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Additive manufacturing: Build or buy analysis

The additive manufacturing industry, though still maturing, is worth $15.8 billion today and is projected to grow to $35.6 billion in 2024. Additive manufacturing enables agile product development; a process that once took months — from design and prototyping to manufacturing and testing — can now be done in a matter of days.

Additive helps manufacturers boost their bottom line in multiple ways by powering on-demand manufacturing. On-demand manufacturing is an operational model that uses actual demand to dictate production volume, instead of traditional projections. Producing on-demand lowers inventory costs because there’s no need to stockpile large amounts of material.

It also enables greater customization by making it easier to create niche products. Production costs drop, and both waste and excess inventory are reduced. Product teams are afforded the freedom to design for function, not just manufacturability. This is all to say that the business case for additive manufacturing is stronger than ever.

Manufacturing companies can either build their own additive capabilities internally or buy capacity and services from a partner.. Both approaches have their pros and cons, and manufacturers can conduct a build-or-buy analysis to make the right choice for their business.

Key considerations for building internal capabilities

To get started in additive manufacturing, manufacturers can bring technology in-house to build their own additive capability and vertically integrate their business. Three key factors to consider with this approach are facility and infrastructure, quality systems, and engineering and technical support staff.

Facility and infrastructure concerns are directly related to health and safety. Engineers must make sure their employees have a safe place to manufacture products, which means accounting for costs related to machines, material storage, pre and post-processing equipment, cleanup, and more.

These costs can increase depending on the manufacturing technology and the level of risk involved in working with certain materials. Also, manufacturers must ensure that all relevant levels of government agencies are involved in the permitting process to remain compliant with regulatory standards.

Once the facility has been built safely, manufacturers must think about quality systems. Quality systems are necessary to make the right parts the right way every time. Depending on the industry, regulatory bodies or certification organizations like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) have specific requirements with which a manufacturer’s products must comply.

It’s a manufacturer’s responsibility to stay on top of the latest state, federal, international, and industry-specific regulations and to implement robust quality assurance, data governance, and health and safety programs that ensure they achieve ongoing compliance.

Engineering and technical support staff needs are also critically important because the talent pool is surprisingly small. If manufacturers choose to bring additive technology in-house, they need engineers who know how to take advantage of the freedoms offered by additive manufacturing while also understanding its limitations.

Materials and process engineers are needed for development and execution, quality engineers are needed to build and execute systems, and technicians are needed to keep the machines running. Before investing in additive technology, manufacturers must seriously consider whether or not they have the personnel necessary to bring their projects to life.

Key considerations for using an additive production partner

Manufacturers also have the option of buying capacity and services from a production-grade additive manufacturing partner to make their products. At the very least, manufacturers should look for a partner that has:

  1. Undergone rigorous process capability studies
  2. A comprehensive quality management system and way to ensure repeatable parts
  3. Expertise in the materials and production method that will be used for the project
  4. The technology and engineering capabilities necessary to see a project through to production and beyond
  5. Experience with additive-specific part production approval processes (APPAP)

Process variation control and process validation are also important. The additive manufacturing process has a lot of moving parts, and each part contains multiple sources of variability that can be introduced. A prospective manufacturing partner must understand sources of control and all of the variables at hand to get the best possible results for their customer. From there, manufacturers should make sure that their prospective partner’s processes are optimized, certified, validated, and compatible with their internal requirements.

The bottom line

Building one’s own additive technology capability allows manufacturers to exert more control over production. However, additive technology is very expensive — it requires a significant upfront investment and the manufacturer absorbs all other related costs. Also, when they choose to bring technology in-house, manufacturers cannot easily pivot if something goes wrong.

Working with an additive production partner is generally a faster, more cost-effective option. A trusted additive manufacturing partner can bring invaluable expertise to the table and help streamline the most labor-intensive parts of the manufacturing process, including prototyping, sourcing materials, and data governance and compliance. Still, it’s important to thoroughly vet any potential third-party vendor.

Partner with Fast Radius

Here are the key takeaways from any additive technology build-or-buy analysis:

  1. Quality should always be the most important factor.
  2. Vertical integration requires a significant investment in facilities, quality systems, and technical staff.
  3. Make sure any potential manufacturing partner has a good understanding of process.
  4. Objectively weigh the costs and benefits of both building and partnering, and remember that hybrid approaches are an option.

If you’re ready to partner with an experienced provider to tap into the power of additive manufacturing, Fast Radius is here for you. We are a global, industrial-grade manufacturing partner committed to bringing projects of all shapes and sizes to life via additive and traditional processes. We work with customers from design to production to global fulfillment. We’re the partner of choice for product teams looking to unleash their potential through on-demand manufacturing. Most importantly, we’re here to help.

For a more in-depth look at tackling this additive technology decision, watch the full “Additive technology: Build or buy?” webinar. You can find more manufacturing insights, key considerations, and industry tips in the Fast Radius resource center.

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