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Low Volume Manufacturing: 5 Steps to Efficiency

Digital technologies like 3D printing, robotics and automation have found their way into prototyping and manufacturing. Handling speed and complexity with ease is the name of the game. After all, we live in a world of instant gratification: Consumers are demanding what they want, when they want it and with greater variety and customization than ever before.  

While cultivating tremendous opportunity, this type of environment introduces untold challenges when moving quickly. Getting from design to prototype is one thing but getting into "manufacturing" is another. As product lifecycles are compressing and new product introduction cycles are shortening, it is critical to make nimble innovation and time-to-market central to your strategy. 

What is that gray area between prototype and mass production? It's one of the most underestimated areas in manufacturing: effective low volume manufacturing. Due to the many risks and costs associated with scaling too quickly to "mass commercialization," companies are looking to low-volume solution providers to help avoid and resolve ramp issues in advance of high-volume production.  

Unfortunately, when it comes to low volume manufacturing, enterprises are typically forced to use either expensive tier 1 manufacturing capabilities or tier 2 or 3 services, neither of which are well suited for the requirement. Start-ups, on the other hand, can't even access the needed capabilities and expertise due to their low volume manufacturing needs.  

Regardless, we believe that efficient low volume manufacturing can be successfully accomplished with these five steps:

1. Connecting the Digital Thread

From research to realization, getting every stage of the product lifecycle right is essential. But none of this can be possible without the seamless flow of data. The digital thread does just that, connecting data from design to manufacturing and all the way to the supply chain. Empowering all stakeholders within your product lifecycle with the right data can enable agility, a key element to creating life-changing products.  

2. Completing Concurrent Design

Seeing the process of bringing a product to market as consecutive steps from idea to the final delivery is easy, but it can slow the whole operation down. I can't emphasize the importance of speed enough. If you want to get ahead of your competition, thinking ahead is essential to deliver ideas quickly to impatient consumers. A successful product development process integrates all of its parallel disciplines since they impact each other. For example, the stakeholders in design must interact with those in supply chain to ensure that specified parts can be obtained reliably, at the right price and at the right time.  

3. Connecting Diverse Teams with Domain Expertise

Much like connecting the processes and data is important, what really sparks magic is connecting people. Bringing diverse teams together can introduce new perspectives, questions and solutions. By focusing on contributors with domain expertise, you can utilize the latest techniques and technologies.  

4. Using Leading Edge Technology

The digital revolution has equipped us with new technologies—additive manufacturing, augmented reality and digital twins, to name a few. Using these tools where economically appropriate as digital building blocks throughout your design process and the entire product lifecycle can make a big difference. Real engineering rigor is needed to ensure emerging technologies work at the design, prototype, low volume build manufacturing and mass production phases. With recent advancements, work done through additive manufacturing can actually be carried into high-volume manufacturing. 

5. Supply Chain Orchestration

If the supply chain breaks down, all the good work done in design, development and prototyping is for naught! It doesn’t matter how wonderful your idea or design is, if you can’t deliver, the product will fail. This is as true in low volume build as it is in mass production. Long lead time components, single-sourced parts or supply chain risk can all damage a product’s route to the consumer, not to mention the ability for the product to make money.

Supply chain orchestration starts early and continues throughout that whole product lifecycle. You must have the flexibility and agility to mitigate risk, absorb changes in volumes and manage rapid product introduction when that is required. Experience here is essential, as is having the right tools. 

Get the foundations right and connect the right digital building block and something very special can be created and delivered at the right quality, the right time, in the right quantity and at the right price. Each of the elements above is simply essential.