Ashley Furniture is one of the world's leading furniture store brands. Their constant investment in manufacturing processes has enabled them to carve out their own unique factory creation setup, with which they prototype and conceptualise new ideas in-house.
Alongside their industrial packing robots and state-of-the-art CNC milling machines, they have two Form 2 stereolithography (SLA) 3D printers. They invested in their first over a year ago, to trial the technology and see first-hand how it could benefit them with practical application. Shortly after receiving it, one of the production engineers realised it could be used to replace parts they typically have to order in - parts with a lead time of several weeks.
The engineer manufactured a batch of alignment pins which are used in CNC machines. The 3D printed parts successfully replaced the original machined parts, at a fraction of the cost and lead time, which led the team to invest in another Form 2 to boost output.
Now, they use their two 3D printers alongside their industrial robots and CNC milling machines to manufacture solutions to engineering issues, such as creating parts for machines that break and to boost design capability, such as creating snap-fit features for products.
But it wasn't always this way with Ashley Furniture and 3D printing. The Form 2 is in fact the only 3D printer they have been impressed with, having tested a few fused deposition modelling (FDM) printers in the past.
“We realized that we were looking for a little better surface quality and closer tolerances. SLA 3D printing on the Form 2 allowed us to create things like snap-fit features for different fastening components,” says Ashley Furniture production engineer Brian Konkel.
“One of the nice options with the Form 2 is the variety of materials that are available. We could start printing a component, and if that particular material was not exactly what we're looking for there are other options available.”
The benefits of 3D printing
Ashley Furniture manufacture many of their own products, which require multiple parts to be produced in-house. 3D printing was brought in to facilitate some prototyping, but over the past few years, it has emerged as a seriously useful production tool for the team.
“We're doing 10% more business out of our Arcadia facility alone with probably almost 15% less labour,” said Vaughn Pieters, senior director of case good operations.
By producing jigs, fixtures, and tooling in-house with 3D printing, Ashley Furniture keeps part costs down while boosting production output at the same time. Many parts can be conceptualised in software and sent to print within the space of 24-hours. “We currently run both Formlabs printers at a minimum of 40 hours a week,” says Konkel.
Crucially, that output does not come at the expense of quality, with Konkel admitting he has been surprised by the longevity of parts: “With 3D printing, it's obviously easy to replace [parts], but we were surprised of the longevity; some of these parts were getting three times what we originally expected, nearly nine months before they required a replacement."
Customisation and production flexibility
When many manufacturers think about investing in 3D printing, dreams of fabricating whole products can take hold.
While this is possible at scale, for Ashley Furniture and most other manufacturers, 3D printing instead provides design freedom and enables talented engineers to solve real problems in the factory, such as how to make the CNC milling process more reliable (with better alignment pins) or how to attach complex flexible parts together (snap-fits).
Konkel knows this all too well. “Having the Form 2 and the ability to 3D print parts has allowed us to steer away from some of the traditional ways that we develop fixturing and tooling,” Konkel says “It gives us the ability to quickly adapt to any suggestions or to any needs that we have, and create geometries that we’re not traditionally able to manufacture or machine. We're able to do things that weren't quite possible several years ago.”
THIS is the crucial benefit of 3D printing for manufacturers, so I will repeat what Konkel said to emphasise it: "We're able to do things that weren't quite possible several years ago.”
This enhanced manufacturing and design capability has enabled Ashley Furniture to create products that would be impossible to create with other techniques. Not only that, they have been able to apply it to other areas of the business to improve output and results.
3D Printer: Formlabs Form 2