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

Aberdeen: Paper-Based Systems are no Way to Run Quality Management

A recent report from leading research firm Aberdeen Group says too many small and medium sized manufacturers are relying on outdated and inefficient paper-based methods to run their quality management. The result is lower productivity, significantly less visibility into product development, and increased likelihood of making a mistake that can alienate a customer or raise the wrath of a regulatory agency.

Quality management affects many aspects of the manufacturing process. It monitors materials and parts usage from the supply chain, it supports regulatory reporting, and it often is a key aspect of a process audit trail. When some parts of product development are automated (such as design or Bill of Materials generation) and other parts are not, it causes an inefficient workflow that slows down important and timely inquiries, and it makes it more difficult to document the full spectrum of product development. Read More

What the Volkswagen Scandal Teaches About the Value of Compliance Management

For years industry analysts and software developers have affirmed the value of tracking compliance as a product design data element, but there is nothing like a big international scandal to change the discussion. Volkswagen was recently caught cheating on emissions tests on diesel engines sold in the US, and has set aside €6.5 billion ($7.3 billion) to deal with the aftermath. International bank Credit Suisse thinks the damage will more likely cost VW €78 billion ($87 billion) over time, in the indirect form of lost sales from its damaged reputation as well as the direct form of fines, legal fees, and possible sales bans. Read More

Cringe-Free Engineering Change Orders

Talk to engineers or search the Web about Engineering Change Orders (ECO) and you will quickly realize you have stumbled into dreaded territory. People who engineer either the design or the manufacturing processes generally love their jobs, but universally cringe at the thought of having to request, document, and implement changes to their work after the fact.

One reason engineering team members cringe in reaction to ECOs is because they instinctively recognize inefficiency when they see it. In this era of computer-based automation and efficiency, ECOs seem to have been left behind. They are usually created on spreadsheets then processed manually and informally using nothing more sophisticated than Windows Explorer and email. It is a process offering no chance for department-wide visibility, no way to automate the surrounding information flow of alerts, status, and approvals, and no way to create a useful audit trail for future reference. Read More