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In this article, we’ll be taking a deep dive into CNC machining to create a complete guide to this cutting-edge process.

What is CNC Machining?

It’s a vanguard process in the rapid-prototyping and low-yield/high-precision manufacturing sector.

CNC machining allows for the rapid but highly accurate construction of projects from materials that are not suited to other types of rapid prototyping manufacturing, such as 3D printing.

In this article, we’ll be taking a deep dive into CNC machining to create a complete guide to this cutting-edge process.

What is CNC (Computer Numerical Control) Machining?

The term machining generally refers to the use of a cutting tool used as part of a controlled material removal process to render a workpiece to a desired final size and shape.

Traditionally this was done by a skilled technician. If you think of an old-school carpenter with a lathe and a chisel set, you’re not far wrong. 

This manual form of machining is still used today and is normally referred to as conventional machining. The technician doesn’t need to wield the tools anymore and can direct and control machining tools via a computer interface. 

What makes a machining process conventional is that a human determines the location and intensity of tool contact.

By comparison, computer numerical controlled machining uses software to render a 3D design into instructions for a set of computer-controlled machining tools. The software and computer-controlled tools then conduct the machining process without the need for significant oversight.

Essentially, in CNC machining, the software determines the location and intensity of tool contact.

Basic Components

At the most basic level, CNC machines can be broken down into three main sections, including:

  • The software – The software installed on a CNC machine interprets the 3D CAD design and translates this into two codes that the machine control unit can understand, miscellaneous code (M-code) and geometric code (G-code).
  • The machine control unit – The machine control unit is programmed by the M-code and G-code which provides it with the movement and speed of cutting heads and other pertinent information such as the use of coolant, tool change, and when the current program stops.
  • The processing equipment – The processing equipment represents the machine tools that perform the various machining operations, which we’ll cover in greater detail later in this article.

CNC Machining Process Overview

The process of creating a CAD design, translating it into a CNC program having the machine use that program to manufacture a part can be broken down into four basic steps, including: 

Designing the CAD model

The CNC machining process starts with the creation of a 3D solid CAD design. While the creation of a CAD model is beyond the scope of this article, we will cover some basic design principles that should be adhered to when designing for CNC. 

The first step in designing a part is deciding on what type of geometry will be required. With 3D solid models, surfaces are usually used instead of solids because they take up less space and offer many more editing options which can lead to faster modeling times.

Once an appropriate geometry has been defined, the next step is deciding how much material needs to be removed from each surface. 

This process involves several steps: First parts have to be exploded so that individual surfaces can be selected; extruded or revolved surfaces must then be created and the required pattern applied to them.

This step can be very time-consuming depending on the number of patterns that are being used, and therefore requires careful planning to ensure they don’t obstruct each other. Once all the surfaces have been defined, a cutting tool path needs to be set up so that it is possible to machine the part.

2D vector CAD programs such as AutoCAD or BricsCAD are rarely used for CNC work since they cannot be easily adapted into 3D models; however, these 2D programs do provide an option for mapping out what a final design will look like in advance. 

3D modeling software such as Solidworks and Autodesk Inventor often contain features specifically tailored towards the CNC machining industry. 

The 3D design will also contain information on the required tolerances for the machining process. This is generally included as GD&T, which stands for Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing.

GD&T is a symbolic language that provides the geometrical product specifications, tolerances, and geometric tolerance for a 3D design.

engineer designing in cad

Converting the CAD file to a CNC program

Once the CAD file has been completed, it must be turned into G-code, which is the language that CNC machines use to ‘speak’. 

The conversion process involves sending the CAD file through a CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) program. These programs are specifically designed for converting CAD files to G-code and are loaded onto a computer attached to the CNC machine.

There are two methods of converting using CAM software: robot or manual method.  Which method is chosen depends upon the CNC machine that will be doing the cutting.

The robot method is for machines with a dedicated robot such as a Haas, Doosan, or Mazak. 

This method requires CAM software supplied by the CNC manufacturer and uses proprietary language. This ensures compatibility from one computer to another but can only be used on machines made by that company. 

While this may seem limiting, it actually stores all tool paths in formats that are useful to anyone using any brand of CNC because they are common codes. These files can even be used for basic nesting purposes if needed.

The manual method has no dependencies on special software and works with any CAD/CAM system that outputs g-code.

Preparing the CNC machine

Once the CAD program has been converted into a CNC program it can be uploaded to the CNC machine. The program provides both the miscellaneous code (M-code) and geometric code (G-code).

The geometric code (G-code) controls the movement and speed of cutting heads while the miscellaneous code (M-code) covers any other relevant data that is not directly related to the movement and speed of cutting heads. 

This might include the use of a coolant or something as basic as when the program starts and ends. 

cnc operator preparing machine-min

Executing the machining operation

Once the CNC machine has been prepared with the G-code and M-code, the machining operation needs to be executed. After setting up the proper parameters (work coordinates, cutting tool, feed rate, spindle speed, etc.), the G90 command must be executed. 

This tells the machine that all subsequent commands are to reference absolute machine coordinates rather than relative movements. 

The G20 (inches) or G21 (millimeters) command can then be set depending on the units of measure desired for the execution of the program and indicate information about material conditions (thickness and size).

The next step is to execute an approach movement in order to position the tip of the cutting tool at a point where it can begin machining operations. The most common form of approach is a straight line from some position in space directly towards one’s destination point.   

While this is usually the most simple and straightforward approach that can be used, there are many cases where it is necessary to use a different kind of approach. 

For example, the operator may want to use a circular arc rather than a straight line or a helical approach in complex three-dimensional shapes. 

Approach movements are typically executed with the coordinates being relative to some point on the C axis (which might be different from the machine origin) so as not to interfere with the operation of another machine tool sharing the same coordinate system.

Once the approach has been set, the machine will execute the program, using the movement set by the G-code to remove material from the workpiece.

Common CNC Machining Operations

To remove the right amount of material from the workpiece to the correct dimensions and tolerances, CNC machines use certain basic processes, including:

Drilling

Drilling is the process of creating cylindrical holes in a workpiece by using multi-point drill bits. 

CNC drilling can produce vertically aligned holes with diameters equal to that of the bit used, but angular drillings are also possible through specialized machine configurations and devices. 

Drilling has counterboring (creates countersunk features) and countersinking capabilities as well. 

These operations produce holes with diameters smaller than the drill bit diameter and larger openings at the bottom of a hole to allow for flush seating of subsequent components or fasteners such as screws, bolts, and pins respectively.

cnc milling process closeup-

Milling

The process of milling is a machining technique in which rotating multipoint cutting tools remove material from the workpiece. 

In CNC milling, there are two ways to feed the machine: either by feeding it in the same direction as that of the tool’s rotation or opposite to its rotational movement.

The process can cut shallow, flat surfaces and flat bottomed cavities into the workpiece, also known as face milling. It can also perform peripheral milling in which it cuts deep cavities, such as slots or threads in the part.

Turning

Turning employs single-point cutting tools as part of a machining process that is used to remove material from the rotating workpiece.

In CNC turning, the machine—typically a CNC lathe machine—feeds the cutting tool in a linear motion along the surface of rotation on top of it removing any excess until desired dimensions are reached.

Operational capabilities of the turning process include boring, facing, grooving, and thread cutting. 

When it comes down to a CNC mill vs lathe for manufacturing parts, milling with its rotating cutting tools works better for more complex parts. 

However, lathes with their rotating workpieces and stationary cutters are faster at working on rounder objects in particular while being just as accurate if not more so than mills when it comes to simple tasks such as drilling or reaming

cnc turning
cnc routing

Routing

Routing is used for the precision cutting of various materials such as wood, composites, aluminum, steel, and plastics.

This process is often used  when creating joinery such as mortises or tenons due to its ability to create extremely accurate cut lines time after time

In comparison to laser cutting, CNC routing is very cost-effective, although laser cutting does produce a noticeably cleaner edge and is able to produce a level of precision not available with a friction cutting method.

Types of CNC Machines & Tools

Rather than one single CNC machine or tool, there are multiple options available that specialize in different machining processes, including:

CNC Milling Machine

CNC milling machines are usually used for subtractive manufacturing (material removed by the machine) processes such as engraving, jig grinding, and boring. 

Mills are normally classified in two ways: by the shape of the table and by spindle orientation. The overall size or shape of the table is relative to the work envelope and the maximum weight it will hold.

In terms of spindle orientation, they may be either gantry mill or overhead bridge mill. 

A bridge mill is mounted over a stationary table on a rack and pinion carriage system to move it across each axis while the Z-axis prevents movement in the Z direction. 

A gantry mill, on the other hand, has a moving gantry that travels along two rails above and across the machine which moves the table through each axis. 

With this movement, there is no need for a lift or bed to move within an x – y plane as with bridge mills; however, most bridge mills are also able to function as a gantry mill with proper work envelope and capability.

CNC Lathe Machine

With a CNC Lathe, the task of positioning the cutting tool along three axes is done by a computer numerical control (CNC) system which also controls the spindle, feed rate, etc., typically using cams or lookup tables. 

This is superior to a traditional lathe because it can be used for different lathing operations, such as facing, turning between centers, and screw-cutting.

There are two types of CNC Lathe Machines; a “full function” CNC Lathe Machine or a Milling/Turning hybrid machine. 

A full-function CNC lathe machine typically has all of its movements under computer control including the spindle motor and direction (feed rates). 

On the other hand, a milling/turning hybrid machine typically lacks automatic control over the rotation of the workpiece.

Electric Discharge Machine

Electrical Discharge Machining (EDM) is a controlled metal-removal process that is used to remove metal by means of electric spark erosion.  

The process is used when the material to be removed contains no convenient tooling features, such as drilled holes or pockets. EDM can also remove material from a part that would otherwise be considered scrap.

Electric discharge machining can be divided into two main subcategories: Wire EDM and Die Sinking EDM. 

The terms wire cut and sinker are used for historical reasons since the wire electrode has been changed to another type of electrode. 

Wire EDM uses an electrical charge which runs between 2 electrodes. Material is dissolved by arcing across the gap in between electrodes in U-shaped grooves called ‘kerf’. 

In Die Sinking EDM, the wire is replaced with a die. The difference being it uses the tool to produce the cut. This method can be faster but depends on having round inserts that are used for each part geometry.

CNC Plasma Cutter

In CNC plasma cutters, inert gas like compressed air or nitrogen is used to propel a high-energy flame of non-luminous plasma toward the material being cut. 

The jet from the plasma torch cuts through electrically conductive materials by melting and evaporating away the material at extremely high temperatures (4200 K). 

This typically makes it ideal for cutting metals in sheet form, since molten metal can be quickly moved before it has time to cool down.

CNC Router

A CNC router is a computer-controlled machine that has the ability to move the cutter head and control the motion of a workpiece in all directions. The motion can be programmed by utilizing various software packages such as CAD/CAM or CAM2, which controls the movement of the X, Y, and Z-axis.

The three axes along with their respective axis motors run at high speeds and are controlled via stepper motor drives. This allows for precise cuts across a wide range of materials. 

Even though a CNC router uses many of the same components as other CNC machines like mills and lathes, it features unique components as well. One unique component is an automatic tool changer system that allows for quick swaps between tool heads, for example. 

CNC Axes

Modern CNC machines are generally split into two types; 2-axis and 3-axis machines and multi-axis machines

2-axis and 3-axis machines

3-axis mills are the most common CNC machines. The 3-axes refer to linear motion in the X, Y, and Z axes. In milling, a tool spins as well for cutting purposes.

CNC Lathes often only have two main motions with one stationary tool that moves linearly along X and Y while also having the workpiece spinning around.

2-axis and 3-axis machines can struggle with complex geometry due to restrictions on undercuts or other factors making internal geometry challenging.

Multi-axis machines

A multi-axis CNC machine is any machine with more than three axes. When you start adding more axes, it becomes possible to have the tool head and machine bed rotate automatically without human intervention. This saves time by removing manual steps in between operations. 

The easiest way to do this is through indexed CNC machining where rotation only occurs during setup or when changing tools. It typically involves using a 3 + 2 axis of movement for simplified setups and programming.

An even higher level can be achieved with continuous 5-axis machines that move on all linear (X, Y & Z) coordinates while also rotating about both their own “Y” as well as the workpiece’s fixed “Z”.

Machines with more than 5-axes have increasingly higher accuracy rates and time efficiency. For example, a 12-axis machine has two heads that both allow linear motion along the X, Y, Z axes as well as rotation around each of those. 

Types of CNC Machining Support Software

We’ve already mentioned some of the software used to create 3D designs and translate them into the code that instructs a CNC machine. These include:

 

CAD

CAD or computer-aided design is the first step in the CNC manufacturing process. A computer-aided design package will allow the user to create a drawing specific to the machine and material they are using. 

CAD software is used for importing 2D drawings, creating 3D models and surfaces, manipulating images with photo editing packages such as Photoshop, generating toolpaths for CAM packages, and simulating future processes.

 

CAM

A CAM package consists of an application that takes a user-created 3D design created in CAD software and translates it into instructions a CNC machine can understand. 

These instructions come in the form of G-code, which controls the movement and speed of cutting heads, and M-code, which covers just about anything else.

 

CAE

CAE or computer-aided engineering software is often used to examine the performance and tolerances of 3D designs produced in CAD software by subjecting them to theoretical stresses as part of computer simulations.

This is a hugely important part of the design process as it allows the designers to test and set tolerances before the piece is machined.

CNC Machining Materials

The CNC machining process works with a huge range of materials, including:

Metals

Aluminum

Used in transportation, packaging, construction, and countless consumer products, Aluminum is a hugely popular metal for use in CNC machining because of its excellent strength-to-weight ratio and high recyclability. 

Steel

Steel is commonly used in CNC machining because it’s tough and durable, but it is not without its drawbacks. One of the biggest issues with using steel in CNC manufacturing is that the material is incredibly difficult to machine due to how hard it is.

Layer bonding of metals such as steel also poses additional challenges because they need high temperatures and wide spaces between toolpaths in order to prevent collisions.

Stainless steel

Stainless steel is used in the CNC machining of engine valves, ball bearings, and other high-wear applications because it’s nearly impervious to corrosion. It is also the material of choice for surgical instruments and kitchen equipment that must be resistant to heat and chemicals.

A2 Tool Steel

This Tool Steel has been in use since the early 1900s and has become one of the most popular high-carbon tool steels. A2 is a water hardening tool steel that features excellent wear resistance along with good toughness and durability. 

Cast Iron

Cast iron is a lot easier to machine than other harder metals like steel and is used mainly to make pots, pans, and other cookware. However, it can also be used to make gears and bushings.

Brass

Brass has excellent machinability and is commonly used for components that require a combination of strength, good wear resistance, and good corrosion resistance.

Bronze

Bronze is often CNC machined into parts bearings, washers, and brushings. The material is easy to work with, relatively cheap yet durable, and heavy in weight.

Copper

Copper has a combination of properties that make it ideal for use in the electronics and automotive industries. It is easily worked, ductile, and highly conductive. 

Titanium

Titanium has a combination of lightweight and high strength that makes it a good material for building aerospace components. It is most commonly used for building airframes, landing gears, and some engine parts.

Plastics 

ABS

A low-cost engineering plastic, CNC machined Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is excellent for prototypes due to its low cost and production-like qualities.

ABS can be painted or powder coated to give it more durability and UV resistance while giving it a matt finish, however certain faces may appear shiny depending on their geometry

Polycarbonate

Polycarbonate, sometimes known as PC has the benefits of being impact-resistant, heat-resistant, and flame-retardant. It has a scratch-prone glossy finish, to which anti-scratch coatings can be applied. It is also highly recyclable. 

Nylon

Nylon 6/6 has excellent tensile and flexural strengths, fatigue resistance, wear resistance, low-stress relaxation, and high compressive strength. It is often chosen over metals or glass on account of its high durability and scratch resistance. Nylon also boasts good insulation properties, such as for use with electrical devices.

POM (Delrin)

A low-friction, high-stiffness material, Polyoxymethylene (POM) has a range of applications in medical devices, engines, and robotics. It’s one major drawback being the fact that it is highly flammable. 

PEEK

Polyetheretherketone is often used as an alternative to lightweights metal or glass in the aviation industry because of its high toughness and low weight.

PEEK is a high-performance plastic that has outstanding electrical insulation and resistance to chemical attack and high-temperature fluids.

PPS

Polyphenylene Sulfide (PPS) is often used in the automotive, electrical, and electronics industries because of its excellent temperature resistance, electrical insulation, and stability.

Acrylic

Polymethyl methacrylate (PPMA), more commonly known by its brand names Plexiglas and Lucite is a synthetic polymer resin that is often used as an alternative to glass because it is about half as thick, yet more impact-resistant, and nearly unbreakable. 

Garolite G-10

Also known as phenolic and epoxy-grade industrial laminate, Garolite G-10 is used in several areas including military, industrial, commercial, and aviation industries because of its resilience when exposed to harsh conditions.

HDPE

HDPE is used in everything from medical tubing to milk jugs and water pipes. Other plastics such as polypropylene (PP), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), and linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) have lower coefficients of friction, but none come close to the coefficient achieved by HDPE.

Polypropylene

Also known as PP, polypropylene is derived from petroleum and is highly resistant to solvents and chemicals, making it a common plastic for use in containers and implements. 

PTFE

Commonly known as Teflon, PTFE has low surface friction, good electrical resistance, and is self-lubricating. PTFE’s non-stick properties are used in cooking utensils and for a wide range of applications from car brakes to wiring.

UHMW

Ultra-High-Molecular-Weight Polyethylene, which is also known as UHMW, is a hard plastic that is extremely tough and resistant to abrasion. It is used in the automotive industry under the brand name TENARIL®. 

Ultem

Polyetherimide, also known as PEI or the brand name Ultem, is an amorphous thermoplastic material that has a really high tensile strength and very good heat resistance as well as chemical resistance. 

Woods 

When it comes to woods that are suitable for CNC machining, hardwoods tend to work better than softwoods. 

Woods like maple, walnut, cherry, pear all have excellent internal cohesiveness across the grain and a solid even consistency.

This is important in subtractive manufacturing processes like CNC machining where the high counterforces can tear the wood apart along the grain instead of cutting through it. 

Materials used for finishing:

Alodine

Alodine, also known as chromate conversion coating, is used to protect aluminum parts from corrosion. Aluminum has a chemical reaction with oxygen, creating a layer of aluminum oxide on the surface of the part.
This thin natural coating is hydrophobic and prevents water from penetrating into the material, making it ideal for protecting parts that are prone to corrosion.

 

Anodizing

Anodizing is a chemical process that is used to enhance the appearance of aluminum (and other metals) while increasing corrosion resistance.
The process uses an electrolytic cell to create an oxide layer on the exposed surface by going through different voltage levels. The oxide layer can be built up to different thicknesses to give greater resistance to corrosion. 

 

Black Oxide

Black oxide is a conversion or surface coating that is created by heating in a chamber filled with hydrogen sulfide gas and sulfuric acid vapor to 370 degrees Celsius. The black oxide coating then forms a barrier that protects the metal from further corrosion.

 

Electroless Nickel Plating

Electroless nickel plating, also known as ENP, is a plating process that increases protection against corrosion and wear, improved conductivity, reduced friction, enhanced lubricity, extended part life, and easier cleaning.

 

Electropolishing

Electropolishing is a common finishing process for a variety of metal parts electricity and an acid chemical bath to remove surface imperfections.

 

Media Blasting

Also known as sandblasting, media blasting uses a high-pressure jet of media such as glass or plastic beads to apply a uniform matt surface to finished parts. 

 

Nickel Plating

Nickel plating is commonly used to prevent corrosion of metal objects, for decorative reasons, and to prevent bacterial contamination. The nickel plating is applied by submersion in a plating bath that contains nickel salts.
A current is passed through the bath which causes the metal ions in the salt solution to be deposited onto the surface of whatever object is being plated.

 

Passivation

Passivation is a chemical reaction in metal objects which prevents further corrosion by creating an oxide coating on the surface of the metal and then converting it into a metal phosphate before sealing it with a zinc or manganese compound.

 

Powder Coating

Powder coating involves applying a thermoplastic or thermoset polymer to the surface of a, normally metal, object, using an electrostatic application to create a scratch and corrosion-resistant layer.

Advantages of CNC machining

  • The fact that CNC machining can provide the accuracy and precision required by even the most demanding of tasks. 
  • The finished products are capable of being made to very tight tolerances, so much so that they may be practically impossible to make by hand.
  • One area in which CNC machining excels is in making those parts that must have a high degree of symmetry. This symmetry allows for uniform load distribution, which means that the component will handle stress far better.
  • CNC machining is machine automated, which helps reduce labor costs and manpower. 
  • In general, the machines can be set up faster and with fewer people than a manual operation. This also makes it possible to run several jobs at once on the same machine without much additional set-up time or workforce requirements 
  • The workpieces are often more precise since multiple cutting passes can be programmed on the machine. This helps improve productivity and make parts with high tolerances possible in one production run. 
  • Compared to other manufacturing processes CNC machining is quick and cost-effective, which makes it hugely effective for rapid prototyping.  

Disadvantages of CNC machining

  • As a general rule, CNC machines are far more expensive and harder to set up than manual milling machines.
 
  • Specific training is needed to operate modern milling machines.

 

  • Compared to other manufacturing processes like injection molding, CNC milling is comparatively slow and wasteful.

Applications for CNC Machining in different industries

CNC milling has a range of applications in different industries that include automotive, aerospace, and many other sectors. 

Dental

The dental application of CNC machines made its debut in 1870 when a French engineer had high-quality dental prosthetics milled from wax models. These were the earliest attempts to produce precise and detailed parts through numerical control milling.

CAD/CAM is now a digital process used by dentists all over the world to produce prosthetics and orthodontic appliances that are customized to suit individual patients.

Automotive

CNC milling is commonly used in the automotive industry for the manufacturing of prototype parts. Often, low tolerances and small production quantities make this subtractive manufacturing process crucial for the success of a product.

Typically, aluminum or CFRP is used as material for milled prototype parts. There are some limitations when it comes to prototyping with these materials which can be removed by combining 3D printing with CNC milling.

Medical

The medical industry has a range of applications for CNC machining technology and 3D printing.

The rise of these two technologies has enabled makers to create novel medical devices, including custom prosthetic limbs and orthotics, as well as new types of implants which can be designed specifically for their intended patient’s body shape.

Aerospace

Significant amounts of CNC milling is used in the aerospace industry for precision machining, tooling, and mold components. For example, the Airbus A350 XWB used more than 1000 different milled parts in its structure.

Rapid prototyping

CNC milling machines are commonly used in rapid prototyping because they can quickly produce 3-dimensional objects from a computer model.

These 3-dimensional objects can be rapidly produced with very specific tolerances and geometries, which is ideal for the kind of iterative process seen in rapid prototyping.

Robotics

Unsurprisingly, the high accuracy of CNC machining makes it an ideal manufacturing method for the robotics industry, where the need for speed and precision is strong. And with robot components becoming smaller every day, CNC machining has come to show its full potential in this industry.

By employing CNC machining as a manufacturing option, robotics companies can produce even highly accurate and durable parts more efficiently and more cost-effectively than with the use of injection molding, 3D printing, and traditional machining processes.

CNC Machining in Production

Outsourced CNC machining has become a staple of manufacturing in some industries. Companies that produce low-volume, high-complexity work turn to the process as a way of keeping costs manageable and ensuring deadlines are met.

This is particularly true of companies involved in the rapid prototyping process because they are often creating high-complexity parts that would require significant investment in in-house casting and machining equipment.

Instead, companies can make use of platforms like the Jiga marketplace to seek out CNC machining shops to produce high-quality prototypes to exacting specifications for them.

With Jiga, you are able to get rapid expert feedback on your order without needing to place the order first. We handle all of the shipping and delivery issues and act as the go-between for you and the manufacturer, meaning you’ll enjoy the simplicity of only ever having one contract.  

We’ll also hold your money in escrow until your parts have arrived. With Jiga, you’ll only ever pay for the parts you have in your hands. 

The Current Trends and Future for CNC Machining

While, as we’ve mentioned, CNC machining has its roots back in the 1870s, the manufacturing process is still evolving. Some of the current trends that are pushing CNC machining into the future include:

The Internet of Things

The internet of things has manufacturing applications such as remote monitoring, total machine shop optimization, and predictive maintenance. 

This means that more CNC machines can be run more efficiently and with fewer operators, reducing overhead costs and passing the savings onto the customers. 

Smart devices can also be used in manufacturing to optimize material usage through computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM).

Machine tools can process materials more efficiently while increasing the quality of parts by monitoring their temperatures and other variables. This allows for leaner production runs while lowering energy costs and associated CO2 emissions.

Another application is to use smart devices in CNC machine shops that employ small-batch manufacturing. These devices can monitor the operations and provide feedback to help manufacturers streamline their processes, allowing them to take on more jobs.

Rapid prototyping and digital manufacturing

As we’ve already mentioned, CNC machining is an excellent option for the manufacturing part of the rapid prototyping process. 

However, with the rise of accessible CAD programs such as Tinkercad, Trimble Sketchup, and Autodesk 123D (formerly called Kinect), more and more businesses and individuals are able to take advantage of the benefits of CNC machining without the need to buy their own CNC machine.

With these programs, it is becoming increasingly easy to produce a CAD design for a physical part that can then be sent off to be manufactured by someone else. 

This means that smaller startups no longer have to worry about minimum order amounts and manufacturing overseas. They can simply produce a CAD model of their design and use digital manufacturing platforms like Jiga to have it manufactured by a CNC machine shop in their local area.

This rapid, local, and digitized design and prototyping process means more products getting to market than ever before. 

New CNC Technology

While CNC machines might have got their start in the 1950s, the technology is constantly evolving, and new, more effective machines are constantly coming onto the market. 

Machines now have up to 12-axes. More axis of movement is provided on a multi-axis machine than a standard single or two-axis machine. Having more axes enables machining complex and unique shapes and helps achieve greater accuracy, as the number of variables reduces drastically when there are multiple rotational axes. 

CAD and CAM software also continues to evolve, becoming more affordable and widely available. This allows for more efficient programming of multi-axis machines. 

Advanced CAM software also offers simulation tools that show how a part will machine before it is actually machined, leading to smoother cutting and decreased touch time. This also allows for greater efficiency when machining multiple parts at once since all features are programmed in advance.

With these evolutions, CNC machining is cementing its reputation as an adaptable and reliable manufacturing method that offers a huge range of benefits to creatives at all scales, from milling the parts for a commercial airliner, to creating the prototypes from the next market disruptor.

CNC Machining, Drilling, Metal Cutting Process (min)
CNC prototyping is a popular way to produce prototypes for many industries. It allows for rapid iteration of design in response to feedback from testing.

CNC machining is a popular way to produce prototypes for many industries. Machinists use CNC prototyping when the design of an object needs tweaking before it reaches the mass production stage.

It can be used to correct any problems that crop up during manufacturing, and this is key in reducing setbacks.

CNC machining can be used as a standalone solution or partnered with other processes like 3D printing to create different iterations of one prototype at relatively low costs compared to traditional prototyping methods such as injection molding, which usually takes over 100 hours just for initial setup!

In today’s article, we’ll be examining how CNC machining can be a foundational part of the rapid prototyping process

What Is CNC Machining?

Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining is a manufacturing system that uses a combination of computer inputs and computer controlled machining tools.

The parts needed are designed using Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. Those CAD designs are then translated into a series of instructions that can be understood by the computer controlled machining tools.

These instructions are often referred to as G-code. Once the G-code is running, the CNC process requires little or no oversight. It is also capable of producing prototype parts to very exact specifications.

CNC machining is a subtractive manufacturing process. This means that computer controlled machining tools remove material from a block of material, known as the workpiece

CNC machines themselves vary in their levels of complexity. The more axes a machine has, the more complicated a geometry it can cut into the workpiece.

Is CNC machining good for prototyping?

As with all rapid prototyping processes, CNC prototyping is an effective solution to certain problems.

Generally, additive manufacturing methods, such as 3D printing, are more commonly used in rapid prototyping, for reasons that we’ve written a whole article about rapid prototyping with 3D printing here..

As a rule, rapid prototypes fall into one of two categories. 

The first is a looks-like prototype. These prototypes are used as display models, proofs of concept, or as a physical object that drives the R&D process. 

3D printing is an excellent manufacturing solution for these prototypes as it can produce new design iterations very rapidly. These models are not generally placed under stress, so the fragility of most additive manufacturing options isn’t a problem.

The second kind of prototype is the engineering or production prototype. These are designed to be functional and therefore placed under stress. 

These prototypes are used to test characteristics like part strength and mechanical stability. These are constructed from materials not commonly available in additive manufacturing processes.

As an example, the design for a valve might be 3D printed as a proof of concept piece. But then, a second engineering prototype might be milled from the proposed production material using CNC machining services. The purpose is to actively test it under working conditions.

The Rapid Prototyping Process with CNC Machining

Rapid prototyping is first conceptualised into the 1970s in response to advances in manufacturing technology. It represents a solution to the bottlenecking of the design process that traditional prototyping represented.

RP allows designers to experiment with a physical model without having to wait a significant amount of time for it to be produced.

The lack of setup and tooling costs associated with rapid prototyping services means that new iterations on a design can be produced quickly and cost effectively. 

The advent of new additive and subtractive manufacturing processes, like 3D printing and CNC machining changed the rapid prototyping definition. 

Instead of hand milling and injection molding, both of which are slow and expensive by comparison, new proof of concept models can be produced by 3D printing in a matter of hours and CNC prototyping can produce engineering prototypes in a similar time frame. 

The rapid prototyping process has a number of advantages, such as:

  • The ability to explore concepts in a low-cost low-risk environment. Because of the cost and time effective nature of CNC prototyping and 3D printing, designers are able to explore new designs and new materials with greater freedom.  
  • Regardless of how good your CAD software is, nothing helps with the communication of ideas more effectively than holding a physical object. This is especially true when using proof of concept models to attract investors or drive sales.
  • The speed at which new prototypes can be produced by rapid prototyping services means that designers can quickly and effectively incorporate testing results and feedback into new iterations on the base design. 
  • A combination of the factors listed above means the employing rapid prototyping alongside new additive and subtractive manufacturing options, allows design departments to more thoroughly test their prototypes and minimize potential design flaws that could have cost and functionality implications later on.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Rapid Prototyping with CNC Machining

There are a huge range of benefits associated with CNC prototyping and a few drawbacks, including:

Pros

Rapid CAD design changes

One of the primary benefits of rapid prototyping is it allows for rapid iteration of design. This is in response to feedback from testing. 

This is especially true for the CAD designs used to create the G-code used for CNC Machining. 

Because CAD files are used to instruct the computer controlled machining tools, the designer can be sure that the dimensions of the part produced will exactly match the dimensions on the digital design.

When changes need to be made, the designers or engineers can make those adjustments to a new iteration of the CAD file. 

This means that the two iterations of the design can be compared side by side and even tested against each other using simulation software. 

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Machining quality and consistency 

Discounting the odd error, cnc machining tools are incredibly precise and consistent. These are able to mill shapes within a fraction of a millimeter. 

Just as importantly, this process can be done over and over again without variations in the result. 

This level of precision and consistency is hugely important to the interactive design and prototyping process. 

Small variations to the design can be made in response to feedback and test. Also, those designs produced without any of the other dimensions changing.

Rapid prototype production 

Modern CNC machining services can produce a part in as little as a matter of hours. This makes them just as fast as some 3D printing methods. 

Hence, this makes a CNC prototype ideal for products that need short lead times. Which can result to rapidly bringing products to market. 

No fixed tooling

Unlike other traditional manufacturing methods, such as die casting or injection molding, CNC prototyping does not need separate specific tools, dies, or molds. 

Depending on the complexity of the part, creating the required tools, dies, or molds for prototype production can take as long as a month, not ideal for a rapid prototyping process. 

Most modern CNC machines come with a huge range of cutting inserts and milling tools as standard. But, these tools can be switched in and out easily. 

This results in both lowered costs and drastically lowered lead times. 

A huge range of possible materials

The material that can be cut to shape in a CNC machine is restricted solely by its rigidity and melting temperature. This means a huge variety of materials can be used in CNC prototyping, including:

Metals

Aluminum

Steel

Stainless Steel

Magnesium

Titanium

Zinc

Brass

Bronze

Copper

Plastics

ABS

PC

PP

PS

POM

PMMA

PAGF30

PCGF30

Teflon

LDPE

HDP

As you can see, there are a huge range of materials available in CNC machining that are not available in 3D printing. 

This is especially true of the range of metals that can be used to create functional engineering prototypes. Since these requires specific tolerances that would not be possible with metal 3D printing. 

Cons

Geometric restrictions

While the best CNC machining tools have four or five axes and are able to create parts of significant complexity, they still have certain limitations. 

However, this can often be a blessing in disguise. While it is true that you can 3D print parts with far more complex internal geometries than you can cut with a CNC machine, how useful that is will depend on how you plan to produce the final product.

Despite the ubiquity and growing popularity of 3D printing, the vast majority of consumer products and parts are not 3D printed. 

Issues with cutting the part on an advanced CNC machine might be an indication that the part is too complex for most end product manufacturing methods as well.

 

More expensive

The reality is that CNC prototyping is always going to be more expensive than 3D printing. 

However, the added costs of using a CNC printing service need to be weighed against the benefits of CNC prototyping we’ve already mentioned.

In certain cases, CNC prototyping is simply the right choice for certain design prototypes and is still less expensive than traditional manufacturing methods.

 

Wasteful

All subtractive manufacturing methods are, to one extent or another, wasteful. Material is being taken away from the workpiece and that material is then not reused as part of the process.

However, depending on the metal being removed by the CNC machine, the waste might be entirely recyclable or reusable. This is especially true of waste metals, which can simply be melted down and reformed.

Applications of Rapid Prototyping with CNC Machining

There are a large number of industries that are already using CNC prototyping as the foundation of their rapid prototyping designs, including:

 

The aerospace industry

From increasingly smaller and lighter drones to the parts needed to send billionaires into space, the aerospace industry is in a constant state of iterative development. 

While 3D printing can be used to create proof of concept models, CNC machining is required to make testable engineering prototypes out of the materials that the end product will be made from.

Those engineering prototypes then need to be able to have the specific tolerances needed to test them under working conditions. This is especially important in the case of vital sections of an aircraft, where failure of even a small part can be catastrophic.

 

The automotive industry

For many of the same reasons as the aerospace industry, the automotive industry makes heavy use of both rapid prototyping and CNC machining as part of that process. 

The use of CNC prototypes allows automotive manufacturers to create, test, and then iterate on working parts of an engine using the eventual end product materials. New parts can quickly be adapted and machined to exacting geometries and tolerances.  

Rapid CNC Prototyping and the Jiga Marketplace

Using the Jiga Marketplace, you can quickly and effectively outsource your CNC prototyping needs to some of the best CNC machine shops in the world. 

Receive instant, expert feedback on your proposed design from experienced engineers and order your parts with complete confidence and peace of mind with the Jiga Buyer Protection.

Streamline your prototype creation with Jiga. 

You only have one contract, with us, and we handle shipping, payments and legal agreements, saving you thousands of hours on administrative and operational tasks and reducing your lead times.

CNC machining a prototype
Using 3D printing as part of the rapid prototyping process reduces costs and downtime, allowing products to market faster

Designers have been using 3D printers since the 1970s. But nowadays, it’s a lot easier to do prototypes with these new technologies. With rapid prototyping 3D printing, you can make physical models of your designs without waiting or hiring an engineer.

This article explores the benefits of using 3D printing in the prototyping process to save your company time and money.

The Rapid Prototyping Process

To understand the advantages of 3D printing, we first need to know what rapid prototyping is.

Rapid prototyping is a solution to the problem of needing to quickly move through design iterations while still having a physical product to experiment with or demonstrate.

In the prototyping process, companies often start with designing a plan. Next, they make prototypes of this plan and review them with other people to get feedback. Subsequently, they make more changes to the plan, based on this feedback. After that, they start prototyping again.

This cycle repeats until the product is ready to be sold.

It is obvious that the faster you can do this, the quicker something can go to market.

Traditional prototyping has a problem. It is too slow. The technique called injection molding can be done on a large scale. The process is often slow and overseas.

Subtractive manufacturing methods like CNC machining exist, but they are comparatively slow. Also, the final product may not be as accurate.

With these types of manufacturing methods, there are more logistical costs to take into account. That is because the process often requires new molds and tools for each new product.

It takes time to make the molds and tools, which can be expensive. Moreover, each mold or tool can only make a certain number of items.

A team may need to create a design in a matter of days or weeks. After that, they may have to wait months for it to get manufactured. This means that companies have a long development cycle and can’t respond quickly to customer feedback.

3D printing is a new way to make prototypes without the need for old techniques. It is faster, more accurate and cheaper than other methods.

Rapid Prototyping with 3D Printing

The pain point in rapid prototyping is nearly always the time it takes to get prototypes made. 

In-house design teams can rapidly assess and iterate on designs using CAD software. But then they have to stand down for a long time while the latest batch of prototypes is slowly manufactured and shipped.

This leads to delays in getting products to market and a range of associated costs.

The use of 3D printing has revolutionized how organizations approach the manufacturing aspect of rapid prototyping. 

With 3D printing technology, you can manufacture prototypes from local suppliers in a matter of hours for an exacting standard.

There is no additional cost to 3D printing. You do not need the molds, dies or tools.

The low cost and fast turnaround speed of 3D printing has enabled design teams to commission prototypes in many different materials with many different finishes.

3D printing has a number of advantages, such as quick development and reduced downtime. This means designers are able to iterate faster and solve their problems faster. For the long-term, they want to produce products faster than their competitors do.

Are 3D Printing and Rapid Prototyping the Same?

Rapid prototyping is often mistaken for 3D printing, but the two are actually different.

Rapid prototyping, as we mentioned earlier, has been around since the 1970s and predates modern 3D printing technology.

It’s best to think of rapid prototyping as the technique used to quickly iterate through the design process and 3D printing as the manufacturing process that is used to bring those rapid prototyping techniques to new heights. 

Different 3D Printing Technologies used in Rapid Prototyping

While 3D printing is not one technology, there are several different ones that offer various advantages and disadvantages.

Stereolithography (SLA)

Stereolithography printers use light sensitive resins to rapidly create products.

The resin is layered onto a bed using either an LED screen, laser or projector to harden the resin while preserving detail.

Pros

  • Modern SLA printers can produce incredibly accurate and detailed products to exacting specifications.
  • Advances in SLA resins mean that the end product is less brittle and more durable.
  • Certain resins can be mixed together to create specific tolerances in flexibility or durability.
  • Cutting-edge technologies such as AZUL’s HARP can print a structure that is 12 x 12 x 48 inches in as little as three hours.
  • While they still print in layers, SLA printers are capable of producing a finer finish than FDM printers.

Cons

  • The resins used in SLA printing contain volatile organic compounds (VOC) which makes them largely unsuited for food-safe and medical products.

    While there’s nothing stopping companies from prototyping such products using SLA, there may be some issues with fully testing them.
  • Nearly all SLA resins have a significant negative impact on the environment, especially aquatic environments. While these downsides can be mitigated, they should still be taken into consideration.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

Selective Laser Sintering uses a laser to bond together powder particles in a sedimentary fashion. The laser builds the prototype up layer by layer and can be used to make products out of both plastic and metal.

Pros

  • SLS printers can make prototypes of plastic and metal, rather than just resin.
  • The end product can be made food safe with specific coatings.
  • SLS printers print very rapidly, allowing for fast manufacturing.
  • SLS prints have isotropic mechanical properties and excellent layer adhesion.

Cons

  • In comparison to SLA prints, SLS prints are fragile and porous. 
  • The powder used in SLS printing needs to be preheated and using recycled powder can negatively impact the durability of future prints, making it a somewhat wasteful process.

Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM)

Fused Deposition Modelling, or filament printing, uses a thermoplastic filament that is melted into a liquid by the printer’s hot end and then deposited into layers onto a non-stick print bed. 

Unfortunately, early FDM printers were low resolution, prone to blockages, and somewhat of a fire hazard, which resulted in FDM having an unfair reputation. 

However, FDM printers have come a long way since then and, while they still can’t match SLA printers for finish, they do have their own set of distinct benefits.

Pros

  • FDM printers can be set to print very rapidly and are very scalable, only being constrained by the size of their build area.
  • There is a large range of thermoplastic materials, including some very exotic filaments, that can be printed with an FDM printer.
  • FDM printers can make use of multiple print heads or multi-spooling to print in multiple materials. While this can be done with SLA, it’s far easier with an FDM printer.

Cons

  • The primary downside to FDM printing is print resolution and finish. FDM prints commonly have low resolution compared to SLA prints and have visible deposition lines that need to be finished out.

Binder Jetting

Similar to SLS printing, binder jetting uses powdered materials which are bonded together using a binding agent. 

The benefit of binder jetting over SLS is that the powdered material is not heated, meaning it can be reused, resulting in lowered wastage.

Pros

  • Binder jetting has many of the same benefits as SLS printing, but without the wastage caused by needing to heat the powdered materials. 
  • The lack of heat used in the binding process means binder jetting products are less prone to warping.
  • The sandstone or artificial sand materials commonly used to make full-color prototypes in sand binder jetting are relatively inexpensive.

Cons

  • Products produced by binder jetting, especially in the case of sand binder jetting, are very fragile. While this can be countered with post-processing techniques, it does add to the total manufacturing time. 

The exact type of 3D printing required for a project will depend on the project’s exact specifications. 

However, recent advances in SLA painting, such as AZUL’s HARP rapid printing technologies have made SLA one of the more adaptable, fast, and cost-effective methods of rapid prototyping 3D printing.

Benefits of Rapid Prototyping with 3D Printing

There are a number of material advantages of rapid prototyping using 3D printing, including:

 

Lowered costs

Using 3D printing to readily prototype, there is no need for expensive tooling or setups as you might find with subtractive manufacturing like CNC machining or traditional manufacturing techniques like injection molding.

Additionally, the materials used in 3D printing, such as photoreactive resins, filaments, or powdered materials are inexpensive and widely available.

The ready availability of 3D printing manufacturers and the lack of setup and tooling costs also tend to mean no minimum orders and lowered transportation costs.

The Jiga Marketplace connects you with a range of additive manufacturers from around the world, ensuring you can find the right 3D rapid prototyping services for your needs.

 

Faster manufacturing times

Compared to traditional manufacturing techniques, 3D printing can rapidly produce complex products. 

As we’ve mentioned, cutting-edge technologies such as AZUL’s HARP can print a structure that is 12 x 12 x 48 inches in as little as three hours.

This is ideal when it comes to rapid prototyping as it allows designers to quickly design, manufacture, test, and iterate on products at a speed that just isn’t available with traditional manufacturing methods. 

Depending on the size and specifications of the print and the availability of local 3D printing rapid prototyping services, parts can be printed in a matter of hours.

 

Wide Availability of Materials 

Across the full gamut of available 3D printing technologies, there is a huge range of material that can be used in 3D printing rapid prototyping. 

These range from the metal powders used in SLS and binder jetting printers to the huge range of filaments used in FDM printing and the specific combinations of resins possible with SLA printing.

Applications of Rapid Prototyping

There are a number of industries in which rapid prototyping using 3D printing has a range of applications, including:

 

The Medical Industry

  • Rapid prototyping as part of the design and development of new medical products.
  • 3D printing models for surgery planning, training, and custom implant design. 
  • MRI and CT scans can be turned into 3D models and used to rapidly prototype specific medical implants.

 

Mechanical Engineering 

  • Rapid prototyping is a core concept in mechanical engineering and 3D printing has been widely adopted as part of that process.
  • Functional prototypes help to identify stress concentration, set tolerances, and are used as proof of concept.
  • 3D printed rapid prototyping is commonly used in the automotive and aerospace industries. 

 

Electronics 

  • Almost all modern electronics are created through the rapid prototyping process.
  • Modern 3D printing enables manufacturers to rapidly print the ultra-fine and hugely accurate prototypes needed for modern electronics.
  • The rapidity of 3D printing helps electronics companies bring products to market faster in a hugely competitive market.

 

Footwear Manufacturers

  • Modern footwear manufacturers make use of 3D printing rapid prototyping to test new footwear designs and rapidly iterate on them in response to testing feedback. 
  • The range of flexible filaments available in FDM printing, and the lack of need for perfect finish during the prototyping process, makes 3D printing uniquely suited to footwear design. 

 

Architecture Firms

  • Despite the obvious leap forwards in computer aided design programs, many architecture firms still make use of scale models for visualization and demonstration purposes.
  • 3D printing allows architecture firms to quickly and cost-effectively manufacture multiple models to an exacting scale as designs change over time.  
Rapid prototype 3d printed-min
Agile supply chain management (SCM) is a reorganization around a new set of principles that emphasizes the need for new structures

An agile supply chain is an asset to any organization. 

If the past year and a half has taught us anything, it’s the fact that a supply chain that can react to sudden disruptions and changes in trading environments is far less likely to implode when confronted with sudden extreme pressures. 

Admittedly, not every supply chain challenge is going to be as extreme as the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing worldwide lockdown.  However, the fact remains that an agile supply chain has its enhanced ability to react to sudden changes in supply and demand.

This article will take you through what it means, how it works and why Jiga can help with implementing this new way of doing business for your company.

Definition of Agile Supply Chain Management

At its most basic level, an agile supply chain is one that emphasizes flexibility. 

Agile supply chain management (SCM) is a supply chain wide reorganization around a new set of principles that emphasise the need for new structures, value chain configurations, communications and information systems and a whole new mindset when it comes to how a supply chain should operate.

This new supply chain management paradigm allows an organisation’s supply chain to operate without fixed configurations and static structures. 

The obvious benefit of this is that it makes the supply chain less vulnerable to sudden changes, much like a flexible foundation makes a building less vulnerable to earthquakes. 

However, in day to day operations, an agile supply chain has the flexibility to be centred around the rapidly changing customer demand. 

The ability to react to sudden fluctuations in customer demand allows companies to reach the market first, be innovative, and to act as a market leader while their competitors struggle to realign more rigid supply chains.

Where Did Agile Originate?

The concept of agile methodology originated in the software development industry in response to the fact that too many software development projects were overrunning their deadlines. 

In 2001, a group of software developers, known as the Agile Alliance, created and published the Manifesto for Agile Software Development

The idea of a management paradigm that emphasised flexibility and allowed teams to adapt to required changes faster quickly spread to other industries.

Agile Supply Chain vs Lean Supply Chain

There is a fair amount of crossover between lean and agile supply chain management, but there are a few main differences between the two.

  • An agile supply chain focuses on flexibility and the ability to handle changes in demand and sudden crises.  
  • A lean supply chain focuses on maximising savings by continuous improvement coupled with minimal redundancies.

As you can see, there is no reason why both ideas can’t be applied to the same supply chain. 

The flexibility and applicability offered by agile methodologies often acts as an enabler for the constant improvements and low redundancies needed in a lean supply chain.

For example, a manufacturer might keep large amounts of raw materials on hand to prevent the line down cost of them running out. 

This would make them more agile, but less lean, as it would increase inventory carrying costs. 

By using the greater visibility enabled by an agile supply chain, the same manufacturer would be able to more accurately predict both demand and delivery time frames, removing the need for the redundant materials and making them both agile and lean.

Why Does Your Organisation Need an Agile Supply Chain?

The huge supply chain disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the fact that most supply chains are incredibly static. 

As manufacturing centres in Asia closed down and shipping ground to a halt, most company’s supply chains went into freefall as they struggled to near-shore or desperately tried to onboard new suppliers.

Even outside of sudden global pandemics, the way that customers are influencing supply chain logistics is changing. 

Companies like Amazon have grown exponentially based on their ability to provide unparalleled customer choice and rapid response delivery. 

In turn, customers have come to expect companies to fulfil their demands, rather than simply making do with what has already been brought to market.

An agile supply chain allows companies to be both internally and externally flexible. 

Internally, businesses are able to transform their supply chain when the need arises. 

Externally, they are able to rapidly deliver on customer demand and take full advantage of short profit windows, giving them a significant competitive advantage.

Agile Supply Chain Strategies

The modern agile supply chain is based around four major component strategies, virtual integration, process alignment, shared chain responsibility, and market sensitivity.

Virtual Integration

As with all agile processes, the free flow of information and open and clear communication is vital. 

Virtual integration allows information to move quickly amongst relevant departments, regardless of the physical distance between them. 

As the demand from the market or end consumers increases, that demand information is collected, analyzed, and transmitted through collaborative planning that includes all departments within the organization who have the capacity to fulfil that demand. 

Virtual integration across a supply chain also allows for faster exchanges of information between all key stakeholders. 

This rapid flow of information creates an end to end visibility throughout the supply chain, helping to identify capacity issues or potential bottlenecks.

In effect, virtual integration allows an organization’s supply chain to react rapidly to changing demands while quickly identifying and removing problems. 

Process Alignment

Process Alignment means building functional technical partnerships with all stakeholders within the agile supply chain. 

Rather than a race to the bottom for the lowest price, which generally puts vendors in a combative relationship with their suppliers, an agile supply chain looks to add value that isn’t simply cost-based by aligning all stakeholders in a singular direction.

One example of this might be co-managed inventory or vendor managed inventory, in which both vendor and supplier are responsible for inventory management. 

Another example might be collaborative product design and development, in which design departments collaborate with suppliers at all levels of product development to ensure that the end product is as easy to manufacture as possible.

The exact nature of the process alignment depends on the organization. However, the overriding principle is that supply chains are far more efficient, agile, and resilient when all stakeholders are pulling in the same direction.

Shared Chain Responsibility

Shared chain responsibility feeds into the same idea as process alignment, but at a conceptual, rather than technical level. 

Static supply chains are normally siloed affairs, with information and responsibility divided into individual tranches and assessed by discrete sets of KPIs. 

The downsides of this are obvious. It reduces overall visibility and turns every bottleneck and problem into a search for the one section of the supply chain that is to ‘blame’. 

In an agile supply chain, the greater visibility and coordination afforded by process alignment allows all stakeholders in the supply chain to share the overall responsibility for the successful operation of that supply chain.

Operational efficiency is not judged by internal KPIs, but by metrics that measure each link in the supply chain’s contribution to the entirety of the process. 

Where process alignment creates the technical infrastructure required for all parts of the supply chain to pull in the same direct, shared chain responsibility creates a culture of shared effort and group achievement and accountability. 

Market Sensitivity

As we’ve already mentioned, one of the primary benefits of agile SCM is the ability to quickly react to changes in market conditions and customer demand.

In traditional supply chains, the majority of forecasting is based on previous sales data, making them inherently backwards looking.

In order to take full advantage of the benefits of an agile supply chain, organizations also need to focus on data collection and analysis, which allows them the insight to predict future demand and market trends. 

Data gathered from real-time point of sale systems allows companies to adopt demand-driven decision-making. 

A combination of market sensitivity and an agile supply chain allows companies to understand how customer demand is changing and quickly adapt their supply chain to take advantage of that.

Application of Agility in Different Supply Chain Areas

Generally, supply chains can be rendered down into five areas in which agile methodologies can be easily applied. These areas are forecasting, production and scheduling, manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution.

Forecasting

As we’ve mentioned, the vast majority of companies focus on using information taken from previous cycles to make decisions on future production and to improve their inventory ordering and shipping schedules.

However, this assumes that similar patterns will be the only market drivers in the future. Basing supply chain action only on past data prevents companies from being truly agile and market reactive.

While planning is an important part of supply chain management, leveraging point of sale data allows companies to put in place an equal amount of demand driven planning.

The combination of demand driven planning and insights drawn from previous cycles allows companies to both forecast obvious spikes in demand while still remaining flexible, and well informed, enough to adapt to changing customer needs.

Production and Scheduling

Synchronizing your production and scheduling with your demand-driven sales figures is vital to avoiding overstocking and out stocking. 

Nearly 50% of small businesses still silo production and planning in different platforms or simply use different Excel spreadsheets. 

This siloed approach conflicts with the virtual integration needed to operate an agile supply chain.

Instead, production and scheduling need to be connected, and driven by sales figures, in order to be truly optimized. 

By connecting these three points, organizations can improve both their response time and their inventory control.

Manufacturing

One of the core parts of the agile supply chain definition is that it has flexible and adaptable internal components. 

This includes the ability to quickly and efficiently onboard new manufacturers to avoid delays or to take advantage of new demand driven opportunities. 

The ability to quickly select new manufacturing partners makes agile supply chains far more resistant, as it allows them to absorb sudden changes in demand or capacity. 

Using the current pandemic as an example, the organizations that survived the economic and logistical fallout of the pandemic were those who were able to transition away from traditional overseas manufacturing operations and near-shore new manufacturing parameters with a quick and simple onboarding process.

Warehousing

Static warehousing and inventory management can lead to serious operational costs without generating any significant returns. 

Because of seasonal changes and cyclical sales cycles, inventory can simply sit in warehouses doing nothing for large parts of the year, just so that it’s in place for a certain period of time.

Agile supply chain management can help to combat this problem by simply allowing companies to take on local manufacturing and logistics partners who can provide the goods and services in response to demand.

Rather than warehousing, for instance, easter eggs, for a full year. An agile supply chain allows you to simply have the product manufactured in the local area just before demand predictable spikes, leading to significant savings on warehousing costs. 

Distribution

Rather than shouldering every aspect of the supply chain, incepting agile methodologies allows companies to source new and innovative solutions to traditional problems. 

One example of this might be using third-party logistics (3PL) services as a cost effective alternative to managing logistical efforts such as transportation and distribution. 

The 3PL logistics market has become increasingly specialized and competitive in recent years. 

This means that, wherever your company has a logistical pain point, there is normally a specialized 3PL company that can take care of it for you.

Since the market is so competitive, there are often multiple 3PL suppliers offering cost-effective solutions, allowing companies the flexibility that is so important to maintaining an agile supply chain.

Benefits of an Agile Supply Chain

There are a huge range of benefits to an agile supply chain, including:

  • Increased flexibility and demand-driven planning allow companies with an agile supply chain to react to changing customer demand. This gives businesses the ability to take advantage of short profit windows and bring products to market faster than their competitors.
  • This same increased flexibility allows agile supply chains to be more responsive and resilient to sudden changes. Where the loss of a major manufacturing partner or a significant logistical bottleneck would cause significant delays in a static supply chain, an agile supply chain is able to quickly adapt to and overcome these issues.
  • The virtual integration needed to operate an agile supply chain gives greater visibility over the entire supply chain, allowing organizations to anticipate and remove pain points before they can become an issue.
  • The greater visibility and shared chain responsibility allow all shareholders in the supply chain to make continuous efficiency improvements and, where required, outsource parts of the supply chain to cost effective 3PL suppliers, resulting in reduced costs.

How Could Jiga Help in Creating an Agile Supply Chain? 

Jiga acts as a unique single-point connection to a huge range of manufacturing partners and a 3PL logistics provider rolled into one.

Through the Jiga marketplace, you can quickly and efficiently contact additive manufacturers across the world, commission orders with them, and have the products shipped to you with the minimum of additional processes or paperwork.

Jiga takes care of the vast majority of the logistics for you, allowing you to concentrate on making a connection with the right manufacturers at the right time.

Agile Supply Chain Saves Time

Essentially, we offer agile manufacturing. 

Adopting Jiga as part of your agile supply chain means you can quickly and easily commission custom orders to fit demand-driven projections. 

Additive manufacturing has a unique ability to fulfil custom orders with minimal lead times.

You can also efficiently near-shore in response to overseas manufacturing delays, or find the right manufacturers in the right areas to handle orders that you would otherwise need to spend money on warehoused stock to fulfil.

Agile Supply Chain Sourcing

Ordering through Jiga couldn’t be easier. 

You can see feedback on all our vetted manufacturing partners, you can get feedback on your order without making the purchase and Jiga handles all the delivery logistics.

If anything does go wrong with your order, you are covered by our Jiga buyer protection. You money is kept in an escrow account until your order arrives, which means you only pay for the good you received. 

Jiga allows you to operate an agile supply chain at the cutting edge of additive manufacturing, with complete peace of mind!

agile supply chain

The Complete Guide on Acetal Delrin

When it comes to choosing the right plastic for an industrial or engineering application, you have many options. When you do your research, you’ll probably encounter plastics like Acetal, POM, Nylon, UHMW, and Delrin. depending on your application. Read More…

Tags: 3D printing, manufacturing

The Complete Guide on Acetal Delrin

When it comes to choosing the right plastic for an industrial or engineering application, you have many options. When you do your research, you’ll probably encounter plastics like Acetal, POM, Nylon, UHMW, and Delrin. depending on your application. Read More…

Tags: 3D printing, manufacturing

The Complete Guide on Acetal Delrin

When it comes to choosing the right plastic for an industrial or engineering application, you have many options. When you do your research, you’ll probably encounter plastics like Acetal, POM, Nylon, UHMW, and Delrin. depending on your application. Read More…

Tags: 3D printing, manufacturing

The Complete Guide on Acetal Delrin

When it comes to choosing the right plastic for an industrial or engineering application, you have many options. When you do your research, you’ll probably encounter plastics like Acetal, POM, Nylon, UHMW, and Delrin. depending on your application. Read More…

Tags: 3D printing, manufacturing

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