While much of the discussion around additive manufacturing’s applications has centered around building parts of an end product, worth also raising is the way additive manufacturing can enable dramatic innovation through novel and more nimble production processes. Lumiena, a manufacturer of LED lighting products with a patented chip technology that enables unprecedented color modularity, is a good illustration of how this technology can be leveraged and the challenges associated with that strategy.
Lumiena was founded in 2008 with the intent of bringing innovation to the large and growing LED lighting market by making LEDs with superior color and dimness controls. Doing so required building new hardware and software, therefore the company could not rely on traditional LED processing equipment to make its products. Lumiena’s team spent six years developing the technology and finally had some commercializable luminaires by 2014.
Lumiena’s use of additive manufacturing
LEDs arrived from Lumiena’s suppliers in “raw” form with variation in their brightness and hue. As part of its production process, Lumiena needed to process these raw LEDs to make their light quality consistent. With no viable “off the shelf” tools for them to do this, they developed their own LED processing tech that involved several pieces of 3D-printed equipment. The company tasked a couple of its hardware engineers to design this equipment in CAD and purchased a single 3D printer to make the equipment needed for them to produce initial volumes of product. The system was up and running effectively within a couple months, with all processing happening in a warehouse space adjacent to Lumiena’s corporate offices.
Scaling production – In-house
During the company’s first few quarters of production, output was minimal since Lumiena only needed product to pitch to lighting designers and contractors – nothing in bulk. However, as the company’s sales team started landing larger deals in 2015 with pressure from its board to grow revenue, this LED processing step quickly became a bottleneck.
In response, the company 3d-printed a second set of processing equipment, also kept in the warehouse adjacent to the company’s office, which allowed them to meet customer demand without backorder issues for another three quarters.
Scaling production – Move out-of-house?
By 2016, Lumiena’s board began to discuss planning for more industrialized manufacturing of the company’s products. Conversation revolved around how the company would be able to accommodate the kind of “hockey stick” sales growth that the board was hoping for. As this discussion progressed, what became increasingly clear was that the company would need to further systematize its custom processes to make larger volumes.
At first, it seemed that Lumiena could just keep making new 3D-printed production equipment for LED processing to meet demand. However, as time passed, the company also started noticing signs of wear and tear in its existing 3d-printed equipment. This was likely due to poor material choice, but made the board more concerned about the continuation of this method. Could Lumiena create or find processing equipment that didn’t have to be so “homegrown?”
Next steps for CEO
I don’t see an issue with continuing to use additive manufacturing to produce the processing equipment. While I recognize the risk to having a homegrown system if customer demand takes an unprecedented upturn and production capacity can’t handle it, though the process of printing this equipment on a relatively regular basis doesn’t seem too onerous. As for the machine breakdown, I think it’s worth having Lumiena’s team investigate what other materials might perform better, though I don’t see that as a reason not to continue to use additive manufacturing.
LEARNINGS FROM LUMIENA’S USE OF ADDITIVE MANUFACTURING
Developing new products might require development of new machines to make them. Additive manufacturing presents a uniquely useful way for companies to overcome this challenge, therefore it is a key enabler of innovation. Whether this can scale appropriately is a concern given costs, though since production equipment typically offers a lot of leverage, I think these costs are less of a concern for additive manufacturing of production tools than for that of end products. In the case of Lumiena, additive manufacturing was critical to the company’s ability to make product.
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 Fictitious name for company privacy
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 Wikipedia, “Light-emitting diode,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light-emitting_diode.
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 Holwef. The limits of 3D printing. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles (June 23, 2015).