Procure parts faster with digital manufacturing

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Call it the Amazonification of the manufacturing industry.

The advent of e-commerce for ordering parts has made the experience as easy as buying a book or toaster oven on Amazon.com, allowing supply chain managers, product designers, engineers, and others to complete the process quickly and on-demand.

In fact, a true manufacturing e-commerce experience powered by Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies goes far beyond the ordinary Amazon transaction. It enables adjustments and real-time revisions to a part’s design as it moves through the quoting, design review, ordering, and manufacturing processes.

However – and this is a big difference – the online e-commerce experience can vary greatly depending on the manufacturer.

In a recent manufacturing industry study, 91% of respondents said they are investing more in digital transformation. And looking ahead, 95% agree that the digital transformation of manufacturing is critical to the future success of their business. This buy-in bodes well for manufacturers who prioritize speed and agility. However, the rate of transformation has been mixed, with some digital skills advancing faster than others.

While some marketplaces have automated the front-end pricing of the digital manufacturing process quite well, they have only loosely attached it to actual manufacturing on the back-end and in many cases still rely on manual fulfillment of their part orders.

To reach its full potential, the e-commerce manufacturing experience must connect each stage in the product lifecycle through a real-time digital thread—a continuous stream of data. This is made possible by a technology-enabled, automated and connected infrastructure that seamlessly connects the front-end ordering process with the back-end physical machines connected in manufacturing.

The digital thread must run through the entire operation and tie simulation, process monitoring and traceability to the physical plant. It also creates a framework for learning and process improvements based on artificial intelligence. Orders are queued and prioritized based on the inputs from the front-end analytics. The digital connectivity enables manufacturers to take measurements of sensor readings on each machine and analyze the deviations.

As a result, the digital system can deliver parts faster than traditional manufacturing processes and essentially offer on-demand production and service – the standard we’ve all come to expect from mobile banking, ridesharing and Amazon shopping these days.

Supply managers already face near-constant disruptions to their supply chains, so they will reap significant benefits from the evolution of e-commerce in manufacturing—speed above all. Online ordering means faster pricing and real-time design for manufacturability analysis (DFM). Quotations are available within hours, parts are delivered within days.

Digital transformation also enables transparency and design feedback. An online system allows manufacturers to track orders while making major changes or minor revisions and avoiding surprises as the parts order moves through pricing, design, and production. This type of system also offers DFM analysis, which allows the creation of a digital twin before physical manufacturing. In addition, adjustments can be made in real time.

The online digital system connects directly to the physical manufacturing network in the factory – remember the continuous digital thread – a fully automated process that integrates computer-aided design and manufacturing.

Finally, a fully connected digital manufacturing process ensures consistency with every order, made possible by a standardized process and a digital inspection step.

In our technology-driven world, we expect on-demand service for everything we buy. This expectation extends to manufacturing, whether ordering custom end-user parts, prototypes, or off-the-shelf components. By extending the e-commerce experience to digital manufacturing, companies can make their supply chains more responsive, agile, and better able to handle disruptions.

Mark Flannery is Global Product Director for eCommerce at Protolabs, a provider of digital manufacturing services.

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