Four Principles: 3D printing a game changer for lean manufacturing

17 January 2022 6 min. read

Facing major disruption and the continuous need to optimise production processes, manufacturing companies are increasingly turning to additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. Seif Shieshakly and Patrick Wiebusch, Managing Partners of Four Principles, explain why the growing phenomenon is a game changer for lean manufacturing.

In many industries, the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns and border closures wreaked havoc with supply chains, requiring many manufacturers to rapidly re-evaluate and overhaul their supply chain strategy. With shortages in raw material and product availability, as well as logistical bottlenecks, 3D printing emerged as an attractive alternative.

3D printing is the process of binding together resins or powders into a three-dimensional object. With the right technology, basically anything can be 3D printed, from components for manufacturing processes to large objects such as boats or tiny houses.

3D printing a game changer for lean manufacturing

Shieshakly: “When manufactures faced shortages of spare parts, they turned to local 3D printing service providers.” The approach proved its worth, and now “many manufacturing companies see additive manufacturing as a key part of a future risk-reduction strategy.”

Alongside solving supply shortages, 3D printing comes with a number of inherent benefits. Shieshakly: “It for examples creates very little material waste as compared with milling, cutting, and other ‘subtractive’ processes, requires little or no custom tooling, and allows for hyper-customisation of components (as 3D printing allows for more complex three-dimensional designs perfectly tailored to requirements compared to standard manufacturing processes).”

As a result, “It’s clear that 3D printing is a game changer in lean manufacturing, supporting all the key lean principles of reducing waste and increasing efficiency,” said Shieshakly.

Originating in Japan in the 1970’s when Toyota introduced the concept of lean manufacturing, the methodology has a clear objective: reduce as much unnecessary operational steps and waste, in both materials and time. “Lean helps manufacturing companies reduce waste by removing from the production system anything that does not add value to the product,” explained Wiebusch.

Client case example: Saudi Customs books impressive efficiency gains with lean.

Having monitored the operational performance of dozens of companies during the pandemic-induced supply chain crisis, “at Four Principles, we clearly see the positive results achieved by manufacturers who utilise 3D printing and other digital tools to speed and simplify their production,” said Patrick Wiebusch.

“Lean manufacturers using 3D printing need fewer suppliers, require less inventory, produce goods with fewer defects, and develop what the customer wants, when they want it.”

Seif Shieshakly and Patrick Wiebusch - Four Principles

Leveraging Four Principles’ experiences in the field, Shieshakly and Wiebusch outline the six main benefits they see from the integration of 3D printing into lean management:

1. Better prototyping

In the industrial sector, prototyping is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to reducing waste. Designing and building a new component or product for the first time poses huge challenges in sourcing materials, drilling, cutting and welding, assembly, inspection and testing.

Not only is prototyping extremely labour and cost intensive, in traditional manufacturing it also typically requires outsourcing, leading to time delays that can affect a product’s ability to get to market quickly. When manufacturers can use 3D printing to make prototypes, they can do so in-house at must lower cost and fewer chances for errors and delays.

2. Increased innovation

If there’s one way in which 3D printing has up-ended manufacturing, it’s in the area of creativity and design flexibility. The ability to make something on-site and design numerous versions of the same part or product for comparison, allows manufacturers much greater flexibility and freedom to experiment and test new products.

The concept stage becomes much more productive with the ability to test multiple new parts and products. While it might appear that the result is more trial and error, this trial and error process takes place upfront, before a great deal of time or money has been invested. True innovation requires taking risks, which was much more difficult under older, more cumbersome methods.

3. Enhanced customisation

Unlike traditional manufacturing which relies on molding and cutting, 3D printers can be reconfigured for each new product to allow for variability on the production line. This gives manufacturers greater flexibility to adapt to changes in consumer demand.

4. Improved inspection and defect reduction

Quality control is one of the key areas where 3D printing is boosting efficiency. Manufacturers are using 3D printing to create individually designed measurement tools and gauges, to aid in the inspection process. These go/no-go measurement tools enable manufacturers to identify and eliminate defects, decreasing a major source of waste.

By creating cost-effective measurement gauges, manufacturers improve their inspection processes and speed up go/no-go decision making. The ability to check more parts and make inspections at more frequent intervals, leads to fewer parts being scrapped due to defects. Hence, it is much easier to identify tooling or machining issues when manufacturers can check parts at different points in the manufacturing process.

5. Improved workspace efficiency

In the manufacturing environment, how tools are stored and equipment is laid out, has a major effect on the movement required from workers. The closer tools are to hand and the better organised they are, the less time a worker spends accessing or worse, looking for, the correct tools.

Many manufacturers now use 3D printing to make custom-designed and built, bins, racks, and other tool holders. Drawer organisers, cabinets and other storage units can also be custom-built to streamline workflow.

6. More consistency

With the control provided by programming, 3D printers can produce the identical product in the identical timeframe again and again. This predictability greatly enables planning and risk reduction.