Oct. 4, 2017
Recently, manufacturing has experienced a radical transformation. Large, capital-intensive production lines fabricating thousands of the same parts or components have evolved to smaller, nimbler facilities fabricating small batch, customizable products and assemblies. The “go to” product for these newer facilities is the desktop 3D printer. To see this process in action, look no further than Louis Vuitton and the production of consumer products. Join us to discover how products that we use on a daily basis are being impacted by this new paradigm.
The method of transforming raw materials into finished products has been part of civilization since man first began wielding tools. It is only in recent history when machines and processes came to bear that modern industrial production began to take root. When one thinks today of manufacturing, large footprint, open factories with robotics and huge production machinery come to mind. It is only within the last couple of decades that a fundamental shift and a new way of thinking has taken root that is set to transform how modern products are made.
Much of this change has been driven by the insertion of technology. However, another driving force is the consumer’s desire for unique, customizable products. In the eyes of the consumer, average, run of the mill products do not always make the grade. The consumer now desires a more intimate connection and experience with the product and this is a result that most mass production runs are not able to provide.
To address this need, companies such as Louis Vuitton have implemented modular techniques where production is organized around customizable batch processes to take advantage of new technologies and deliver products on an as-needed basis. Many of these technologies such as milling machines and 3D printers are now able to fit comfortably on desktops and can be easily configured onto moveable workstations to insert along flexible production lines. This provides a broad menu of capabilities set on an otherwise small physical footprint.
One capability in modular production that cannot be understated is the use of desktop 3D printing (see Figure 1). Desktop 3D printing is a mainstay on the product design, iteration and prototyping side of the business. Now, this capability is slowly making inroads downstream to include the fabrication of jigs, fixtures, molds and end components. Previously jigs, fixtures and molds could only be produced by tooling and injection molding before implementation. This process was not only time inefficient, but added additional cost to the production line. Now, these components may be easily designed, produced and placed on the production line, often in less than 24 hours. This not only increases efficiency and flexibility, but lowers unit costs.
Louis Vuitton is now able to leverage the use of 3D printing technology worldwide. Desktop 3D printing allows engineers and manufacturers at each location to explore and to be creative in designing new and/or improved production processes. New production techniques utilizing 3D printing are easily researched, implemented or discarded at minimal additional cost. This information is then shared and collaborated on with all manufacturing personnel worldwide. This allows for smooth transitions in new set-ups and modifications of production lines going into each new season.
Louis Vuitton has always been the leader in producing quality, luxury products that consumers regularly patronize. To continue this long-standing tradition, Louis Vuitton personnel are constantly searching for new and improved ways of delivering these products to the consumer. The use of new technologies, to include desktop 3D printing, will continue to be an indispensable tool in its quest to remain one of the world’s iconic brands.
There has been much speculation about the future of desktop 3D printing and if the technology will change the way products and parts are produced. The hype phase has passed and has given way to uncertainty among many users and those peering in from the outside. While many are focusing on home use and the hobbyist market, others are concentrating on how desktop 3D printing will be used in manufacturing. Now, with many manufacturers transitioning to the modular production paradigm, desktop 3D printing has found a home and is an integral technology in the modular production process.
Modular production has been in existence for decades but is only recently gaining traction in the way consumer products are being produced. Much of this traction is a result of the introduction and miniaturization of new and existing technologies. Small milling machines, laser cutters and 3D printers are now commonplace in modular configurations which provide tremendous flexibility in setting up lines and fabrication processes.
One consumer products manufacturer where modular production techniques and desktop 3D printing have had a significant impact is Louis Vuitton. Louis Vuitton is well known for its iconic, quality, handmade products, and this tradition has carried through from its origin in 1854. What has changed are the tools and processes that go into fabricating the handmade products. Now, tools such as jigs, fixtures, and molds that were once made through injection molding are now 3D printed. Also, 3D printers provide component parts that assist in the setup of the production lines for each product. Now lines can be configured and tested in real time without having to wait for all the final component parts.
Louis Vuitton takes all the results and best practices of their production processes and freely shares this information corporate-wide. These best practices and results using 3D printing do not necessarily have to be “invented” locally for all facilities to take advantage. In the end, the use of desktop 3D printing has had a dramatic impact on the company’s bottom line.
The overarching goal is for product manufacturers to determine the techniques and scenarios in which the introduction and use of desktop technologies can optimize time and minimize costs in product production.
The foundation of Louis Vuitton’s reputation for producing high quality, luxury products lies in the quality of sourced materials to include leather, suede and gold-plated hardware and the repetitive precision of its fabrication processes. Even with the insertion of technology, Louis Vuitton still fabricates every product by hand. The key is to ensure that the process yields the same quality product during each iteration.
To compound the challenge, every change of season introduces an entirely new product line from original designs that have never been produced and will be retired at the end of that season. This timeline provides little room for error and the fabrication process for each product needs to be finalized before full production begins. This configuration of product lines is replicated world wide where approximately 250 seasonal product lines are established across 17 different facilities. With some facilities fabricating the same product in parallel, this translates into approximately 25 product lines that will have to be set up and vetted at each location.
To meet this seasonal demand, Louis Vuitton has established a modular production scheme that provides versatility, flexibility and decreases the amount of setup time. The scheme centers around small physical footprints where machines and equipment on mobile desktops/platforms are easily moved and configured depending on the desired workflow or function of the individual module. Often times, part design and prototyping are conducted on the same production floor so engineers and designers can participate in the process. An example of a modular configuration may be seen in Figure 2. (Note: This figure is only a modular representation and in no way represents an actual physical configuration at any known facility or location.)
Notice the placement of the 3D printer in Figure 2. Due to its modularity, the printer can be a station on the production line or in a more centralized location in the modular cell to provide 3D printing capabilities where needed. For example, jigs and fixtures were previously designed, tooled and fabricated off site or at a different location on site and then delivered to the production line. Often times this process could take days and even longer than a week before the correct jig or fixture was delivered and inserted in the production line. Now this process can be accomplished in less than 24 hours or even overnight while the production line is not in operation. As a result, changes to jigs and fixtures may be iterated on the fly to guarantee the best solution with no down time.
One of the more interesting uses of 3D printing has been in the production of components as hardware stand-ins during the initial production line setup and test (see Figure 3). The lead time for gold-plating of hardware components can be anywhere from two to three weeks. With 3D printed components, Louis Vuitton is able to do complete production runs to ensure that all components fit well together and have proper clearances in final assembly. This entire process may proceed before any hardware is delivered. This ensures that the use of materials and fabrication time is optimized across the facility.
With each new season, Louis Vuitton factories transform. The fabrication modules of previous product lines are reconfigured to prepare for the new seasonal designs that will be introduced to customers in coming months. There is no time to waste as the new product lines and processes need to be vetted before actual production begins. Desktop 3D printers step to the front in the process of configuring and proofing the lines.
Engineers on the production floor review product designs and begin conceptual design and prototyping of the tools that will be needed to fabricate each new product. Each product line is unique, so unique jigs, fixtures and molds will be iterated and deployed over the coming days (see Figure 4). Previously, these items were supplied by out of pocket injection molders and tooling for the molds was required. This was a process that would take from several days to two weeks and add cost to the setup process. Now these items can be iterated on site and fabricated at night while the facility is closed and be ready the following day.
With the introduction of materials such as PETG Filament, molds are 3D printed that can withstand heat and are able to shape products where leather and suede are routinely used. (Figure 5 shows the bottom of a bag that was shaped with a 3D printed mold.) This process of mold fabrication preempts the need for cast metals and molds made from injection molding and saves on product line setup time and costs.
Once the production lines are set, sample runs are initiated to determine the feasibility, stability and reproducibility of the process. At this time, all component parts are available for assembly minus hardware. The hardware is gold-plated and has a lead time of two to three weeks. In order to conduct the sample runs and to ensure clearances and the stability of the process, 3D printed parts are used as a proxy in place of the hardware. This allows for real time tests and initial production of the product without any delays.
The modular production process is a collaborative process that requires active participation and feedback from all involved. Information about best practices and new techniques are shared locally as well as internationally. This provides the opportunity for creativity and the freedom to try different approaches to improve the process. The key to producing quality products is the use of the best materials and the ability to repeat sound processes.
For Louis Vuitton, the introduction of desktop 3D printing into the process of fabricating quality, high-end products has been nothing but positive. Desktop 3D printing saves time in setup and initial runs, but also reduces production costs. More importantly, process quality is improved which translates in additional costs savings from a reduction in the failure rate. All of these positive develops are traced back to 3D printing.
Going forward, modular production techniques will continue to influence how consumer products are made and delivered to the consumer. The combination of additive fabrication technologies with subtractive processes achieves a variety of fully integrated, compact manufacturing systems. These systems may then be integrated into one facility and be located nearer to the consumer.
Low-cost desktop 3D printers are now indispensable in the manufacture of quality, high-end products. They lower the costs associated with tooling for injection molding and are able to produce components overnight while the facility is closed. They also provide a tremendous amount of flexibility essential in today’s manufacturing environment. Those that delay in the adoption of modular techniques and 3D printing will be at a major disadvantage. Now is the time to upgrade.
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