Call it the Amazonification of the manufacturing industry.
The emergence of e-commerce for ordering parts has made the experience as easy as buying a book or toaster on Amazon.com, enabling supply chain managers, product designers, engineers and others to carry out the process quickly and on demand.
In fact, a true manufacturing e-commerce experience, powered by Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies, goes well beyond the usual Amazon transaction. It allows for customization and real-time revisions of a part’s design, as it moves through the quoting, design review, ordering and manufacturing processes.
However — and this is a big however — the online e-commerce experience can vary depending on the manufacturer.
In a recent industry study, 91% of survey manufacturing respondents reported an increased investment in digital transformation. And going forward, 95% agree that digital transformation of manufacturing is essential to their company’s future success. This buy-in is a great sign for manufacturers that prioritize speed and agility. That said, the rate of transformation has been uneven, with some advancing digital capabilities faster than others.
While some marketplaces have automated the front-end price quoting of the digital manufacturing process quite well, they have only loosely attached it to the actual manufacturing on the back end, still relying in many cases on manually fulfilling their part orders.
To reach its full potential, the e-commerce manufacturing experience must connect every stage in the product lifecycle through a real-time digital thread — a continuous stream of data. That’s made possible by a tech-enabled, automated and connected infrastructure, seamlessly linking up front-end ordering process to the back-end physical machines networked on the manufacturing floor.
The digital thread needs to run throughout the operation, tying simulation, process monitoring and traceability to the physical plant. It also creates a framework for learning and process improvement rooted in artificial intelligence. Orders are queued up and prioritized based on inputs from front-end analysis. Digital connectivity allows manufacturers to take measurements from sensor readings on each machine, and analyze the variations.
As a result, the digital system can deliver parts faster than with traditional manufacturing processes, essentially providing on-demand production and service — the standard we’ve all come to expect in these days of mobile banking, ridesharing and Amazon shopping.
Procurement managers are already navigating nearly constant disruptions to their supply chains, so they stand to realize substantial benefits from manufacturing’s e-commerce evolution — chief among them speed. Online ordering means faster price quoting and real-time design for manufacturability (DFM) analysis. Price quotes become available in hours, with parts delivered in days.
Digital transformation also enables transparency and design feedback. An online system allows manufacturers to track orders, make major changes or small revisions along the way, and avoid any surprises as the part order moves through pricing, design and production. This type of system also provides DFM analysis, enabling creation of a digital twin prior to physical manufacturing. What’s more, adjustments can be made in real time.
The online digital system connects directly to the physical manufacturing network in the factory — remember the continuous digital thread — a fully automated process that integrates computer-assisted design and manufacturing.
Finally, a fully connected digital manufacturing process ensures consistency with each order, made possible by a standardized process and digital inspection step.
In our tech-driven world, we’ve come to expect on-demand service for whatever we’re purchasing. That expectation extends to manufacturing, whether ordering end-use custom parts, prototypes or standard components. By extending the e-commerce experience to digital manufacturing, companies can make their supply chains more responsive, agile and better able to handle disruption.
Mark Flannery is global product director for e-commerce at Protolabs, a provider of digital manufacturing services.