Digital inventory is rapidly enabling more agile solutions for the global supply chain; at the same time, it creates additional concerns.
The idea of sending a file around the world for on-site production is immediately appealing for any number of factors: cutting down on physical inventory, which reduces costs for producing and storing parts that may never be used; access to replacement parts that are no longer available for products that are no longer made; reduction of carbon footprint through lessened global shipping; shorter wait times on the creation of new goods; on-site production.
These benefits are often made more accessible via 3D printing, through which products and parts can be manufactured using the same files as those used in any other production site. But how can these users ensure that the same quality is created consistently? How is the security of these digital files guaranteed? There are many questions yet surrounding this young area of opportunity — and that’s where LEO Lane comes in. The company offers a “DAM Smart!” (that’s distributed additive manufacturing, of course) approach to business and to limited edition objects (or “LEOs”).
We recently covered this interesting company, and I appreciated the opportunity to dig deeper through a conversation with LEO Lane Co-Founder and CEO Moshe Molcho.
Molcho has been an executive in the high-tech world for more than 30 years and describes software as a service (SaaS) as “one of the most exciting things” out there. He credits Co-Founder Lee-Bath Nelson with the inception of LEO Lane, as she has been following the 3D printing industry for more than two decades. As she saw the technology maturing toward end-use parts, he noted, there were still a lot of problems: enter LEO Lane (established as Make it LEO in 2013) with solutions including, as Molcho described:
“The ability to maintain consistency when doing additive manufacturing, the ability to protect IP, the ability to ensure not losing control over manufacturing capabilities.”
When it comes to the “additive manufacturing revolution,” he continued, the team looks at it not from their own LEO Lane perspective — but in terms of what is exciting industry. What, he asked, are the big Fortune 500 manufacturers excited about?
“One big example is the ability to move from physical inventory to digital inventory: I have my product, I make lots of them, I put them in warehouses all around the world and spend a lot of money, effort, and time to maintain this inventory. It makes me heavy, which is the opposite of agile. It takes me a long time to react,” he said, stepping into these large manufacturers’ shoes.
“When I move into digital inventory, all my files are kept digitally for where and when I need them and this opens up wonderful business opportunities for me. I can keep just the inventory virtually, eliminating tons of cost; I am not creating the inventory or all the logistics that go with it. Together with that I become more responsive, away from what I do with all the product in my warehouse. That’s a good story, that’s the good news.”
But, he continued, “we all know there is no free lunch.” Along with this good news comes concern and the challenges that accompany new workflows.
Moving into on-demand production and distributed additive manufacturing necessarily creates a number of areas that needs to be addressed. First of these, Molcho pointed out, is consistency in manufacturing.
“The consistency question is the number one priority. If it is not consistent, I damage my brand reputation: this is a no-go for any manufacturer,” he began. “Then there is IP protection. Digital assets are provided with the most valuable assets in the company, the IP. I do not want that IP to leak.”
LEO Lane was founded to address these concerns.
“Go ahead and enjoy your digital inventory, with consistency,” Molcho said.
He describes what the company does as addressing concerns “in an elegant and efficient way” while protecting digital assets. These, he underscores, do not stay with LEO Lane, as they understand CIOs’ desire to remain in control of their assets.
So how, I asked, does LEO Lane address security?
“We don’t handle the files. We work with customers that have already developed years of experience with security, and they continue to do that. The workflow in which they use files, they continue to do; we convert the original files to LEO files. That’s all we do, they still keep them, even the LEO files are kept within their enterprise. We don’t have a cloud solution to hold and send to them, basically we encrypt the file and give it back to our customers,” he said. “The files are being kept with our customers. That’s very important. Most additive solutions to the market do not do that.”
With that differentiation point in mind, where then does LEO Lane fit into the marketplace?
This company’s focus is squarely on industrial manufacturing. Additive manufacturing, Molcho noted, is extremely complex and fragmented:
“A small startup like LEO Lane cannot solve all the problems of the ecosystem. We have the philosophy of do what you do very well, and integrate with other solutions. It’s easy to say I’m going to do what I do and that’s it, but you have to look at it from the customers’ point: they want an end-to-end solution. So we work with a network of partners. Each partner provides a part and together we can deploy an end-to-end solution for our customers and that’s what they want.”
Many partners are of course confidential, but one major partnership LEO Lane can discuss is that with SAP. The reach and expertise of SAP allows for a strong partnership, leveraging the skill sets of each to collaborate, order, secure, and send files. The company also maintains relationships with Shapeways and i.materialise, as well as software companies, printer manufacturers, and customers in manufacturing, transportation, and materials: big companies with big problems in carrying digital inventory, as he described them.
“When you order an AM part, the LEO file is created automatically. When that file gets to the manufacturing location, the file ensures consistency, IP protection, and real-time tracking,” he explained.
That last aspect, real-time tracking, is especially interesting, so I asked for further detail here.
“What happens in real time is you are tracking everything, the rules and procedures that have to take place in manufacturing, and integrate all on the manufacturing side. Locally, in the manufacturing area, there is communication with our cloud service and then in real time we decide can this product, this digital asset, be printed safely and correctly in this manufacturing facility? This happens in narrow band communication; it doesn’t have to go up and down, it’s already next to the 3D printer. The decision to 3D print or not goes on the server; when approved, the file is opened and printed securely and at the end, it goes back to the customer where they can see the digital inventory, where the part was printed already, what is out to be printing, and what is not printed yet,” Molcho said.
Reaction to the use of LEO Lane’s services has been “very positive,” he told me. He mentioned a few customer stories, but noted that most cannot be openly discussed.
Rounding out our chat, I asked Molcho what he saw as the biggest takeaways that he wants to ensure we understand about LEO Lane.
First, he said, is that the company provides an easy way to deploy an additive manufacturing strategy in a way that helps control quantity and quality: “You can rest assured that AM production is consistent and doesn’t compromise IP.”
Second is that “we’re going to do it with a small disruption to the way you do business already.”
Third, he concluded, is that ultimately the story isn’t about LEO Lane.
“Additive manufacturing is very complex. When you’re about to deploy a strategy you need to think about all the elements you have to tackle,” Molcho said.
“With LEO Lane it’s very easy to do a small pilot or small test to ensure the control and consistency and IP protection… There are so many things you have on your mind when you deploy a strategy, you need to look at all of them and especially what the CIO and CEO will be concerned with the most.”
Via LEO Lane