During the recent AM Trends in EMEA study conducted in collaboration with HP, 3pdbm worked on understanding AM’s role in the digitalization of manufacturing among leading industrial parts producers, across the major European markets. Ziggzagg’s CEO Stijn Paridaens offered a key contribution in understanding these dynamics and digitalization strategies. The Belgian AM service provider was a pioneer in adopting HP’s technology for part production, especially various types of industrial parts. Not just tools but also large series of final parts for industrial applications.
“We started with HP MJF from the very beginning, almost five years ago,” Stijn begins. “Initially we specialized in architectural models and prototyping, then we decided to go into mass production. This level of additive manufacturing can only be valuable when it’s applied to economies of scale. So the more you produce, with more machines, with the least number of physical people as possible, the more it will come close to injection molding production rates and costs.”
Although the AM part numbers continue to grow, Ziggzagg still doesn’t view injection molding and 3D printing as competing technologies. However, Stijn explained that “only with MJF technology today can close the gap and enable the shift from small series productions to medium and in some cases even large productions of up to 200,000 pieces. We are looking at it from a much bigger angle: that’s the unique selling proposition that Ziggzagg can offer via our fleet of 3D printers,” said Stijn.
Automated mass additive manufacturing
Ziggzagg’s strategy is based on implementing real automated mass manufacturing. To this end, over the past two years, the company shifted from using a wide range of AM technologies to focusing exclusively on MJF technology. Today Ziggzagg can offer multiple materials and on MJF while continuing to expand the 3D printer fleet, with new systems to be installed in the next few months.
“3D printing offers the biggest potential to achieve fully digital manufacturing,” Stijn explains. “Today, the idea of the factory of the future and Industry 4.0 is still mostly just a vision. At Ziggzagg we focus on implementing that vision. We’re a small company, with 13 people, but we are continuously growing in terms of machines. We want to continue to grow our machine park while remaining streamlined in terms of people. This enables us to maintain our agility in the industry while maintaining a close relationship with our customers. We need people to interact with customers. Everything else needs to be automated.”
Working together with companies like HP, Kuka and ABB, the team at Ziggzagg is constantly working on automating processes to achieve the utopia of a lights-off factory, with robots and cobots working and just a few operators to operate a fleet of as many as 50 production machines. “That’s where we are investing in right now and, as far as I know, we’re one of the only companies in the world that is actually implementing that vision,” Stijn says.
Some initial benefits of these highly automated and streamlined production capabilities emerged clearly during the recent COVID-19 crisis: Ziggzagg never had to close or leave employees at home. In fact, revenues grew by 40%. “Not only did COVID accelerate the adoption of additive manufacturing, but it also accelerated us as a company,” Stijn reveals. “For instance, over the past year, we achieved our medical ISO certification, something that we expect will become increasingly relevant in Europe with new legislation for medical devices.”
Accelerating towards production
All these processes and trends were accelerated by COVID. Businesses that were able to rapidly adapt, identified new opportunities to reach out to customers that began to consider local supply chains rather than outsourcing all production to Asian markets. “I spoke with a number of other AM service bureaus and they all agree that COVID actually had a positive effect on additive manufacturing,” Stijn continues. “I think the pandemic put our industry five years ahead, both in terms of adoption and for being acknowledged as a mature industry.”
The largest AM production run currently underway at Ziggzagg is in the order of 200,000 pieces. In general, the company specializes in a wide range of industrial applications, from jigs and fixtures to end-use production parts in automotive and medical as well as parts for machine builders or spare parts and end-of-life-cycle products. “We don’t just print one-offs,” Stijn clarifies. “When we begin working with new customers, we start by understanding their application and study how can we can improve it with additive manufacturing. We redesign it together with the customer so that it no longer makes sense to injection mold it. This way, we are able to lock the customer in our production services, and also offer significant added value to the product. That’s priceless.”
On these large runs of DfAM optimized parts, Ziggzagg is often able to become cost-competitive with the prices of injection molding. It often depends on the type of geometry, complexity and application, but sometimes Ziggzagg wins quotation over injection molding based purely on part cost. “That’s also because, through increased freedom of design and iterations, we can help clients get to market much faster,” Stijn explains.
As a service provider, Ziggzagg also operates as an accelerator for the adoption of AM technology by many of its clients. Companies often begin by wanting support for bringing production in-house via AM. They look to Ziggzagg to validate the product and start the first production runs, before taking over. “We absolutely welcome this approach,” Stijn explains. “We know that they will continue to leverage us for outsourced AM production even as they begin conducting some of their AM activities in-house. We help them manage their internal production, and help train operators, as they begin implementing software and post-processing tools. Meanwhile, they continue to discover more parts to add to our AM portfolio.”
Additive manufacturing can ultimately play a part even when the clients are looking for production runs of over a million parts. In this case, Ziggzagg walks them through a trajectory where they validate both products, one for additive and one for injection molding. During the 12 to 15 weeks needed to receive the final molds, Ziggzagg provides bridge manufacturing, which lets the customer get to market up to three or four months quicker. Even after the one million injection-molded part run is done, the customer may still need AM support for obsolescence management and spare parts, so that they can dispose of the molds and still have the data available in their digital warehouse.
Strength in numbers
In order to fully benefit from partnering with HP 3D printing, Ziggzagg is now part of the HP Digital Manufacturing Network (DMN), along with other high-level AM service providers. This network was established to help manufacturers accelerate their business’ digital transformation – with rapid innovation, faster time to market and distributed manufacturing, enabling a leaner supply chain. “As a certified partner of a global company like HP, we benefit in terms of both visibility and recognition, across the entire manufacturing industry—Stijn explains—and that brings increased customer confidence.”
When working with larger OEMs the DMN partners can leverage HP’s experience and knowledge. At the same time, HP benefits from the unique know-how acquired by certified and highly specialized AM service providers. The HP DMN partners have been evaluated and qualified based on their end-to-end 3D printing capabilities for production at scale, as well as their manufacturing and quality processes. “As network partners, we don’t consider each other as competitors, and we never have. We don’t need to compete with each other, as the potential market pie for AM is so large that there is plenty of room for everyone. We speak with each other often, like colleagues,” Stijn clarifies.
This gives the DMN partners the ability to share key feedback information on how the machines are running and each other’s best practices and pain points that need to be addressed to improve. This information enables HP to continuously improve the machines, which ultimately leads to more sales.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship that has worked out very well so far. It has helped us grow and build more confidence from industrial adopters,” Stijn concludes.