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This post was written by Ian Ferguson, Formlabs’ SLS Engineering Lead

It was late January 2020 when we first got a call from our factory in Shenzhen, China that the government was shutting down facilities due to the spread of an unknown virus.

We were prepared for the two-week shutdown. Our supply chain had the redundancies in place to enable our factory to go offline without impacting the delivery of our printers and resins to our customers. We were ready for those two weeks, but no one could have been ready for that unknown virus, COVID-19, to completely shut down the world not just for weeks, but for months.

No company was in a good position to shut down operations for an unknown period of time, but it was particularly bad timing for us. Beyond merely ensuring the ongoing production of our current product lineup, we were also in the midst of bringing two new flagship printers to market, the Form 3L and Fuse 1. Under normal circumstances, this would involve a constant presence of design and manufacturing engineers at the factory working closely with the contract manufacturers to run constant tests, iron out problems, and ramp up production. We had never tried to handle this essential process remotely and, frankly, were unsure we could.

For the product teams, launching these new printers and various new resins went beyond overcoming logistical issues caused by the new normal of remote work. We were forced to rethink and re-approach the processes and workflows that we have had in place for the better part of a decade.

And that is just what we did. By digitally transforming our previously more hands-on workflows and strategies, we were able to meet our production goals and create greater efficiencies along the way. Here are a few things we’ve learned over the past year that we’ll be carrying on with long after the pandemic ends.

Digitizing our workflows 

Historically, we’ve been very deliberate about spending time and money to send team members to our factories to bring our products to market. It’s not easy (or cheap) to send dozens of engineers and product designers across the globe to oversee the production process.

Going virtual during the pandemic showed us that the same quality of work could be achieved over a Zoom call and in-person on the manufacturing line. By utilizing remote collaboration tools, we saved a lot of time and money from not sending engineers around the world.

Beyond just video calls and collaborative to-do lists in Asana, we also implemented 24/7 webcams at specific points on the production line to better monitor manufacturing. Engineers could call into those webcams to watch what was going on at any given time. This enabled our team to have that same hands-on approach to our work without needing to have boots on the ground in the factory.

The team also used Onshape, a cloud-based design collaboration software, to tweak designs remotely. With Onshape, sharing designs for specific parts within the context of the whole assembly was an easy and secure way to spend less time on technical drawings.

Our team also went beyond improving how we collaborate — we also digitized how we test our products. During the pandemic, Formlabs developed its own manufacturing line software to perform calibration tests. The software also uploads to the cloud all of the data that comes back from these tests. This lets Formlabs track individual printer status in real-time, find issues remotely, and debug problems without having to be there.

The calibration steps we perform are a big part of our secret sauce that makes our printers work. After analyzing this data we would regularly “secretly” solve problems by connecting to printers remotely over the internet to update code, fix files on the printer that might be wrong for some reason, or grab data that might not have made it into the cloud

We had to eat our own dog food

The Fuse 1 is a complex machine that requires hundreds of custom components to operate. When the supply chain crumbled, we encountered an obstacle common among our customers: we had a need for unique parts, but no way to get them manufactured.

Naturally, we turned to 3D printing to design, test, and produce these custom parts. In fact, we turned to the Fuse 1 itself. Dozens of the internal components of the Fuse 1 — including sensor covers, door handles and more — were produced on early versions of the Fuse 1.

We didn’t need a pandemic to know that 3D printing is a powerful way to prototype and ultimately produce end-use custom parts, but it did help us empathize with our customers at a new level. It also helped us integrate our own technology into our product design and manufacturing process more deeply than ever before.

Looking Ahead 

Nobody could have been prepared for what the past year had in store for the world. Despite the ups and downs, we were able to remain agile and focused on our mission to drive our goals forward, and ultimately, accomplish them, which included bringing our industry-leading 3D printers to market. What we learned over the past year will continue to impact and improve our product development workflows when life is back to “normal.”

Perhaps the biggest lesson that we’ve learned, however, is that agility and flexibility are the hallmarks of a resilient team. Instilling these values within a company’s culture ensures that no matter what the world throws at us, we will be ready to overcome it and continue to deliver for our customers.

Formlabs is expanding access to digital fabrication, so anyone can make anything. Headquartered in Somerville, Massachusetts with offices in Germany, Japan, China, Singapore, Hungary, and North Carolina, Formlabs is the professional 3D printer of choice for engineers, designers, manufacturers, and decision makers around the globe. Formlabs products include the Form 3, Form 3B, Form 3L, and Form 3BL powered by an advanced form of stereolithography (SLA) called Low Force Stereolithography (LFS)™ 3D printing, Form Wash and Form Cure post-processing solutions, Fuse 1 SLS 3D printer, and Form Cell manufacturing solution. Through its Factory Solutions offering for industrial users, Formlabs provides the factories of tomorrow with the flexibility and versatility needed for demanding, evolving industrial applications. Formlabs also develops its own suite of high-performance materials that continue to push the boundaries for 3D printing, as well as best-in-class 3D printing software. For more information visit formlabs.com

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