IMTS Insider

The Airbnb of Manufacturing

Category: AMT Dec 16, 2019


Successful sports franchises build championship teams through smart draft picks and trades that fill gaps in their line-up. On the flip side of the coin, agents negotiate deals based on player skills and achievements.

Jeff Hojlo, Program Director for Manufacturing Insights at International Data Corporation (IDC), believes there’s a correlation between successful sports teams and manufacturing enterprises.

To fill talent gaps, “Manufacturers need external support. They’re really feeling the crunch in terms of just not having the resources…to meet the time-to-market goals,” says Hojlo. To solve the problem, “I think we should be looking at manufacturing as a service to complement a firm’s current innovation, engineering, R&D, and manufacturing approach. Manufacturing has very much become a team sport.”

IDC is the premier global provider of market intelligence, advisory services, and events for the information technology, telecommunications, and consumer technology markets. One recent IDC survey noted that 65 percent of companies surveyed reported a six to 15 percent decrease in new product development initiatives, with the decrease driven by lack of resources.

Finding the Free Agents
Hojlo says that as value chains become more complex, companies need to develop a network of partners that help them be more flexible and resilient while mitigating the cost and time of trying to organically grow talent or capabilities.

Manufacturing-as-a-Service (MaaS) providers have an opportunity to step in as free agents to fill the gap in three broad areas: with hardware-centric services, enterprise software services, and “third-platform technology,” such as cloud offerings, big data/analytics, IoT, robotics, 3D printing, cognitive and AI systems, asset management, and more.

In short, yesterday’s Rolodex of job shops has evolved into MaaS for the digital transformation era.

The Airbnb of Manufacturing
Dave Evans founded Fictiv, an on-demand manufacturing startup based in San Francisco, after becoming frustrated with long manufacturing product cycles while working in Ford’s Silicon Valley lab.

Fictiv is an Airbnb for manufacturers. The company matches customers who need quickly produced parts and prototypes with a network of idle machinery and talent in more than 200 highly vetted manufacturers in the United States and China—and then manages the entire process from quoting to delivery. Services offered include CNC machining, injection molding, 3D printing, sheet metal, die casting, and urethane casting.

“Manufacturing is about taking a digital design and turning that idea into a physical product,” says Evans. “Technology and manufacturing must work hand-in-hand to drive the next generation of manufacturing tools that enable rapid, responsive product development.”

“We free disruptive companies to accelerate development cycles and focus on new product innovation instead of sourcing and managing their supply chain,” says Evans. As reported in a Forbes story, “We can cut lead times from months and weeks—which is how long I was waiting for at Ford—to hours and days,” said Evans. Forbes dubbed Fictiv “the Airbnb of manufacturing.”

If Fictiv is the startup, then Xometry is the established MaaS provider, and the largest marketplace in the industry. This Gaithersburg, Md., company was founded in 2014 and now offers access to the production capacity of more than 3,000 shops offering CNC, sheet metal, 3D printing, injection molding, and urethane casting services.

“We’re a platform to bring together buyers and sellers of custom manufacturing,” says CEO Randy Altschuler. “There are tens of thousands of small manufacturers spread out across the world, and there are hundreds of thousands of customers who are trying to buy small amounts of manufacturing. There’s no real central place for all of them to come together and find the best solution. We created Xometry to be that marketplace, to be that platform where buyers and sellers of custom manufacturing can get together.”

Perhaps a less obvious benefit of MaaS providers is that OEMs can tap into suppliers with whom they would not normally connect. For example, the automotive industry relies on an extensive supply base in the Great Lakes states, while the petrochemical industry suppliers are concentrated in the Gulf states. As markets ebb and flow, it makes sense to tap into whichever suppliers have excess capacity.

Machine Learning
One hallmark of MaaS is automated instant quoting services. Customers upload 2D or 3D CAD files and obtain a design for manufacturability feedback (DFM) powered by machine learning. Customers can adjust the design, if needed, to improve manufacturability and then receive instant pricing. Some companies, including Fictiv and Xometry, add peace of mind by having a manufacturing engineer review designs to ensure their intent translates to the final product.

Where Xometry and Fictiv use machine learning algorithms to drive automated quoting and find the best supplier to make the parts, Plethora uses machine learning to drive the entire manufacturing process. 

“Plethora’s mission is to accelerate invention,” says co-founder Jeremy Herrman. “We’re really looking to take that software mentality, that invention speed and acceleration and put that into the world of hardware.”

San Francisco-based Plethora provides CNC milling and turning services and can deliver custom prototypes and parts in as little as three days.

“We want to revolutionize manufacturing through automation,” says Hermann. “We own the factory and all the machines, and that lets us provide automatic tool path generation, automatic workholding generation, and a whole lot of things. We have an entire factory encoded in software to enable this.”

For MaaS to accelerate, manufacturers need to embrace the digital twin to deliver optimized files. Collectively, industry needs to get its “digital house in order” and use updated technology and file formats. As a source of “great examples” for benchmarking, Hermann cites Modern Machine Shop’s Top Shops program and the Top Shops event held concurrently with IMTS during show years.

Much of the early traction for MaaS has come in the areas of machining, 3D printing, and software. However, there are talent gaps along the entire process chain. OEMs need outside MaaS providers, whether for something as major as a digital transformation or as “simple” as speeding a new product launch, or they will fall behind. As a result, providers of digital and connected services, as well as re-imagined traditional services, will proliferate. All it takes is the right connections to form a winning team.

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