At software conferences it’s always fun to catch up with old industry acquaintances, but is more interesting to strike up conversations with new companies with innovative ideas. That very thing happened a few weeks ago at SOLIDWORKS World 2017 when we got introduced to Xometry, a company committed to bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. with its software platform for building a reliable and scalable manufacturing program. It employs a unique machine-learning approach that provides its customers with optimal manufacturing capabilities at the best price based on parameters input by customers.
Founded in 2014, Xometry is hoping to transform American manufacturing through a proprietary software platform that provides on-demand manufacturing to a diverse customer base, ranging from startups to Fortune 100 companies. The platform provides an efficient way to source high-quality custom parts, with 24/7 access to instant pricing, expected lead time and manufacturability feedback that recommends best processes and practices. With more than 100 manufacturing partners, the manufacturing capabilities include CNC machining, 3D printing, sheet metal forming and fabrication, and urethane casting with over 200 materials. Xometry’s 4,000+ customers include General Electric, MIT Lincoln Laboratory, NASA, and the United States Army.
My late father-in-law (and his father) were master machinists who made excellent tools and decent livings over the course of their careers. I chose not to follow in their footsteps, but rather, to go to college instead. However, I have always considered tool making and manufacturing to be noble professions and ones that have contributed immensely to the quality of our lives.
With all the news we continue to hear today about product design, engineering, and manufacturing increasingly being outsourced in every direction away from North America, surprisingly little coverage seems to be given to one of the foundational pillars of product manufacturing, namely, tooling and tool making.
Although most of our readers are manufacturing-savvy, let’s first define what we mean by “tooling,” because it’s often a misunderstood term by those outside manufacturing. Simply put, tooling entails the tools, machines, or other devices required to manufacture products – everything from car fenders to detergent bottles. The two most prominent groups of toolmakers are die makers whose tools stamp out metal parts, and mold makers whose tools mold plastic parts.
Breaking Tool Making – Is Tool Making Your Passion?
The transportation sector (primarily automotive) still dominates the tooling industry. Because the automotive sector is outsourced much of its manufacturing overseas, it has become very clear why tool and die makers, especially the family-owned small ones with five to 100 employees have suffered the most. It’s estimated that approximately 60% of stamping dies and 40% of plastic molds are used directly or indirectly by automakers worldwide, so it’s no wonder that the smaller tool shops are bearing the brunt of offshore outsourcing. This offshore outsourcing has cost a huge number of tooling jobs in North America, according to estimates from several sources.
Next week, along with what is expected to be over 9,000 attendees, we’ll be in Las Vegas for Autodesk University (AU). Yes, it’s an Autodesk vehicle, but it’s also much bigger than that.
AU is analogous to a big box store (ironically, it starts on Cyber Monday – December 1) with one-stop shopping for technical software for a broad range of industries – manufacturing, media/entertainment, GIS, AEC, and so on.
If you’re coming to Las Vegas for AU, it’s always a good idea to know your objectives for attending and what you hope to get out of it. In other words, come with an agenda based on asking the following questions on behalf of yourself and your company looking ahead five years:
What are you working on now and what do you want to be working on?
What will be the core competencies of our company and our competitors?
What technologies are our competitors acquiring and implementing, and are they new or complementary?
What technologies will emerge and be vital to our business?
Will our company be able to use methods and technologies from other industries?
Will our company grow strictly by organic means, or through partnerships, mergers, and acquisitions?
How will our company’s staff differ from todays and what skill sets will be required?
How will we deal with data – interoperability, legacy, management, etc.?
These are all important questions, because regardless of position today, no company can afford to remain complacent if they hope to remain competitive.
AU is always a good place for monitoring industry and technology trends, market direction, future requirements, industry rumors, and R&D within Autodesk and many of its partners.
AU, like other live software/technology events are great for meeting with Autodesk folks, exhibitors, peers, and potential customers. It’s also an opportunity to learn at the myriad industry-specific classes that are offered, as well as unparalleled networking. With all that we do via email, texting, phone calls, Skype, Web meetings, etc., AU is a great venue for face to face discussions and conversations before, during, and after each day’s formal events. Some of the best inside “dirt” (ranging from successes to frustrations) we pick up on is outside the confines of the conference itself, and we always look forward to catching up with old friends and meeting new ones.
Always expect the unexpected at AU, because you might just hear, see, or learn something that will drive a solution to a problem, or a new direction for you, your company, and your career.
So, if you are going to AU 2014, don’t just go for the sake of this year, but also for considerations down the road.
We just returned from three exhausting but exhilarating days at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) 2014 in Chicago. This biennial, week-long exhibition and conference is by far the biggest manufacturing showcase in North America. As a matter of fact, it had over 110,000 registrants when we left the show at the end of its third day. IMTS occupies virtually all of the buildings at McCormick Place, covering millions of square feet, so you have to strategize how to see everything you want to see. It showcases just about anything you can imagine for manufacturing – metal cutting, abrasives, additive processes, CAD/CAM, controls, inspection – you name it, and it’s probably at IMTS.
IMTSTV – Live IMTS Coverage
MCADCafe conducted several video interviews that will be available for viewing in the very near future at www.mcadcafe.com. The interviewees were a diverse group, everything from traditional CAD/CAM vendors, to software component suppliers, and even a reseller.
Over the years, and with considerable interest, we have observed the ongoing consolidation of the technical/engineering software industry, and it continues unabated today. The consolidation occurs primarily through mergers and acquisitions, whether in whole or in part, but consolidation marches on.
We’ve witnessed consolidation in CAD, CAE, and more recently, CAM, and Autodesk has been a major participant in this consolidation. Relatively recently, Autodesk has made it clear that it intends to become a major force in CAM to round out its Digital Prototyping philosophy that also includes design and simulation. As examples to this CAM commitment, in the past year or so it has acquired HSMWorks (a significant, but relatively small step in CAM), and just last week announced its intention to acquire Delcam (a relatively giant leap in CAM).
It’s no secret that many tool makers have experienced and are still experiencing difficult times.
By necessity, the tooling industry is transforming from its roots as a craft to a future as a complex business. For this transformation to be successful, the tooling industry as a whole must realize that it is not just undergoing a temporary downturn in business, but a radical restructuring. This restructuring is evident in not only mergers and acquisitions (consolidation), but also in cooperative and collaborative practices taking place between small- and medium-sized tool shops. Additionally, new business models are being developed by innovative toolmakers for supporting their ability to compete today and tomorrow with just about anyone, regardless of geographic location.
Restructuring an industry, however, is an extremely tall order because it involves cultural change as much as it does developing new business models. One of the toughest cultural aspects that must be recognized and addressed is the fact that although tool making historically has been regarded as a craft requiring high degrees of skill, unfortunately, it is increasingly becoming regarded as a commodity.
What, a commodity with no real distinguishing characteristics?
To a certain extent, yes, (although there are notable exceptions) because what was done by hand and eye by a select number of tool shops can now be performed by just about any shop anywhere, due to technologies (3D solid modeling, rapid tooling and manufacturing processes, high-speed machining (HSM), etc.) available to just about anybody who chooses to employ them. There is a remedy to this commodity perception; however, by seeking out niches and having outstanding product, material, process and customer knowledge, and many North American tool shops are embracing these practices.
Like virtually all other aspects of manufacturing, integrating technologies in tool making assist in becoming more competitive, but in the end, it is the creativity and adaptivity of people (both on the production floor and in the management office) to an ever changing business climate, in concert with appropriate technologies, that will ultimately win the battle and more business.
We’ve all heard now for many, many years that lean manufacturing is one of the keys to remaining competitive if you want to stay in manufacturing. However, can some of the principles of lean manufacturing be applied to other parts of a business beyond manufacturing? That is a question that a growing number of companies are attempting to answer, especially in today’s super-competitive marketplace.
The phrase “lean manufacturing” is an English invention that was coined by James Womack and used to summarize Japanese manufacturing techniques, specifically, the Toyota Production System (TPS). The phrase is used to describe Toyota’s approach for expanding peoples thinking beyond basic tools and tasks.
Since I learned about lean manufacturing (or production) a long time ago, a comprehensive definition has evolved in my mind over the years. Lean manufacturing is one of those things that can defy definition.
Ask 10 people what it is and you’re likely to get 10 at least slightly different answers. Basically, lean manufacturing is a combined philosophy, initiative, and method for continually reducing waste in all areas and forms to improve the quality and efficiency of a manufacturing process. An even simpler way to define lean manufacturing is a method for producing products using less of everything (material, time, energy, etc.) compared to mass production.
Lean manufacturing isn’t just as simple as doing more with less. It is a very complex methodology with many dependencies. It is a comprehensive methodology that seeks to minimize the resources required for creating and manufacturing a product. Although lean principles strive to make things simpler, these principles actually add a layer or level of complexity to processes.
I think that to this point, and somewhat ironically, lean manufacturing concepts have tended to focus strictly on the processes occurring only on the factory floor. Ironic, because to truly exploit all that lean processes have to offer can and should be deployed throughout a company — from the factory floor to the top floor. Obviously, that’s easier said than done, and that’s what we’ll discuss next time in the MCADCafe Blog.
Whenever the topic of outsourcing manufacturing to overseas companies or facilities is brought up these days, a fact of business life called offshoring, you usually get one of two reactions anger or fear. Sometimes you get a little of both. Is North American manufacturing headed down the road to oblivion with little ability to stem or reverse the descent? We need to view all of this from an historical perspective.
What is happening to North American manufacturing today in terms of gross numbers of employees is hardly unprecedented. Historically, probably the best analogy to what is taking place in manufacturing today with regard to reduced numbers and overall effect is agricultural farming. In the U.S, between the years 1890 and 1960, the percentage of the job market that was directly tied to the farming sector dropped from about 45 percent to less than two percent. Automation on the farm did not just make the jobs flee to other countries; it made them completely disappear. Even with much lower employment numbers, the farming sector thrived in terms of productivity. Automation helped make farming more productive than it ever was when it was strictly the province of human hands and manual labor and today we enjoy surpluses that allow us to usually export huge amounts of farm goods. When jobs vanished on the farm, people turned to the emerging industrial sector for employment and a new way of life in cities.
Just as industrial manufacturing replaced farming, today in the world economy, services are replacing manufacturing.
There are major differences, however, between how offshoring has affected and will continue to affect both manufacturing and service jobs. Offshoring of manufacturing jobs affects primarily blue-collar jobs in certain industries, whereas offshoring of services affects primarily white-collar jobs across potentially all industries.
Luckily, not all manufacturing or service jobs can be outsourced or offshored because several criteria must be met, including:
Little face to face customer contact
Information is a major component of the product
Work can be done via remote communications
Low set-up barriers
High wage differentials
So, while some consider offshoring a necessary evil to North American manufacturing and service workers, their employers are discovering that an the opposite force, known as reshoring, is an essential component of helping their businesses not only thrive, but in many cases, survive.
Because it is such an important emerging movement, reshoring will be the topic of an MCADCafe blog post in the very near future.