Posted by Mauricio Castro
Many companies want to adopt additive manufacturing (AM) technologies into their supply chain, but an essential link is missing: the “digital thread.” Jim Joyce, federal specialist leader in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Strategy & Operations consulting practice, says the digital thread could elevate 3D printing from a consumer curiosity to a supply chain supercharger that will potentially change the way products are made.
Currently, the public largely views AM through the lens of what it can do for them as consumers, but companies are starting to look beyond consumer products. The Makerbot from MakerBot Industries is one example of 3D printing whose usage is of a largely personal nature–creating simple figurines from a plastic filament–rather than a business nature. Other technologies such as the lightbulb also remained in this “orphan technology” stage for decades, remaining inventions that needed an important development to drive mass adoption. For lightbulbs, this was a cheaper filament (another contribution of Thomas Edison’s). In the additive manufacturing space, that development is Digital Thread for Additive Manufacturing, or DTAM.
In a changing world, supply chains need to be highly configurable to account for various manufacturing models and new advancements in technology. DTAM can accomplish this through the following phases:
Where the traditional supply chain focused on moving goods, the digital thread is about moving information through the entire lifespan of a part, from scan/design to usage. Information from each phase can be utilized to inform the planning of other phases, further improving design and functionality. As supply chains quickly change in the future, DTAM will be able to accept new suppliers into its system and provide the same information that others within the digital thread have.
As manufacturing becomes more distributed and more players become involved, the data will need to undergo high security scrutiny. Cybersecurity is a high priority for a digital thread solution that will need to be addressed by new security technologies (potentially including blockchain1). Many questions remain regarding how a digital thread solution will allow data to be carried, protected, and integrated into various systems.
What does the innovation landscape in additive manufacturing outside of the digital thread currently look like? Patent filing data can help identify the current trends. A majority of the top 50 patent filing companies in the AM space are from machine makers.2 The growth of service-related AM patents could signify that companies are beginning to search for unified 3D printing solutions, while the increase in materials-related patents may signal a growing commoditization of AM materials; the digital thread could potentially aid businesses in finding where to get the lowest price for a material or where to get materials the fastest. However, as of the writing of this post there is opportunity in full digital thread linking solutions, as there aren’t any patents filed that address this important future requirement.
While DTAM is still a work in progress, there are already a potential early adopters driving the solution forward in the marketplace. DTAM aims to initially attract businesses that want to scale AM production to fully-distributed manufacturing and high-quality products, including those in the medical device/implant industry and the automotive industry. Additionally, the oil/gas industry could be an early adopter of DTAM. When fuel-gathering operations in remote locations are stopped due to broken machinery, DTAM could help indicate the part’s deficiencies for a faster repair process to help prevent machine downtime.
The digital thread is a system that additive manufacturing needs to gain widespread adoption, and the Digital Thread for Advanced Manufacturing solution will potentially be a game-changer for AM companies. By having a secure, unified solution that can move important and up-to-date information from creator to multiple suppliers, companies could get their 3D-printed product out the door and into the marketplace faster.
1For more info on blockchain, visit Deloitte’s Tech Trends 2016 article, “Blockchain: Democratized Trust”.