3D printing is quickly becoming a serious and established tool in the manufacturing industry. From design and prototyping to customization and even mass production, the technology is gaining adoption due to its improvements in capabilities and the falling costs of equipment.
Manufacturers can make the most of 3D printing by starting with small pilot projects to test and develop designs or parts. While old methods of design, molding and back-and-forth adjustments used to take months, manufacturers now can create prototypes in as little as a few hours and refine those designs in days. This makes the process easier, faster and less expensive, and it can significantly increase the speed to market.
3D printed parts are now being used in everything from shoes to airplanes and rocket engines being used by NASA. Most of the largest manufacturers deploying 3D printing are starting with projects that produce small parts. However, Ford recently announced it is testing 3D printing of large-scale car parts and is exploring applications for future production of vehicles and personalized car parts. Ford said printing large automotive parts like spoilers could benefit customers through lighter weight and improved fuel efficiency.
Some manufacturers of smaller products are even moving full scale production entirely to 3D printers. Adidas, for example, is aiming to make 3D-printed soles to eliminate production in low-cost Asian countries and bring the development in-house to automated factories in Germany and the United States. Whereas it can take months to turn a sole design from Asia, the company said 3D printing will allow that to be done in as little as a week.
How to move forward with 3D
Manufacturers should establish a clear adoption plan by assessing their needs, establishing goals and identifying clear applications for 3D printing. This should involve not just design and production, but buy-in from multiple levels of the organization.
Kent Firestone, COO at Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, said that manufacturers also should ensure they’re promoting the technology to both executives and engineers. “An internal champion who can speak to both the business and technical value of the technology can be a point person for this,” Firestone said.
Manufacturers also will want to carefully select printers based on capabilities and their needs. While small plastic printers may suffice for those aiming to test small parts and prototypes, metal printers may be required for other applications. A survey by Sculpteo found that 21% of manufacturing respondents said they now use metal 3D printing. Of that group, 41% said they use it to complement traditional production methods. Half or more of manufacturers using metal 3D printing processes said they experienced easier prototyping, reduced design complexity and reduced tooling costs. Roughly a quarter said they improved accuracy, attained most customization or increased their manufacturing speed.
Not fully there yet
Sculpteo CEO Clement Moreau said that despite the growth in 3D printing, there are still some challenges and limitations. Many manufacturers still lack the in-house expertise, and metal 3D printers can still be cost prohibitive as even the smallest machines can cost $100,000 or more. Three quarters of those using metal 3D printing are overcoming many of these challenges by using external design and printing services rather than trying to do it in-house. “As with any new technology, there is a learning curve before a technology can be used at its full potential,” Moreau said.
Firestone added that manufacturers also will want to assess their infrastructure to see if there are equipment or skill gaps to be filled. He said that ongoing education, investigation and experimentation will be a key to success as the “ever-evolving technology” constantly presents new opportunities and challenges for even the most advanced users. “Learning about the variety of technologies within additive manufacturing and the reasons to use them will lead to further insights for their business,” Firestone said.