Locking it in: Reducing the risks of additive manufacturing

With new frontiers constantly being pushed, few would deny that the opportunities presented by 3D printing/additive manufacturing are a plenty – including possibilities around virtual inventories and even distributed manufacturing.

That said, how do the big brands seize such opportunities while protecting their intellectual property (IP), maintaining consistency and quality – and ultimately upholding their brand integrity? We caught up with Lee-Bath Nelson, Co-Founder and VP Business at LEO Lane, who answered our questions on these very issues.

1. Can you start by giving our readers a quick overview of who LEO Lane is and what your company does?

In a line, we enable industrial manufacturers – I'm going to call them brands – to securely manage additive manufacturing (AM), anywhere any time. That's to say that we empower these companies to scale production in AM by protecting their IP, securing digital assets and enforcing control over the quality and quantity of their parts and products each and every time they are produced.

2. Seems logical. Aren't the brands already ensuring consistency in manufacturing, themselves?

To some extent, but the reality is that it's relatively easy for consistency to be hurt or compromised, even by mistake. One of the benefits of AM is its ability to enable on-demand production via virtual inventories. However, this means dealing with digital assets that must be protected. Sending an STL file instantly creates issues around security of the file itself and IP protection. If your IP isn't protected then the file can be intercepted and the part vulnerable to change or leakage. This threatens the brand's reputation as well as consistency in quality and could lead to it being produced in an inferior or incompatible way (e.g., cheaper material or inferior 3D printing technology) than it should be in order to perform to expectations.

Ultimately, no company in the world wants to have their reputation ruined or their brand threatened. And that's where we come in.

3. You mentioned that you can also enable brands to control the quantity of parts they produce?

That's right. Once you move to digital or virtual inventory, you need to ensure that the digital files/assets can't simply be printed multiple times. Imagine an aerospace company that has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in developing a crucial final part for an aircraft. What would happen if it was accessed then printed, not only in the wrong material, but also in large numbers. It would be catastrophic.

I find it incredible that even with major global brands employing sophisticated processes, if an employee wants to print an extra item, then nobody will ever know. This is even worse if it is an outside supplier's employee. One of the core elements to the LEO Lane offering is our protected allocation (ensuring only a pre-defined number of prints) that is built into the file, which eliminates this issue.

4. Sounds like Brink's for digital manufacturing?

I guess that's one way of looking at it. But, it's important to remember that, just like traditional manufacturing, AM is susceptible to production inconsistencies that can happen unintentionally because of human error. Mistakes happen. The wrong material could inadvertently get loaded onto a 3D printer, or the settings on that printer accidentally mis-set.
These are critical issues that large companies worry about, including their top management and they are the issues that LEO Lane solves. Our company offers an automatic and seamless mechanism to avoid this eventuality.
At the end of the day, regardless of whether such scenarios arise by accident or not, brands cannot afford to produce defective parts that will ultimately fail. Even if those parts are being produced via an intermediary, it's ultimately the brand itself that is at risk and certainly none of those with whom we're working are willing to take that kind of gamble.

5. Where do you see the LEO Lane value proposition best exemplified?

Certainly, within the industrial manufacturing world, if you consider some of the issues around spare parts, then it's easy to see how a virtual inventory model enabled by AM offers many benefits to brands and their customers. In the shift to virtual inventory, there is a stronger need to protect the brand's digital assets and that is where we come in.

We're working with one major equipment manufacturer who has almost four million spare parts – clearly way too many to maintain a physical inventory. Here, the ability to quickly 3D print an 'emergency' spare part and get it to the customer so they're back up and running presents an immediate win-win. The manufacturer can solve the customer's problem (and charge a premium price for doing so) and the customer receives a part in a few days, as opposed to a few weeks, resulting in minimal impact on the production throughput.

Another example is general spare parts for the automotive sector. Once these can be produced using AM, then clearly the ability for the major brands to produce on-demand from a virtual inventory eliminates many of the costs associated with storage and transport costs. Of course, the automotive brands invariably don't want to relinquish control of the file, yet they want to move over to digital manufacturing. Once they use LEO Lane all these risks are eliminated.

6. That makes sense, but does this not present a headache for supply chain managers and the procurement process?

On the contrary. Our ethos is to ensure minimal disruption. Once a brand has identified which part it wants to additively manufacture and establishes the correct way to produce it (printer type, material, machine settings, etc.), the file is secured with LEO Lane and the rest is automatic and undisturbed.

Whether a part is made via AM or injection molding is irrelevant to procurement managers; they just want to be able to order it on their ERP system like any other part. Once they do, the LEO Lane service is called in the background and the protected allocation file is triggered.

The only difference is that instead of sending an STL and a PO (Word file/PDF) with instructions included, the brand sends a regular PO and an LSTL file (LEO STL).

Crucially, there is NO change from a procurement or policies aspect, which is paramount for adoption. If we were to approach global manufacturers and inform them that this - along with processes from design, manufacturing and sales - would need to change, they wouldn't listen. And rightfully so.

7. OK, that's good news for supply chain managers. Can you tell us how it works?

A LEO (which stands for Limited Edition Object) file is a digital asset that, in the way I've explained, protects and preserves a digital product or part design by controlling how it is produced on behalf of the enterprise/brand that owns it.

LEO Lane is a SaaS (Software as a Service) solution that also tracks all LEOs providing a dashboard showing real-time data of when, where, and how each item was produced. Our LEO Lane cloud holds no files; it only acts in a supervisory and enforcement capacity. Instead, the enterprise/brand maintains all its files based on its own internal IT policies and procedures.

As I mentioned, the brand's intent is preserved (by specifying material, AM technology, scaling allowed, etc.) and the brand can specify how many items (instances) can be 3D printed from a particular LEO file.

8. Your offering is clearly built to enable AM in production and the next step would be distributed manufacturing. Looking ahead – what do you see as the main challenges to advancing this model?

Regarding virtual inventory and on-demand manufacturing, I think most businesses recognise the enormous benefits to be enjoyed from this model. The weak spot in any supply chain is the physical inventory; it has no benefits and is a burden for companies that pay enormous amounts of money to maintain it.

Most companies we are talking with realize this. They appreciate the advantages offered by on-demand manufacturing in terms of cost-savings, increased responsiveness and flexibility to customers – without huge investment. It seems a no brainer to adopt these models but they carry risks that are untenable if they are not eliminated. Right now, many brands are using AM to centrally produce small quantities of parts that are then shipped to where they need to be. They're not scaling additive manufacturing in the true sense, because ultimately, when you do so the existing model becomes untenable.

To scale in large quantities with AM raises the issue of IP protection and consistency – which is of course, where we come in. For me, it's basically about letting companies know that they can achieve all these benefits while protecting their manufacturing knowhow and design, and ultimately their brand image and reputation.

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