts in the hundreds of thousands.

The Industrialization of 3D Printing Technology

In November, 3D printing vendors showed their newest products at Formnext, a fast-growing annual conference in Frankfurt, Germany. Martin Boch of Audi was a keynote speaker at the Formnext executive conference. “The main goal is the industrialization of 3D printing technology,” says Boch, the project lead for metal additive manufacturing at Audi. His company currently has three basic uses for 3D printing. R&D occupies about 20% of the company’s use of 3D printing; 60% is for prototyping; and another 20% is for creating spare small parts and tooling. Before Audi can move into serial production of small parts, Boch says it must define standard processes for sourcing both printers and materials. Read More

Pushing the Creative Buttons

Structural and mechanical engineering brings realization to design ideas. Just because engineering is grounded in physical processes and materials doesn’t make it less creative than any other design process. And therein lies the rub.

The research literature on creativity in engineering can be summarized simply: creativity is notoriously hard to objectify, quantify, qualify, and otherwise manage. There are various creative techniques organizations use to aid the creativity process, most notably brainstorming. Various role-playing scenarios are occasionally used, but most engineers are loathe to engage in such practices. Creativity at the requirements stage is considered particularly painful because engineers want to move on to what is perceived as the more useful and productive processes.

Yet the creative aspects are necessary. When a team suddenly sees a radically different way to achieve a goal, it challenges the organization to make sure the new idea is not just different, but better. Properly managed, creativity can become the catalyst to innovation. Read More

The Dirty Little Secrets of Engineering Document Management

Do you always turn slightly to the left when someone takes your picture, because you think you are showing your “good side”? (I don’t turn my head, but I do lift my chin just a little.) It is human nature to try to put ourselves in the best possible light. Software vendors also do that, so to speak. Every product on the market has strengths and weaknesses. It requires careful study to select the right product when there are competing solutions.

For managing engineering information, three types of programs are competing for market share: Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), Product Data Management (PDM), and Engineering Document Management (EDM). PLM companies love to talk about how they integrate all product information into one database to deliver “one version of the truth.” PDM companies extol the virtues of managing access and use of all CAD data. EDM companies talk about streamlining enterprise business processes and making all engineering documentation secure, shared, and accessible. There is considerable overlap between the functions of the three, as well as distinctive elements in how each type of program operates.

I have seen companies come and go during my 30 years in the engineering software industry. Some of them disappeared because they were terrible at marketing. Some died because technology changed and they didn’t. And some died because too many users found out the hard way there are flaws and limitations that the product vendors don’t reveal. Like the right pose for a photo, companies do their best to avoid revealing those dirty little secrets.

What exactly do I mean by dirty little secrets? They are embarrassing facts, troublesome bits of information someone — or in this case, some software company — would rather keep hidden. In the world of engineering, I see three dirty little secrets haunting the industry. Read More

How to Foster Innovation within Your Organization

Published by Kristen Tomasic, President of Synergis Technologies, Inc.


“Innovation happens at the meeting point of different disciplines. When silos of disciplines are broken down, innovation happens.”  Valerie Gervais, Sr. VP HR, Saint-Gobain

I had the pleasure of attending the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center (DVIRC) Manufacturing Summit on October 12 at The Fuge in Warminster where Valerie Gervais was a featured keynote. Of all the presentations, I was most impressed and inspired by what she shared.  From someone whose primary role was in HR, it was illuminating to hear the importance of innovation in all departments and to consider what we can learn from different disciplines inside and outside of an organization.

To give you an example of how she’s leveraged different disciplines in her role, Ms. Gervais sent an anthropologist into a factory to interview employees to help her team to understand the people and their needs. As we all know, anthropologists study people, but how many companies have considered applying their study of humans, norms, and values of societies to better appreciate and understand their employees?

Anthropologists, by practice, start with a blank page when studying new cultures or peoples. They are curious by nature, and are typically experienced in interviewing people about their backgrounds, histories, and experiences. By employing anthropologists to study their factory workers, Valerie and her team were able to adjust employee benefits, policies, and practices to retain skilled factory workers.  The “skilled workforce” issue is a major challenge for many manufacturing companies today, and St. Gobain has cracked the code to improving factory employee retention.

Many people associate the application or study of human sciences like anthropology, sociology, political science, and philosophy with research and education. It’s often difficult to appreciate how a business can benefit from the experiences and expertise of a poly-sci major. But, have you ever been in a meeting where the most innovative idea comes from the person who isn’t living the problem every day?

Consider the insights or solutions we might gain by putting engineers and philosophers and marketers and financial analysts in a room to solve a business problem or develop the next revolutionary product.  I want to be part of that team. Understanding diverse perspectives, getting outside of your own business or industry, and breaking down the divisional or departmental silos can lead to amazing things for your team and your organization, and leads to a much more energizing and interesting culture and work experience.

I told our leadership team recently that I was going to dedicate more time in the coming weeks, months and years to “getting outside of our business.”  That’s how I ended up at the Manufacturing Summit in the first place.  And, if you’re reading this, I’d encourage you to consider the same.  We all have so much we can learn and share if we break down the siloed thinking, working and doing. Valerie said it best, “When silos of disciplines are broken down, innovation happens.”  Count me in!

Do Engineers Fear Innovation?

If the question in the headline seems odd or even stupid to you, please let me explain. I know engineers embrace innovation; it is part of their very nature to get ahold of something and improve it or to build something new and different, something innovative. What I refer to is a fear of innovation when it comes to the tools and procedures they use.

Many engineers want to be inventive and clever but do it with tools and processes that remain familiar and comfortable. It is why after more than 20 years of 3D MCAD and BIM there are still millions of engineers and designers using 2D CAD to create three-dimensional objects and design buildings. It gets the job done and they can focus on the task instead of learning new tools and procedures. Never mind that study after study shows using 3D CAD technology leads to fewer errors and reduces time to market. The ones who stay with 2D CAD don’t want the cognitive and emotional load of learning a new way to do their job. The companies and supply chains involved collectively don’t want to make the effort either. Read More

Removing Fear From the Path of Progress

At a technology seminar for architects in the early days of the World Wide Web, I heard a speaker excitedly proclaim, “Change is changing!” He advocated “throwing out the rulebook” and embracing what was still very much The Wild Wild West online. For every architect in the room busily poking his Blackberry to send approving comments to the speaker in real time, there was another one who shuddered in dread and didn’t really get what was happening.

The speaker was describing change in terms of personal growth and embracing new values. But many in the room thought he was proposing radical changes to business practice. Turns out it is common in times of great change to cause confusion about the difference between personal values and business practice. Confusing practice for values in an organization, notes business philosopher Greg Satell, “is why success so often breeds failure.” He cites Xerox, when its culture of pride in technical excellence and great service was blindsided by the rise of cheap, simple copiers from new competitors Canon and Ricoh. If Xerox had been more nimble, they could have maintained their values, but changed their practice to meet the competition. Read More

Innovating the Small Stuff Yields Big Results

In these days of highly complex markets, global competition, and rising customer demands, companies are faced with an imperative for innovation. The marching orders are to break the mold with new business models and release never-before-seen products, all in an effort to create some form of differentiation that keeps the business relevant if not on the cutting edge.

Innovation is so top of mind that nearly three-quarters of U.S. private companies are making it a priority, according to a report by PwC, “Growing Your Business: Innovation Imperative.” Within that group, roughly half of respondents expect innovation to have a significant impact on the way they do business over the next few years.

 While innovation is most often equated with the next, bright shiny object or practice, not all innovation is disruptive or a novelty. In fact, innovation is more often evolutionary, tied to the introduction of new processes and toolsets that reduce waste or create operational efficiencies and thus, end up having a dramatic impact on how a company does business.

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