What is a Distributed Manufacturing Platform?
Though the term might seem a little daunting, a distributed manufacturing platform is an easy-to-understand concept. It goes by a couple of names: decentralized manufacturing, distributed production, or local manufacturing, but the concept is the same regardless of the name.
Distributed manufacturing is all about making the final product as close to the customer as possible. For manufacturing operations, this typically means fabricating prototypes in-house.
Currently, one of the best ways to do this is through additive manufacturing, or 3D printing.
Decentralized manufacturing platforms will put together a number of production facilities across the state, country, or globe to help their users. A single platform will be used to tie them all together and optimize the printing process.
A Single-Site Distributed Manufacturing Platform
There is also a sub-set within the world of distributed manufacturing platforms in which the manufacturer only uses a single site.
Rather than using a number of facilities to create products for regional customers, a single-site operation can use distributed manufacturing to help with a multi-printer facility.
Running a dozen 3D printers from a single lab can take a ton of manpower and time. Instead, sites will opt for a local manufacturing platform that connects these printers and grants all the same benefits that a multi-site distributed manufacturing platform offers.
The Benefits of Distributed Manufacturing Platforms
While this concept is still relatively new, there are a number of benefits that have become apparent of using distributed manufacturing platforms. Here are some of the bigger benefits:
Cut Down on Shipping
Since production facilities can be made nearly anywhere, your business will cut down on shipping times. Using a localized model means that you can serve your Midwestern customers with a Midwestern facility, for example.
Doing so will cut down on the cost and time associated with shipping.
Faster Lead Times
Whether your facility uses one location or multiple, distributed manufacturing platforms will speed up the process. Your customers will have faster lead times for items.
Instead of 10 printers working independently, this platform creates a symbiotic system that works together.
Commit to Simpler Supply Chains
Looking at 3D printing specifically, distributed manufacturing platforms have completely changed how customers get printed parts. Instead of working with a third-party printer, customers and businesses can set up their own series of printers or rely on pre-established distributed printers.
A customer can use a site like Hubs to connect with a 3D printing expert. Businesses can use software like Phasio to optimize their in-house printers and cut out huge parts of the supply chain.
Smaller Inventory Requirements
One of the biggest benefits is the relaxed inventory requirements that you’ll notice. Since you have a system of on-demand printers tied together with an algorithm controlling it, you can reduce the stock you have in inventory.
This is largely due to the faster lead times and simpler supply chain that comes with this platform.
For you, this could mean getting rid of unneeded warehouse space and downsizing your warehouse. Less money spent on square footage for your operation means more money that you can invest into the business.
With a well-designed distributed manufacturing platform, you’re doing a ton of in-house fabrication. You’ll be less reliant on the market, outside partners, and other businesses. The combination of these ideas leads to a more sustainable business model for you.
You probably already know the woes associated with working with outside vendors, manufacturers, and suppliers. A decentralized platform will put more control in your hands.
Lower Overall Cost of Operation
Regardless of the model you choose, a distributed manufacturing platform will lower your overall cost of operation. It can do so through:
- Minimized man-hours
- Less shipping costs
- More in-house production
- Less troubleshooting, downtime, and human error
- Expert-level software filling the gaps
Why Manufacturers Should Care About These Platforms
Sure, these benefits are great, but why should a manufacturer care about any of the distributed platforms on the market? Let’s take a closer look.
Less Money Wasted
In the manufacturing business, a penny saved is actually a dollar earned. Freeing up cash gives you an opportunity to put more money into your business, growing it and making even more money.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we’re all looking to waste less money in our respective businesses. With one of these manufacturing platforms, saving money is the name of the game. As we outlined above, this happens through a number of different channels.
The bottom line is that you’ll spend (and waste) less money when using a well-built decentralized manufacturing system.
Simplified Business Model
With fewer moving parts, your business model also becomes easier. You don’t need a dozen engineers running 3D printing machines across your warehouse in order to churn out high-quality prints. A single piece of software can do it all and help streamline your process.
By simplifying things, you’re freeing up manpower to work elsewhere, improving your business yet again.
Expedited Iterations on Designs
What about companies that are looking for some iterative prototypes for their business? R&D is a quick way to get ahead of your competitors, and it typically involves tweaking prototype designs a number of times.
For this, a distributed manufacturing platform will help tremendously.
With linked-up in-house printers, your designers can quickly change the design after printing and testing a prototype. With software that optimizes each print, this greatly expedites the process.
Without one of these platforms, you’ll either have to use an outside source or manually operate your printers, wasting a lot of time and opening up the margin of error.
Which Companies Can Benefit from These Platforms?
Since this concept is so broad, there’s an equally broad number of companies that can benefit from a platform like this. In general, your business can benefit from a distributed manufacturing platform if you:
- Have at least one in-house 3D printer
- Rely on outside vendors for prototyping
- Require one-off or low-run products
- Need units for destructive testing
- Need to reduce your budget or timeline for production
Introducing Some of the Big Distributed Manufacturing Platforms
Now that you understand what it is, how it works, and why it’s great for your business, let’s talk about some of the big players. The following companies offer a distributed manufacturing platform that can help your operation.
We’ll review the company and provide some insight into how it works.
Protolabs is a company that offers 3D printing, CNC machining, and fabrication. They have over 1,000 pieces of manufacturing equipment that are all united to provide high-quality products for their customers.
You reach out to them, typically with a CAD model, and tell them what you’re looking for. From there, they’ll use one of their facilities to make and ship the product to you.
They don’t have any 3D CAD capabilities in-house, and you won’t be able to use their services without a complete 3D model.
Who it’s right for: Operations with in-house engineers but no machine shop
Next up is Xometry. They are essentially the middleman between your business and the fab shop that makes your part.
You reach out to them for a quote and they’ll send your CAD file to a local machine shop. If the shop charges them $75 for the part, they might charge you $125 for the piece and keep the rest as their profit for operations.
They have some in-house capabilities, but it only makes up an estimated 15% of their business model, an overwhelming majority revolves around outsourcing the machining.
Since they use a number of different shops, you can expect various levels of quality, lead times, and prices.
Who it’s right for: Someone looking to outsource the machining by using a single source
Shapeways has two unique pieces of their business. One segment is an open platform that allows you to find 3D-printable files. If you have your own 3D printer, you can simply download these files (often for free) and print them yourself.
In addition, you can also sell your own 3D-printable pieces to customers. If you’re shopping for a piece and don’t have a 3D printer, you can also find shops that sell the physical part and ship it out to you.
Who it’s right for: Businesses looking for 3D-printable parts without in-house engineers
Hubs, previous 3DHubs, is one of the older businesses offering a distributed 3D printing platform. They offer CNC machining, fabrication, and 3D printing.
The difference is that they use community-sourced machines. For example, a random person in Ohio might have a suite of 3D printers. You reach out to Hubs with a 3D model and then the site in Ohio can put in a bid to get your project.
You’ll then work directly with that shop in Ohio.
With Hubs, the prices, quality, and turnaround time will vary a lot. The bright side is that you get to pick which shop you’d like to go with.
Still, it’s more expensive than running your own 3D printers in-house, depending on how often you use the services.
Who it’s right for: Operations needing infrequent 3D printing
Zetworks is an Indian-based company that specializes in connecting businesses with companies that can fulfill their manufacturing requests.
It’s more like Hubs, but they use traditional fabrication instead of 3D printers. As a customer, you go onto the site and provide specifics for your project. From there, a number of machine shops can bid on your project and give you cost and time estimates.
When you choose the company, you’ll be able to talk with them and provide them more specifics. All of it is done through Zetwerks, so there’s no need to vet or screen potential shops.
It gives you the ability to find the right shop for your operation without making the phone calls yourself. They have a lot of smaller shops that might be local to your business.
Who it’s right for: Businesses looking for general, small-scale machining
But there are still problems!
So with all this said, it sounds like we’re well on the way to a more distributed and additive future. But why are so many manufacturers still using legacy technology?
Well, it ca be difficult to productionize AM at scale. Manufacturers struggle to grow because of lack of automation and few industry-wide standards for part quality. Fortunately, this is where Phasio comes in. We focus on enabling distributed and digital manufacturing strictly via 3D printing.
Our model works for businesses that own multiple 3D printers. We connect them all to a central hub that can quickly schedule, monitor, and adjust your prints, enabling operators to scale far more efficiently.
Most of our clients are manufacturers, but some run their own distributed manufacturing platform — similar to one of the shops that might pop up on Hubs and offer third-party 3D printing.
With Phasio, your 3D printing processes will happen faster, fail less often, and cost you less money. In many cases, our software completely eliminates the need for an engineer to monitor the print, saving you a ton of money each year.
It also frees up your engineers’ time. Now, they can focus on the next big thing for your operation instead of wasting time staring at a running printer.
Who it’s right for: Any business with more than one 3D printer.
There are a lot of companies that offer a distributed manufacturing platform for your operation. Big or small, you can probably benefit from our software at Phasio. Reach out to us today to see how we can help, and we’ll get you started with a distributed network of your own. Boost your operation and take your 3D printing to the next level with Phasio.