Having a 3D printer on the factory floor has always been an intriguing proposition, as who wouldn’t want to bypass the supply chain entirely and whip up a quick replacement part, or even better, a brand new optimized tool or maybe even specialized robot grippers, right then and there? That is perfectly reasonable and could do everything from truncate downtimes and lead to safer and more efficient operations. Several manufacturers have found certain 3D printers as invaluable new tools that cannot only create prototypes, but also the jigs, fixtures and tooling to enable production.
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So, how can something almost 30 years old actually be a NextGen technology? Is that actually possible? Yes, especially if you’re talking about 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing.
Well known in automotive and aerospace circles, 3-D printing has long been standard fare there for prototypes and continues to slowly come into its own for certain, limited production parts. But it has never realized what anyone would call critical mass. However, that is changing as 3-D printing makes headway in industrial and consumer goods as well as health care. That means it’s still early for 3-D printing, making it a true NextGen technology.
“We are moving beyond science experiments and out of the hype cycle,” explains Scott Schiller, global head of customer and market development for 3D printing at HP. “In fact, there was a rapid pivot in 3D last year as we saw a fundamental shift in how people look at the technology for practical applications. And that shift is having an enormous and real-time impact on its adoption.”
3D printing is touted as one of the most disruptive developments in manufacturing and beyond. UK-based Simon Knowles, Chief Marketing Officer at Maine Pointe, reflects on the impact the innovative technology can have on supply chain management. He outlines potential benefits of the technology and five ways it will impact the supply chain.
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is a process which uses a three-dimensional digital model to create a physical object by adding many thin layers of material in succession, subsequently lowering cost by cutting out waste. This is radically different from current, subtractive production methods where up to 90% of the original block of material can be wasted. Although we tend to think of it as a new technology, the first 3D printer was introduced nearly 30 years ago.
So far, issues such as durability, speed and protection of intellectual property rights have prevented 3D printing from entering mainstream manufacturing. However, the industry is making rapid advancements and it’s only a matter of time before we see it significantly impacting global supply chains and operations. According to the Global Supply Chain Institute (GSCI), “some supply chain professionals predict 3D printing will eventually rival the impact of Henry Ford’s assembly line.” This technology has the power to help companies significantly reduce costs, overcome geopolitical risks / tariffs, improve customer service, reduce their carbon footprint and drive innovation for competitive advantage.
3D printing has opened a range of opportunities for a lot of sectors, improving the efficiency of the manufacturing and production process.
Talking about her business, Shoes by Shaherazad, which specialises in jewellery for shoes, Shaherazad Umbreen says: “I’ve experimented with 3D printing a lot, as it allows low-cost testing of product designs. In the past, going directly to metal-bashing techniques meant that if a design didn’t look right, then precious time (and costly metals) were lost.
“Now, I design in CAD, print in 3D, and only then when the design is just right do I then use the 3D mould to create a piece of jewellery. Many of my designs are in 22 carat gold, so this new process has saved me thousands of pounds and hours of time.”
In the jewellery industry, 3D printing works by using CAD to create 3D printed wax or resin models of jewellery. These are then used to cast delicate pieces with the fine metals — 3D printing with precious metals to begin with would be overly costly. These moulds mean that separate sections of metal don’t need to be soldered together, creating a more solid and complex piece of jewellery.
According to HP Inc., the outlook of the future includes using new inks and agents that will allow 3D printers to work voxel by voxel to apply specific capabilities or control material properties. For example, adding color information to show wear and damage to a part, or embedding codes for traceability or anti-counterfeiting.
Marga Bardeci, 3DP Applications & Business Development Manager of HP, Inc. spoke at the ISTA European Packaging Symposium in Amsterdam earlier this month, and said that in the future we could see only “on-demand” products with less resultant shipping and inventory due to products that will be produced locally.
Though 3D printing is used mostly in prototyping now, the manufacturing sector offers great potential for 3D printing, according to Bardeci, with the following potential impacts on the supply chain:
- Near sourcing – decrease in shipping
- Mass customization and personalization – lower inventory levels
- Parts on demand – service parts logistics
Cummins has sold its first metal part printed on one of its own 3D printers, moving the company a significant step closer to the exciting potential of additive manufacturing.
The part was a low-volume bracket for a customer in Cummins’ New and ReCon Parts division and did not have a current supplier. The company is focusing first on printing low-volume parts as it studies how best to use 3D technology in higher volume manufacturing.
“With this technology you can really unshackle the designer to do things you just can’t do using traditional forms of manufacturing,” said Brett Boas, Director-Advanced Manufacturing at the Cummins Technical Center in Columbus, Indiana (U.S.).
Parts can be made lighter, stronger and more effective using metal 3D printing compared to parts created using more traditional methods that employ molds, molten metal and equipment to precisely cut and shape the part.
3D printing creates three-dimensional objects one ultra-thin layer at a time. If the part doesn’t come out quite right, the designer can simply change the computer design file and print it again; a much faster process than using traditional manufacturing techniques to build a test part.
One application primed for disruption by 3D printing technology is the production of spare parts. After all, why house a warehouse full of odd components for just the right moment when you or a customer will need one?
This is especially true for large, unique systems and equipment, where mass production of individual specialty pieces is that much rarer. London and Amsterdam-based CNH Industrial has picked up on this insight and has begun fabricating spare parts for its industrial equipment.
John Jordan, of Penn State University, understands the vast implications of 3D printing technology on the world and industrial production. Manufacturing as we know it, along with how we create more complex geometries and present them, is being, and will be further disrupted by a technology allowing for innovations to be created faster, better, and more affordably—but also in ways we never expected before. Jordan focuses on the changes we will see in organizational design, concerning decisions in volume of production at the managerial level and which parts will be 3D printed, how options in customization will continue to grow, and what level of education will be required for businesses and their employees adopting new practices in the digital age.
Jordan is careful to evaluate 3D printing and its relative impact realistically, understanding there is no guarantee that it will ‘force a shift,’ or even begin to replace conventional mass production as we know it. He understands that humans, in their most basic forms of creating and manufacturing, have three choices: add, mold, or subtract. 3D printing and additive manufacturing have come along and offered us new choices for on-demand, on-site production—and often in remote locations; great examples of this are developing countries, military installations, and the oil and gas industry.
High strength cutting tools can now be 3D printed, potentially saving time and money for aerospace and Defence manufacturers.
RMIT University PhD candidate Jimmy Toton received the 2019 Young Defence Innovator Award and $15,000 prize at the Avalon International Airshow for the research, which was conducted with Defence Materials Technology Centre (DMTC) and industry partner Sutton Tools.
Because the metals used in Defence and aerospace are so strong, making high quality tools to cut them is a major, and expensive, challenge.