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Mitch Free

When Mitch Free, founder of digital manufacturer Zyci, looks into the future of manufacturing, he sees one primary driving force: speed. Consumers and manufacturers alike are no longer OK with long turnaround times, and Free believes this will spur a cultural change throughout the industry. Fortunately, Free thinks manufacturers already have the tools to pick up the pace. In an exclusive interview with Manufacturing.net, Free outlines how cloud-based CAD, digital inventory, IoT and rethinking old processes can help manufacturers meet this need for speed.

Katie Mohr (KM):  What is the biggest change you think manufacturers will see in 2016 and why?

Mitch Free (MF):  The largest think is the need for speed. What I’m experiencing is our customers — companies that make products with the parts we create — are ordering smaller lot sizes but more frequently, and they expect it to be made and delivered fast.

Many manufacturers just aren’t set up for speed. It takes them days or weeks to get back to a customer with pricing, and then their typical lead time to produce something can be six to 12 weeks. That just can’t work anymore. We’re a faster, on-demand society, and customers are demanding the same thing.

People and companies are thinking about risk mitigation. If I produce 10,000 widgets and I hold them in inventory and I sell them over the next six months or year, it’s risky. The widgets might become obsolete, a competitor could change something or I could discover something I could improve on my product. Instead, if I manufacture closer to the demands of my customers, I have less risk and I maintain more flexibility. The good news is that capability exists now.

(AP Photo)

KM:  How are manufacturers negotiating the need for increased speed?

MF:  Companies are re-thinking their supply chains. They’re reorganizing the way they inventory; they don’t want to inventory. They want to manufacture very fast, and I think that’s difficult for a lot companies to cope with.

It’s cultural, it’s systems, it’s processes, it’s leveraging the Internet of Things so you have real-time data to make decisions quickly. It’s also going to be a culture change for employees. If it used to take us a week to get back to the customer with pricing, then that’s not acceptable anymore.

KM:  What technologies can companies employ to facilitate the change?

MF:  There are a number of companies out there that have done a really good job leveraging digital technologies to bring about a lot of automation, such as automated pricing, order processing and automatically connecting machine tools to various systems so that they start producing as soon as the order comes in. All of the components are finally coming together.

Cloud-based CAD is becoming very viable now. Actually being able to do industrial-quality 3D modeling in a Web browser opens up lots of new opportunities to collaborate across the company and supply chain.

Additionally, additive manufacturing is really hitting its stride — particularly in the industrial sector — and it’s a great option for those considering virtual inventory. For instance, if you’re keeping spare parts in a warehouse in case they’re needed, in many cases, some of those spare parts will never get used, so they’re paying storage fees and inventory tax, just to let those parts sit there. Companies are now realizing that additive manufacturing is coming to a point where instead of holding physical inventory, the parts could be held as digital assets and then produced on demand when and if they’re needed.

Lastly, IoT is like the little engine that could. It just kept trudging ahead under all the hype of 3D printing. People get concerned about security, but there are very few examples, I think, where it really is dangerous or threatening. I think in less than 10 percent of scenarios, tight security is a matter of compromised intellectual property or a life or death situation. The applications for IoT are going to continue to emerge, especially as we’re implementing a lot of speed inside our companies. This is how we’re getting the efficiency and the speed, through the equipment, sensors and extension devices — everything talking on the shop floor. It’s enabling speed; it’s enabling that smaller-batch production.

Predictions Synopsis

So, to sum up Mitch Free’s predictions:

  • Risk mitigation will play an increasing role in manufacturers’ decisions.
  • Manufacturers will need to discover new processes to drive a cultural change throughout the supply chain.
  • Technologies, including cloud-based CAD, digital inventory and the Internet of Things will help companies to speed up effective collaboration, service and decision-making.

Have you noticed the need for speed in your company? What steps have you taken to get results to your customers faster? Comment below or tweet @KatieeMohr.

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