With additive manufacturing (AM), production of everything from prototypes to end-use parts is faster, cheaper, easier and more accessible than with subtractive manufacturing processes – which are more complicated and expensive to operate. Investing in AM can greatly improve efficiency and agility while minimizing supply chain risk, and its automated processes reduce the need for specialized labor. The process, a.k.a. 3-D printing, is also efficient: you build only what you need and nothing more.
AM has seen widespread use due to these benefits. 3-D printing technologies have continued to move forward and several key advancements have been made in recent years. Today, AM solutions are more reliable and effective than ever before. They have a wider range of capabilities and potential applications and can print parts that address specialized needs.
So, what are these improvements, how do they translate into concrete benefits for manufacturers, and why is now the time for businesses to invest in AM? Read on to learn the answers to these questions directly from engineers and technical experts.
AM is still a relatively new technology. The first commercially available 3-D printers were introduced in the late 1980s. However, due to its potential to be the most effective solution for many common manufacturing pain points, maturation has occurred at an incredibly fast rate. The last five years have produced some of the largest advancements, as vendors compete to build solutions that meet the needs of specialized industries.
Power and reliability – To meet manufacturers’ needs for scaled production, industrial 3-D printers evolved with significantly improved print speeds, reliability, maximum part sizes and part quality. Even desktop-sized 3-D printers can now be trusted to produce consistent, high-quality results in key manufacturing roles.
User-friendliness – Historically, industrial-scale 3-D printing systems required dedicated operators with extensive user training. The level of training required was akin to CNC milling machines. Development of user-friendly 3-D printing software has since streamlined and automated many previous points of complication, making it into a far simpler process.
Operating newer 3-D printing platforms involves a minimal learning curve and does not require AM expertise. Users can even automate quality inspection of parts during the 3-D printing process itself to verify that the parts will be immediately usable. Rather than breaking up printing and part inspection into two stages, parts can be inspected as they are fabricated.
Innovative materials – 3-D printing applications have expanded in many new directions. The range of available materials has also grown to fit new needs. Materials now fit specialized purposes, such as aerospace-grade composites that are stronger than machined aluminum but with just a fraction of the weight. Parts can be printed with high heat and chemical resistance and fortified with continuous fiber reinforcement (CFR) technology to add extra strength anywhere within the part.
Metal made accessible – The introduction of metal-fused filament fabrication (FFF) technology means 3-D printing metal parts is now faster, safer and more cost-effective than ever. Metal FFF printers offer a range of material availability – such as stainless steel, tool steel, Inconel and copper – and can be operated with minimal PPE and safety precautions.
Industry 4.0 connectivity – 3-D printing software integrations allows users to initiate part production through requests in core factory systems – such as a manufacturing execution system (MES), enterprise resource planning (ERP) system or enterprise asset management (EAM) system – or, by scanning the barcode of a physical part that needs to be duplicated.
Cloud-based connectivity between each user and set of 3-D printers also allows for distributed manufacturing operations. Users can initiate prints across printers in different geographic locations. This ensures the right part is available both where and when it is needed.
Tackling the supply chain
Supply chain shortages pose the most critical threat to manufacturing operations today. Recent supply chain shortages are taking place on a global scale, and companies have been experiencing unprecedented levels of difficulty procuring the parts they need. Without the ability to quickly fabricate the needed parts in-house, manufacturing operations can easily stall for however long it takes for the part to be built, shipped, transported and received. This often takes months.
Access to on-site 3-D printers allows companies to take full control of their supply chains. With individual printers placed across different geographic locations, parts stored in a cloud-based digital inventory can then be sent to be any printer within the network. The right parts can be quickly printed at the precise locations where they are needed, when they are needed, with far shorter lead times compared to traditional manufacturing.
For parts that must be machined, using an AM system for rapid prototyping helps engineers ensure that when the machined part is finally received months later, it will work as expected.
Implementing an AM solution leads to diverse business benefits. Beyond the multi-faceted improvements it provides to manufacturing operations, adoption of AM is representative of a cultural shift that puts innovation and individual autonomy first.
Previously, many of these benefits were limited to select companies with less demanding manufacturing needs. Advancements to AM technology, however, have made these immediate benefits applicable to manufacturers of all scales, across almost every industry.
More parts produced in-house – When companies outsource a core manufacturing competency to a third party, they establish a dependency for tooling, fixtures and jigs needed to produce the final product. As a result, manufacturers forfeit control and are subject to higher costs, prolonged timelines and decreased transparency while quality issues and other complications require additional time and coordination to address. Producing parts in-house also allows companies to better protect intellectual property, proprietary innovations and other trade secrets.
Significant savings – 3-D printing is typically far more cost-effective than subtractive manufacturing. 3-D printing tooling for production can save manufacturers tens of thousands of dollars per month compared to machining.
For most manufacturers, AM platforms will yield a near-immediate ROI: within months or even weeks.
Design freedom, process flexibility – The processes used to manufacture parts are oftentimes dictated by the limitations of what the traditional manufacturing supports. For example, when manufacturing a bracket using subtractive techniques, unnecessary constraints are imposed while bending or stamping the sheet metal into shape. Designs can be made without these steps and limitations through AM.
Put parts to use faster – The time it takes 3-D printing to go from art to part is just a fraction of the time it takes through subtractive manufacturing. The cycle from when the need for a part is recognized – all the way to when it is implemented – can be cut down to just hours or days, compared to months, as long as 3-D printers are available.
Increased speed to market – Access to in-house AM accelerates design cycles by enabling rapid prototyping. It can produce any part in a fraction of the time it would take to request and receive via traditional manufacturing.
Full supply chain control – Use of a 3-D printing platform allows control of full supply chains from end to end. Manufacturers can reduce dependence on external suppliers and minimize risk in their supply chain operations.
Building a culture of innovation – For job-seeking engineers, companies invested in an AM strategy present opportunities to focus on innovation and solve interesting design problems while automating the arduous tasks and eliminating unnecessary constraints that come with subtractive manufacturing.
Engineers with access to in-house 3-D printing do not have to worry about time-consuming procurement activities like drafting drawings, submitting purchase orders and managing the bidding process with multiple vendors.
Today, 3-D printing is a mainstream manufacturing technology for everything from prototyping to production of end-use parts. Leading manufacturers across all industries continue to adopt AM at increasing rates while scaling up use of their 3-D printing systems with additional printers, software tools and new materials. While industry leaders continue to reap the many business benefits associated with 3-D printing, organizations without an AM strategy will fall behind their more agile, efficient and innovative competitors.
Earlier adoption of AM technologies produces superior outcomes. While earlier 3-D printing technologies were not always applicable to the full range of industries and uses relying on AM today, these companies have had longer to build and refine their AM strategies. They’ve had more time to integrate AM into their workflows, experiment with different settings and discover additional applications for AM within their operations.
When 3-D printers with new capabilities arrive in the future, these organizations will be better prepared to make the best use of newer equipment, equipped with the knowledge and experience to increase the scale of their AM operations more smoothly.