Product Innovation Requires Production Innovation: Additive Manufacturing as an Enabler

Lumiena, a startup making “smart” LED lighting systems, couldn’t find the processing equipment it needed to make its novel products since the technology didn’t exist. Thanks to additive manufacturing, it made its own equipment, and this was a game-changer until its scalability was called into question.

INTRODUCTION

While much of the discussion around additive manufacturing’s applications has centered around building parts of an end product,[1] worth also raising is the way additive manufacturing can enable dramatic innovation through novel and more nimble production processes. Lumiena,[2] 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.

About Lumiena[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

Scaling production – In-house[6]

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?[7]

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.

Unforeseen challenges[8]

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,[9] 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.

 

Word Count: 792

 

[1] Brown. Chain Reaction: Why additive manufacturing is about to transform the supply chain. Mechanical Engineering 140, no. 10 (October 2018): 30-35; W.J. Lim, K.Q. Le, Q. Lu, and C.H. Wong. An overview of 3D printing in manufacturing, aerospace, and automotive industries. IEEE Potentials 35, no. 4 (2016): 18-22; Spaeth. 3d printing is changing the face of multiple industries. ECN: Electronic Component News 61, no. 9 (October 2017): 21-23.

[2] Fictitious name for company privacy

[3] Engagement with company

[4] Wikipedia, “Light-emitting diode,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light-emitting_diode.

[5] Engagement with company

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Holwef. The limits of 3D printing. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles (June 23, 2015).

Previous:

Easier Than Shoplifting: How Amazon Go is Revolutionizing Brick & Mortar Retail

Next:

Chasing Glory: How Ferrari S.p.A. is embracing Additive Manufacturing to Win Again

4 thoughts on “Product Innovation Requires Production Innovation: Additive Manufacturing as an Enabler

  1. Thanks for an interesting read on, as you say, a less-covered angle of additive manufacturing. I certainly agree that 3d printing of tools in addition to end-product parts will only grow in importance.

    While it’s hard to agree outright with you that the company should continue to use additive manufacturing without seeing a cost comparison with tradition methods, you make the case effectively that this is a viable option. I think the company might be able to take a few lessons from Ford (I wrote about them here: https://digital.hbs.edu/platform-rctom/submission/ford-races-ahead-in-additive-manufacturing/), which has partnered with or invested in several startups specifically targeting high quality, durable 3D printing. One is Carbon3D, which uses pools of resins to form solid objects that actually are not layered like typical printed objects. The other is Desktop Metal, which specializes in metal 3D printing. A partnership with these or similar startups could allow Lumiena to overcome the durability issues they’ve been facing as they scale, and provide a happy medium between traditional and additive manufacturing methods.

  2. I appreciate that you took on such an interesting angel within the additive manufacturing space. I am very curious to see where Lumiena is headed next.

    The main context in which I have seen 3D printers succeed is when a company is experimenting with either a tool or product that are looking to mass produce. The 3D printer allows a company to play with shapes, flexibility, the amount of material needed. But as you mentioned, what material you use in the 3D printer is key and I am concerned that Lumiena will be able to find a material that can withstand wear and tear in the long run. I understand why Lumiena has pursued 3D printing thus far, but what are they biggest hesitations for outsourcing production at this point in time? Are there stillno manufacturing who could produce what they need? Is it a question of cost? I don’t see how they will be able to resolve this bottleneck issue without overhauling their manufacturing process completely.

  3. Processing equipment production is an interesting use of additive manufacturing (and one I hadn’t previously seen!). I would be curious to know if the company has done much investigation into the cutoff point where it makes more sense to produce this equipment using traditional production methods rather than with 3D printing. In particular, if there is a piece of equipment that is used regularly (and which Lumiena expects to continue using for the foreseeable future), it might make sense to have it produced with sturdier material (though this may be achievable by simply 3D printing with a different material).

  4. The ability of AM to enable innovation and its progress has definitely been one of its greatest upsides. It’s interesting to think about the additional purposes such as like you said, not just building a product but building a machine or system to build that product. What I am wondering about is the difference in the machine they printed if it were not 3D printed. What material would they use then? Can that material be used with their current 3D printer. If it makes more sense to not have these machines 3D printed it is not necessarily a loss for AM but a major win because it enabled essentially the growth of an organization through its ability to provide quick turnaround times and reduction of outsourcing.

Leave a comment