Additive manufacturing (AM) hardware is becoming more advanced, allowing manufacturers to create printed parts of unprecedented quality. Formerly just a prototyping tool, AM is now a viable option for serial production.
But despite year-on-year improvements to AM machines, manufacturers often struggle to exploit the full potential of their hardware. This is because they have not efficiently organized their AM production workflow: information moves awkwardly from one system to another, machines operate with half-empty print beds, and finished parts are slow to reach their final destination.
Manufacturers with ambitions to run a serious AM operation need a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) designed specifically to address the challenges presented by the AM workflow.
What is a manufacturing execution system?
A Manufacturing Execution System (MES) is a computerized system that aims to control, automate, track, and document the entire manufacturing process. It is used to carry out several important functions, from order management to job costing to machine scheduling.
MES software enables a business to process a large number of manufacturing jobs and run several production stations simultaneously. It can therefore help a business scale up its manufacturing operations.
Manufacturing Execution Systems can also be used to implement a digital transformation strategy: replacing, for example, paper-based record keeping and manual machine operation with electronic alternatives. Specific MES software can include or exclude certain features and may share features with other enterprise software (ERM, PLM,…).
MES is critical for those seeking to integrate autonomous manufacturing into their workflow and may provide a stepping stone towards the long-term goal of Industry 4.0.
The differences between MES and additive MES
Additive MES, sometimes referred to as AMES, is a subcategory of MES specifically designed to deal with 3D printing workflows and challenges, and to communicate with AM hardware and other AM software.
Software features unique to additive MES include 3D print preparation tools like support generation, topology optimization, and print bed nesting, as well as AM-specific post-processing tools like powder removal management. Furthermore, AMES software is often designed to track AM-specific data such as print failure rates.
Most current additive MES software suites are turnkey solutions — they are not tailor-made for the manufacturer — although some companies offer different versions of their software for different end-users: OEMs, 3D printing service bureaus, etc.
Key benefits of additive MES
Additive MES software provides various important benefits, from the optimization of resources to the full traceability of printed parts. These advantages mainly benefit the manufacturer in regard to productivity and efficiency, but can also benefit the end-user or customer
For the manufacturer:
- Connection and standardization
- Optimization of resources
- Maximization of throughput
- Strength and weakness identification
- Control over production
For both the manufacturer and the customer:
- Full traceability
- Simplified up-front quotes
- Accurate delay prediction
- Compliance and certification
Find out more about the key benefits of MES software for additive manufacturing workflows.
Main features of additive MES
Here’s a quick overview of the main features (or categories in which more specific features can fall under) that you can find in most additive MES software suites:
- Order management
- File preparation
- Production planning
- Material management
- Post-processing management
- Quality management
- Tracking and traceability
Find out more about Additive MES main features here.
Who needs additive MES?
Factories and OEMs
Manufacturers of end-use parts often manufacture in high volumes and may therefore operate an extensive fleet of production machines.
Developing an intelligent additive manufacturing workflow that incorporates effective machine scheduling and automated resource allocation helps such manufacturers maximize profitability.
Whether serving businesses or consumers, AM service bureaus can benefit from bureau-tailored MES software in order to improve their workflow.
Automatic quoting is particularly useful for service bureaus dealing with many customers at once, as are features like automatic part orientation and nesting, since a single machine may need to print several unique items (for different customers) at once.
These features may also benefit companies that provide Manufacturing as a Service (MaaS), though these companies may often be dealing with higher unit quantities comparable to those of OEMs.
Rapid prototyping specialists
Rapid prototyping specialists — whether internal departments of large companies or third-party service providers — can use additive manufacturing workflow software to improve performance.
These users may benefit from features like comprehensive file analysis tools since early-stage prototypes are more likely to face printability issues than end-use parts that have gone through the entire R&D process.
Where does MES software fit in with PLM and ERP software?
Some features of MES software may also be found in Product Lifecycle Management software (which covers aspects of a business like design and engineering) or Enterprise Resource Planning software (aspects like accounting and human resources).
AMES software like Sculpteo Fabpilot Enterprise can function as a standalone solution without a separate PLM/ERP, while those like the 3YOURMIND MES are designed to work in tandem with PLM/ERP.
After how many 3D printers does MES become necessary?
Manufacturers operating two or more machines may discover immediate benefits using additive MES software. However, the need for MES depends on many other factors: number of orders, complexity of orders, range of AM technologies, number of employees, etc.
If a manufacturer operates several machines but otherwise has a simple and manageable workflow, it may benefit from Fleet Management software instead, which focuses on control of printers.