The dawning of the digital manufacturing age

James Stratford, Managing Director, Materials Direct

Digital manufacturing is emerging in the electronics sector allowing products to be specified, ordered and shipped rapidly and efficiently 24 hours-a-day. This has benefits for both new product development and MRO and obsolescence needs.

Materials Direct is the latest service of this type and provides a fast and convenient way for designers and buyers in the electronic engineering sector to source precision, custom cut technical materials such as popular thermal management, shielding, gasket and reflective materials from leading suppliers.

For many, this fully automated approach to sourcing bespoke parts is a new concept so here we consider the opportunities and questions that may arise.

Is there really a trend for customers in the electronics industry to want more of a self-service purchasing experience versus traditional approaches and how does this new service / business play to that?

The electronics industry, like others, is experiencing the globalisation of design and manufacturing capabilities with different time zones and different native tongues. This resultant requirements are hard to cover with a centralised or regional ‘9 to 5’ service. This means there is a definite service and economic benefit of ‘always open’ intuitive portals for the sourcing of custom parts and components. Where fast time-to-market is key to market leadership, being able to order parts ‘24/7’ with rapid delivery for prototyping has big benefits.

Can such services manage new product introduction where volumes ramp from prototype to production volumes?

Historically, in the case of sheet materials for gaskets and thermal management solutions, prototyping has been addressed by hand making parts or modifying standard parts; mainly because of the time taken to manufacture tooling and the associated cost for just a handful of parts.

Hand-fashioning prototype parts is also time consuming and the result is not truly representative from an appearance and performance point-of-view of what will ultimately be used.

With advanced tool-free manufacturing it is quick and easy to make small quantities of completely representative parts without tooling costs. Such an approach is ideal for prototyping and small batch production.  However, there will typically be a volume level where it becomes more sensible and economic to invest in tooling to not only get the best piece part cost, but also so that manufacturing can keep pace with demand.

Managing obsolescence, maintenance, repair and overhaul

Obtaining parts to satisfy the MRO requirements of old equipment or deal with obsolescence can be a challenge. Tooling may be old, have worn out, or it may be geared only for the manufacture of 1,000s of parts when just a handful are needed. In this situation, and so long as a drawing exists, tool-free manufacturing – in the case of Materials Direct this mean computer programmed profiling – can provide the ideal solution for customer needs.