COOPERSVILLE — Manufacturers used to years-long product cycles have been hesitant to embrace the frenetic pace of change that comes with the adoption of cutting-edge technologies on their factory floors.
But the companies that do embrace the risks inherent in the technology development cycle can be rewarded with a competitive advantage over their peers.
That’s according to Paul DeWys, the owner of Forerunner 3D Printing LLC, who said the adoption rate for new technologies like 3-D printing comes down to the business culture and appetite for risk in each company.
“It’s West Michigan; everyone is conservative,” said DeWys, whose Coopersville-based company produces plastic, metal and rubber parts. “People are terrified to take chances. My issue is if I want to grow my business, I have to be willing to take chances that other people aren’t willing to take.”
To that end, Forerunner recently purchased a $400,000 Hewlett-Packard 3-D printer, which DeWys said is “allowing us to compete against low-volume injection molding (companies).”
He attributed the company’s 40 percent to 50 percent year-over-year sales growth to the machine’s “speed and low cost of materials.”
Currently, the company uses its 3-D printer primarily for production runs for various parts. For example, the company manufactures components for automation equipment — like gripper fingers for robots — as well as mounts for GoPro cameras used by bowhunters.
Even though the technology investment poses a “huge risk … it’s a risk I am already starting to see pay off, and it’s a risk that’s going to continue to pay off,” DeWys said.
At the same time, DeWys also is working with his customers to change perceptions about 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, which many companies view as being useful for prototyping, but not full-scale production work.
According to a 2017 report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), 43 percent of automotive manufacturers and 22 percent of industrial manufacturers said they were making “substantial” investments in 3-D printing technology at the time of the survey.
PwC also asked companies about their expected investment in 3-D printing in three years, when 35 percent of automotive companies and 29 percent of industrial products companies said they would be making substantial investments.
Meanwhile, West Michigan companies also are turning to advanced forms of automation technology.
That includes direct-selling giant Amway Corp., based in Ada. The maker of nutrition and dietary products, cosmetics, soaps and home and durable goods plans to install 15 collaborative robots, or cobots, by the end of 2018.
“In West Michigan, we see companies investing in both robotics and operational systems at varying rates,” said Kara Smith, director of manufacturing and technical support organization for Amway. “Some companies are investing more aggressively in operational systems, while other companies are focusing more on robotics. It is based on their business need. At Amway, we have decided to aggressively pursue robotics and vision systems, while pacing our investment in operational systems.”
Currently, Amway’s investment strategy includes plans to purchase and install 10 cobots in 2019, according to Smith. She added that the company expects to spend $2 million annually over the next three years on automation technologies.
“Amway’s automation efforts have focused on improving operational safety, quality, and cost through the use of robotics, vision systems, wearables technology and self-driving vehicles, targeting repetitive, non-skilled tasks,” Smith told MiBiz. “Amway is deliberately moving towards Industry 4.0 technology with a paced investment strategy. We are focused on modernizing (and) standardizing our devices, standardizing our processes and systems while minimizing required human touches, and standardizing data collection and analytics.”
Opening the door
At Forerunner, DeWys said investments in 3-D printing have opened “up a huge opportunity” for the company, including for low-volume injection molded parts. The technology also helped the company to “resurrect” once-dead projects.
He expects the business to continue growing thanks to the investment.
“What we see is customers use this to replace short-run or low-volume injection molding projects,” DeWys said. “That’s a big incentive for us. It’s not a silver bullet. I am not going to tell you that 3-D printing is for everything; it’s not. (But) there’s very specific use cases where it makes sense.”
According to a PwC report in June, “new values are being unlocked” when companies invest in robotics technology, which include 3-D printing and the Industrial Internet of Things.
The technologies are “opening new paths of production, real-time machine performance monitoring and preventive maintenance.” In addition, companies using these technologies will have products of higher quality, PwC reports.
Similarly, DeWys said his customers “have a lot more design freedom with this technology than you do with injection molding or stamping.”
“We give (customers) a freedom of design that they wouldn’t have with any other manufacturing method and still be cost effective,” he said. “Early on, one of my mentors told me that in order to grow, I needed to stay on the leading edge, but in order to avoid catastrophe, I needed to avoid the bleeding edge. At the time, I really did not understand the difference, but over the years, I have come to understand what he meant. I think you need to look closely at every new technology that comes along that might make a meaningful difference to your business and consider if it might be a good fit for the direction the business is headed in.”
According to DeWys, “the tricky part is making sure not to jump on something too early and either find the market is not ready for it yet, or worse: The technology is not yet able to deliver on its sales pitch.”