The Challenges and Rewards of a Small Additive Manufacturer:
Advancements in Industry 4.0 automation and technology have made it easier than ever for small businesses to contribute to an ongoing manufacturing boom. In particular, because of advancements in 3D printing technology, our small 3D printing business in Northern Michigan, Dreamlab Industries, can print and design prototypes for manufacturers around the world. Though Industry 4.0 makes small businesses like ours possible, it also acts as a double-edged sword. This current speed of advancement in technology and automation presents a unique challenge for small business owners involved in this disruption of the manufacturing sector. While struggling to build their business, startups and small business owners also must keep up to date with the rapid cycle of technological trends brought on by this disruption and keep pace with larger companies that have the resources and the human capital to integrate these trends into their businesses just as rapidly.
Additive manufacturing markets are largely dominated by a few big, well-financed printing companies. The big manufacturers that these companies work for tend to be in line with other Industry 4.0 technologies and are very comfortable working with companies that supply these technologies. For smaller companies, the need to find smaller manufacturing accounts and other niche markets to build their business entails the added need to explain to customers the importance of these technologies. For small business like ours there is also the important factor of maintaining awareness of and implementation of industry trends. Integrating such things as IIOT, automation, AI, big data, and robotics into our own business requires resources that our bootstrapped company must carefully manage in order to take advantage of all that Industry 4.0 has to offer while still maintaining financial solvency.
Adaptation is the rule for any small company trying to build their business, but the current changes in manufacturing make adaptation even more important in our industry. Disruption in any industry usually causes more adaptations in businesses to take place because the old paradigms are being destroyed and these changes must be reckoned with. In order to survive and thrive, our company finds it necessary to seamlessly integrate these emerging technologies while also adapting to emerging markets, trends, and industry standards.
The Birth of an Additive Manufacturer:
Dreamlab Industries began with one 3D printer in a garage with an initial goal of creating prototypes for individual inventors and makers local to Michigan. For various reasons, this market niche eventually proved unprofitable, and realizing this propelled the company into looking for other more profitable markets. As 3D printing businesses were not the norm even five years ago when Dreamlab Industries started, largely the company’s marketing strategies and business development came about by trial and error.
Early on, Dreamlab Industries went through the normal growing pains of a start-up, working with limited resources and finances and trying to establish a base of perennial customers. Though Dreamlab Industries is in the black now, for many years it operated at a loss. Eventually the company took out loans to grow the business faster, buying bigger and better printers to design prototypes for small to mid-size manufacturers. Building relationships with individual investors remained difficult. Angel investors in the community seemed more willing to take risks on proven businesses then something like 3D printing that doesn’t have much of a history in the business world.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, besides the financial, in building Dreamlab Industries has been the lack of and the need for qualified employees to increase the company’s knowledge of new technologies and techniques; to brainstorm and find new niches and new markets for company growth; and to help manage day to day operations. This has impacted the company negatively throughout the years, not allowing for some of the growth that we hoped to achieve. Using a technology that many are still unfamiliar with created the additional need to educate customers of the uses and potential of 3D printers. Also, in these early years, with limited resources and finite time, the rapid cycle of technological advancement and automation characterized by Industry 4.0 became very difficult for the company to implement, if not impossible.
At times family, friends, and others in the community seemed to have a hard time taking seriously a business based on 3D printing. There are phases of technological acceptance. Being an early adopter of a tech does not necessarily work out for every business, even if it’s a great technology. Early adopters need to convince customers that they have solutions to their problems, and as 3D printing is relatively new, at first just convincing and educating people became one of Dreamlab Industry’s biggest challenges. Retaining good, knowledgeable employees was also difficult, as bigger printing companies and design firms could pay qualified employees more money and offer more benefits.
Industry 4.0 and Small Additive Business Solutions:
Though striving to keep up with the advancements and technological advantages of Industry 4.0 has been difficult, ironically, it has also been these advancements that have been the solution to many of our challenges. Using technological strategies in this new Industrial revolution has given us the freedom and time to find new opportunities, new niche markets, in which we can thrive. Quickly adapting to these niches is a key strategy and is one characteristic where small manufacturing businesses might have a slight advantage over their larger competitors. Long established, well financed businesses sometimes grow stale and less adaptable. They can maintain the status quo because survival is no longer paramount. Our commitment and ability to rapidly evolve into markets that are yet untapped has been one of our greatest strengths.
In addition to short-run manufacturing and prototyping, Dreamlab Industries has developed numerous micro-markets that have served as a second-tier form of financing for its operations. One of these micro-markets has been in the realm of obsolescent parts. Finding centralized suppliers, industry leaders, and agencies that serve niche customers that are looking for these parts instead of marketing to individual customers themselves has proved an effective strategy. Because we are working with people who already work with these customers, building relationships and educating these businesses about what our 3D printers can do for them is much easier than having to educate a slew of individual customers.
While adaptation is important on the business side, because of our limited resources and, therefore, our careful and limited selection of machines and equipment, our ability to adapt and evolve has been just as important on the technology side. We strive to have all the advantages that Industry 4.0 can offer us as a small business. We source smaller, less expensive machines and adapt these machines to serve up some of the larger or more complex print jobs that customers demand. Sometimes combining these machines with other 3D printers that we have in our manufacturing facility has led to innovative engineering solutions and allows us constantly to think outside the box and push the technology into places it otherwise wouldn’t go. Reverse engineering, trying to match the progress of big 3D printer manufacturers, and trying to improve on this progress has allowed us to know the strengths and weaknesses of each of our machines and can help us further assess for the customer what is possible. On prints that we absolutely can’t achieve with our own equipment, we wholesale production to larger manufacturers with greater printing ability.
Through the use of hacks and repurposed equipment, we are implementing closed loop network monitoring—the ability to interrupt prints and change designs on the fly—robotics, and other software solutions to increase the speed and efficiency of our prints. We’ve also ramped up our use of technologies like 3D scanning and drone photogrammetry in order to increase efficiency and offer more diverse design solutions to our customers. To keep up with the changing knowledge of our industry, we try to pare down learning only the important information and techniques that larger companies are focused on using and implementing. Cold calling engineers at these larger companies and asking them questions about their research in upcoming technological advancements has been invaluable to streamlining our knowledge so that we remain at the forefront of our industry.
In the past, much of our marketing was word of mouth. As we grow, our marketing strategy involves using automation as much as possible where we can. Our website is the first line of attack on this front, and we try to answer customer’s questions as much as possible here before they communicate with us directly. The use of automated surveys, marketing campaigns, and email responses not only frees our employees up to work on other aspects of the business, but it also strategically gives them the time to interact with customers in a more meaningful way when human interaction is necessary.
Business and Financial
Financial and time constraints are always a concern but gaining traction with businesses who have access to many customers certainly helps with both. Continuing to take on larger accounts in the prototype and short-run manufacturing sector also helps. These larger accounts increase income and save precious time allowing us to focus on production, design, and seeking out more niche markets that address a community of customers’ needs.
Technology and Strategic
Even with some of the techniques discussed above that we use to pare down knowledge and information, trying to implement some of these IIOT and automation solutions with such a small staff requires many hours of research and practice before enacting the strategy on a day to day basis. This remains a challenge.
Using human labor where it is most needed and technology where it is best implemented is also a constant challenge. As serving our customers is of utmost priority, we feel the human aspect of marketing, design, and production is still very important and must be balanced with the ease and functionality of technological solutions.
Our business model from the beginning has consistently been one of testing, evaluating, and adapting to what works. This is true in our constant quest for new markets as it is in our pursuit of efficient technological solutions to fit our customers’ and our own needs. As we are still evaluating the impact of some of the solutions that we have fitted our organization with, some of the following observations are tentative but seem to point to positive growth.
Business and Financial
No doubt the technological strategies that we’ve employed have freed up more time for our staff to take advantage of many market opportunities that we otherwise wouldn’t have time to pursue. The different niche markets that we’ve taken on so far have allowed us to pick up more perennial customers, which has resulted in increased sales. Strategically, we continue to pursue new markets and evolve with the changes in our industry.
Technology and Strategic
Our increase in sales has given us the ability to finance more equipment for long-term, sustained growth. Currently we plan on buying more versatile printers for larger accounts. We also continue to implement automation solutions to our business, hoping for faster print times and a more efficient workflow.
While an increase in sales has given us the ability to hire new employees, it has also given us the need. Growth from a one-man-operated business to a business of several employees has moved our business into a bigger facility where we can upgrade our print manufacturing even more. In addition to these changes, we’re making strategic alliances with other local businesses that can better fulfill functions than we would otherwise have to do in-house and bringing in interns to learn print manufacturing from the ground up. Our interns, in particular, bring a passion for the technological side of the industry that is palpable. They are quick to learn design, machine operation, and other high-valued skills that could benefit them and our company for years to come.
Long Term Implications
Long-term we expect more growth as we continue to bring all components of our business together using automation, IIOT, robotics and other Industry 4.0 solutions. Freeing up production, marketing, design, and other business aspects to these technologies, we hope will allow us to pursue more valuable interactions with existing customers, help us build relationships with new customers, and allow us to explore new markets where we can use 3D printing and its associative technology in new and exciting ways.
For small businesses and startups, integrating advancements from Industry 4.0 is difficult but doable. Knowledge and the willingness to learn this knowledge, even a DIY mindset, can help with this integration, but a lack of resources and finances can also hinder progress. Businesses like Dreamlab Industries centered around disruptive technologies, such as additive manufacturing with 3D printing, might take more time to grow than businesses using older tech, but using automation and IIOT solutions to integrate all the pieces of the business overtime can pay off and free these businesses’ employees to focus their time on finding new markets, innovating new ways to use their promising technology, and doing what humans still do best–serve customers, relate to them, and help them find new solutions to some of their most difficult problems.
Next Steps and Future Plans
As Dreamlab Industries grows, we continue to find new ways to implement technology to benefit our customers and our company. Regarding technology, we are carefully allocating resources to the integrated, communicative, and automated tech characterized by Industry 4.0 that can free up our employees toward serving our customers better. Currently this involves continuing to integrate and automate our marketing program, so that our customer’s needs are served as quickly and efficiently as possible, and to upscale our IIOT efforts with higher-level 3D printers, closed loop network monitoring, robotics, and associated software.