Chain of Thought

Manufacturing: The Case for Self Disruption

Child psychologists will tell you that the best way to squash disruptive behavior in a bratty kid is to ignore him. By paying attention to his behavior you reinforce it. Dave Burns is the industrial-size version of that bratty kid. He's trying to get CEO attention with his disruptive behavior, and he hates being ignored. He'd rather be scolded for his disruption than not even be acknowledged. That's why he visited a group of business publication editors here at Penton Media the other day. He's announcing his intention to blow up the traditional concept of analog manufacturing and get companies to go digital.

Burns is president and COO of ExOne Digital Part Materialization, based in Irwin, Pa., and he calls his disruptive concept “additive manufacturing.” You may be more familiar with its other name, 3D printing. Just as a text printer lays down ink to form letters on paper, 3D printing creates objects from engineering design files. The technology creates the objects by printing them layer by layer. Instead of ink it uses sand, metal or glass as its raw material. After a layer's particles are bound by heat or chemicals the next layer is added and the binding process is repeated until the object is completed.

According to the press materials Burns gave us, this process enables the creation of design geometries not previously possible with traditional subtractive processes. It's clear he wants CEOs to start thinking about making their products using a process whose supply chain depends more on the electronic transport of computer-aided design (CAD) files than on the physical transport of material. That blows up traditional ideas of manufacturing and therefore, C-level executives have not been paying much attention.

“I have no problem with affirmative rejection, but I have a big problem with benign neglect,” Burns told me during our visit the other day. “If someone says I've looked at you and I don't want to use you, that's fine. But what I hate is the fact that in lots of organizations additive manufacturing could really help the people with enough authority to make it work, and they haven't thought much about it yet.”

In looking deeper into his press kit, I saw a way he might be able to get a little more traction. As I read through page after page, manufacturing is mentioned dozens of times, but the words “logistics” or “supply chain” don't appear once. As I introduced these words into our interview, Burns was eloquent about how he sees this technology changing traditional logistics, using what happens in metal casting as an example.

“In the casting world people use wooden patterns to make a casting,” he explained. “You can store under roof a million square feet of patterns. Another company could have the same pattern storage on a thumb drive. Manufacturing factories are fundamentally wasteful, although we've optimized them. When I take a block of something and whittle a small part out of it, I've used energy, coolant and chips of material. When I print the same part, any loose powder I didn't use to make it I can reuse. So I never use more material than the amount I need for the object I make. And I'm doing it locally so you don't have to worry about getting it from point A to B.”

Why not say that in his press kit? Logistics costs are keeping more executives awake at night than traditional manufacturing. Even Burns admits that the systems that support traditional manufacturing work very well—including material handling. They're as optimal as we can get. What will get the CEO's attention these days, it seems to me, is how to take waste out of their supply chain—wasted mileage, wasted fuel and wasted labor. Burns is confident his company's business model will do just that.

“We receive designs electronically, they're downloaded to our servers where we pre-process, and within 24 hours they're produced and within 5-6 days those parts are in boxes and shipped to the people who designed them,” he explained. “Say it takes 12 weeks to manufacture something today and on the logistics side it's two weeks. The two weeks compared to the 12 isn't a huge deal. But what happens if the 12 weeks became three days? Then the two weeks becomes onerous. It's almost mandated that to get the value out of this you have to do it in much more a localized fashion than most manufacturing is done today.”

This would give more manufacturers an excuse to near-shore. Today millions of parts and small assemblies get shipped around the world based on transportation choices made to get a better return for share holders. Since the fundamental approach in 3D manufacturing means that complex and simple things can cost exactly the same and you can eliminate the labor rate advantages of outsourcing to developing countries, why not share that vision with CEOs?

Maybe he'll be able to do so by winning over their logistics and supply chain advisors first. I told Burns I'd run the idea by you and see what you think. Let me know what your CEO says once you've pitched this notion of disrupting your company's standard operating procedures. If he or she ignores the idea of printing products, maybe you'll get more attention with the concept of printing money instead.

Related Editorial:

Supply Chain Managers Get Physical with the Internet

Contingency Planning: Ten Good Ways to Keep a Supply Chain from Going Bad

Five Views of Logistics in 2050

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