3D printing needs to mature before it is considered an alternative to injection molding for large-volume production jobs
Product developers and engineers who design and manufacture plastic parts now have a powerful new weapon in their arsenal: 3D printing. This disruptive technology has great promise for rapid prototyping and low-volume manufacturing, but is it ready to replace high-volume plastic injection molding using dedicated metal tools and dies?
The short answer: 3D printing is better used as a complement to plastic injection molding rather than as competition, though that may change. Here’s where we currently stand and what the future may hold.
Matt Minio, managing director of Objective 3D shares his thoughts on the advancements and popularity of metal 3D printing in the manufacturing space.
According to Wohler Associate analysts, 3D printing has grown into a multi-billion industry that has been picking up the pace since getting onto the scene more than 15 years ago and boasts a footprint across multiple industries. In 2016, the “additive manufacturing” industry, as it is known, grew by 17.4 per cent in worldwide revenues. By 2020, it is estimated that 6.7 million 3D printers will ship.
Companies like Stratasys are experimenting with ways to scale up 3D printing production to make it more competitive with conventional manufacturing methods in terms of the return of investment (ROI) it brings. With automation, the production volume capabilities of these printers increase, and the total cost of production is cut. The result is a more cost-effective product that is created more quickly with minimal manual intervention.
Understanding how to identify where to use 3D printing in a supply chain is one of the first key questions to address.
From warehouse robots (very real) to equipment that you control with your mind (in the labs), new technologies appear so regularly that it can be hard to separate real from science fiction. But in the spare parts business, 3D printing has become “here and now”. Beyond cars and machine tools, 3D printers are now making spare parts to order for the US Marine Corps, container ships, and beverage filling plants. PwC’s recent survey of German manufacturers said that 85 percent of the spare parts providers assert that 3D printing will play a dominant role in their business.
As you approach this new technology, one question to consider is how to segment your inventory portfolio to determine which spare parts in your supply chain are best suited for 3D printing versus other approaches. In addition to supply-side considerations such as manufacturability, this requires analyzing cost-to-serve across alternative distribution approaches and demand-side characteristics like order-lines per year and demand volatility. Then the spares portfolio can be segmented into three categories.
As someone who’s spent time at 3D printing service bureaux, I know taking an idea all the way to final 3D printed part often entails a lot of trial-and-error. It’s crucial to perfect the process, especially when it comes to navigating the path to mainstream manufacturing as there’s little time for trialling and limited room for error.
3D printing already is a great asset for shortening New Product Introduction (NPI) cycles and accelerating time-to-market for a range of products. The aerospace, dental and medical markets have benefited from early adoption while most other sectors are just beginning to consider 3D printing for tooling or making products in small quantities.
To take advantage of 3D printing as a viable production solution companies must adopt best practices to mitigate risk and apply manufacturing rigour from design to delivery.
Published in September 2017, in conjunction with Imperial College London’s Additive Manufacturing Network, this paper presents an overview of the potential economic, technical and environmental benefits of additive manufacturing (AM) – 3D printing – as well as the current hurdles across the AM process chain that need to be overcome to realise a more-effective and more-profitable industry. For example, improved design software, faster printing technology, increased automation and better industry standards are required.
Imperial College London is equipped to play a leading role in the UK’s ever-growing AM landscape. The current portfolio of AM-based research is varied and encompasses problems across the entire design-to-end-use-product chain. Research projects include, for instance, the development of new design methodologies for optimised multimaterial AM parts, novel metal-based AM printing techniques, investigations of fundamental AM material properties and 3D printing of next-generation biomaterials for medical applications.
AM research at Imperial can be further extended by capitalising on the College’s world-class scientific and engineering expertise and factilities, its culture of collaboration and history of effective research translation. There are several ways for external partners interested in the AM field to engage with Imperial academics: focused workshops, bespoke consultancy services, funding for specific research projects and facilities, or student placements
Download the paper
“Just because you can 3D-print something doesn’t mean you should.”
Mike Vasquez, founder of digital manufacturing and 3D printing consultancy 3Degrees, guides companies looking to add 3D printing to their toolbox, and he’s quick to offer a reality check on the technology’s possibilities and limitations. “Just because you can 3D-print something doesn’t mean you should,” he says. “If you’re telling me that you want to recreate these screws and just use 3D printing for no justification, then that’s a challenge.”
Vasquez offers these questions for companies to answer in evaluating whether and where to incorporate 3D printing:
1. Are you saving time to production so you can get more product to the market sooner?
2. Will 3D printing allow you to reduce your inventory, creating more of an on-demand supply chain and saving on spare-part storage and maintenance costs?
3. How long is it going to take, really? “I think people underestimate the work that goes into post-processing,” Vasquez says. “If we’re talking about metals, you likely need to heat-treat or stress-relief that part afterward.” Plus, he says, a secondary heat treatment could be required, taking several days in some cases. SLM North America’s Richard Grylls notes: “If you imagine printing in layers of 30 microns and you’ve got a build height of up to 350 mm, depending on the laser run time and the amount of parts you’re building, it can take days to build a set of components on a build cycle.”
Additive manufacturing and 3D printing promise to simplify manufacturing, reduce inventories, and streamline operations. But, to determine when and how to apply additive manufacturing, organizations need a decision model that assesses it’s market strategy, supply chain performance, and complexity.
Long before manufacturers talked about custom manufacturing and batch runs of one, there was orthodontics. Orthodontics treatments are customized by nature. Orthodontists meet one-on-one with every patient to take X-rays and make molds of their teeth and then create a unique treatment plan to correct a patient’s misalignments. That custom approach spawned an industry of decentralized dentists, orthodontists, and dental laboratories who each have a role in the treatment plan. Think of it as a complex and expensive dental supply chain. For a long time, the question was: Well, what is the alternative?
Enter Align Technology, Inc., a global medical device company that disrupted the rules of the orthodontics game. Align Technology produces clear aligners—sold under the Invisalign brand—as a malocclusion treatment. Made of a nearly transparent plastic material, clear aligners work on the same principle as metal braces: They put soft pressure on individual teeth to move the denture into the desired position. However, instead of adjusting metal arch wires and brackets throughout the treatment, Align Technology provides a customized, transparent plastic rack for each phase of the plan. Clear aligners have the added benefit of being much more discrete than a mouth full of metal.
To take advantage of the broadening application of 3D printing, manufacturers need to consider how the technology could fit into five key areas for their businesses.
With its continuing advancement, broad application of 3D printing by industrial manufacturers might not be far away. To unlock its value, however, industrial companies will first need to determine how it can fit into their business and technology landscape.
It is a prospect worth considering, given that 3D printing is an example of the growing investments in digital technologies that can add speed, precision and capacity to the production of complex products. This is particularly important because the increasing demand for tailored products and services will require greater agility and flexibility. The 3D printing industry, estimated to reach $17 billion by 2020, is part of a shift from traditional supply chains to digital supply networks designed to help manufacturers respond more quickly to demand.
Boston, Massachusetts is coming into its own as a hub of advanced technologies, championed by an expanding array of strong businesses and fed into through a wealth of prestigious local institutions of higher education. 3D printing is, unsurprisingly, thriving in such an environment, and strongly featuring in this picture is high-strength 3D printing company Markforged, founded in 2013 by CEO Greg Mark. I recently enjoyed the opportunity to visit Mark and several members of the team at the company’s headquarters in Watertown to discuss technology on their turf rather than at 3D printing shows around the country.
The Watertown facility is new to Markforged — my visit was, in fact, just three days after the team moved into the 43,000-square-foot space. The move was necessary, as the young company has been growing quickly with some impressive recent upticks in business. Markforged, now 85 employees strong, outgrew its former 16,000-square-foot HQ in Cambridge, and is already working to fill the new capacity, with the team expected to expand beyond 100 members by the end of the year. The growth in space and personnel is supported by some serious business increases, as Markforged reports more than 300% growth since the start of 2017, which they note as being more than any previous year in the history of the company. Strong sales led to achieving profitability in the first half of 2017.
Lighter parts, more durable parts, increased design freedom, on-demand part production … all are great, and all just scratch the surface of what additive manufacturing can do.
Now that 3-D printing is safely beyond the hype phase and has become an established part of many companies’ product development and manufacturing processes, there has been a greater understanding of the technology’s technical and business advantages. With that, more users are benefitting from lighter and more durable parts, increased design freedom and on-demand part production.
But that’s just scratching the surface of 3-D printing’s potential.