Since its inception in the 1980s, 3D printing has boomed. It started with UV-based resin systems, and has grown to cover thermoplastics, ceramics, metals, and even food. A few thousand miles up and you might even find astronauts working with bio printers trying to print soft tissues.
While we’re not quite there yet, it's not a stretch to say additive manufacturing could one day rival the classical production line. In the last few years alone, great strides have been made with the technology and we’re finally starting to see printed parts being qualified and used for industrial applications.
The freedom of design
It is generally accepted that one of the key advantages of additive manufacturing is the design freedom it grants. Gone are the days of setting up a whole production line to manufacture a simple prototype. Now, all you need is a designer and some CAD software. The model can be drafted up in a comparatively short space of time and uploaded directly into the printer. It’s a tool-less process, one that requires minimal commitment and even after all that, if the design isn’t right, all you have to do is make the changes in the CAD software.
The result is an ‘agile’ supply chain, whereby a product can be tailored to fit a specification on the fly. Changes in the market or a client’s needs can be reflected in real-time and the design, production, and distribution phases can all take place in one small room. This, of course, does have its economic benefits in that factory and labour costs are kept to a minimum but it can also have a significant effect on the actual quality of the end product.
One major company taking advantage of this is sports good manufacturer Decathlon, who recently integrated 3D Systems’ Figure 4 additive manufacturing technology into its supply chain. The French retailer claims the resin-based technology has streamlined functional part development and shrunk production cycles. Earlier this year, the company worked on the development of a new set of fresh water carp fishing weight sinkers after realizing its competitors only offered one product option.
Seeing as Decathlon’s main mold supplier wasn’t operational at the time, the company’s engineers took it upon themselves to print their own using Figure 4 HI TEMP 300-AMB resin, instead of finding a secondary supplier. The result: the master mold patterns were printed in just two days - a process that usually takes around a month - and Decathlon made significant savings on product development and service costs.
This design freedom is great for rapid prototyping, but what about mass production? This is where additive manufacturing usually trips up as it doesn’t quite have the throughput of injection molding or CNC machining. This can be attributed to the need for extensive post-processing with pretty much any 3D printed part. Supports need to be removed and surfaces need to be finished. As it stands, there aren’t any automated systems that can manage this so most of it is done manually at a painfully slow pace. This is certainly one of the key factors preventing mass production but once solved, will release a flood of new potential for production lines.
The greatest benefits will be seen by the consumer product and automotive sectors where identical components are produced day in and day out. Particularly automotive, where manufacturers tend to have a ‘verification of process’ before commencing mass production of a model, meaning all of the individual components are manufactured and assembled to ensure it is possible. If any problems crop up at this stage, iterations to the design can be made with absolutely no changes in tooling, no hits to the budget, and no delays to the project.
That being said, Tesla has already reaped some of these benefits. In a recent ‘Model Y teardown’ video by content creator Munro Live, the engineer draws attention to a rather unusual manufacturing practice employed by the electric car manufacturer. Upon inspecting the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) airbox of the car, a large injection molded component, he spots an FDM fabricated part being used as a quick fix patch job to cover up a manufacturing fault. Had it not been for 3D printing, the entire airbox would need to be redesigned, meaning a whole new production line and a whole mountain of associated costs.
Boosting independent businesses
It could be argued that 3D printing benefits the smaller independent businesses even more than it does the large ones. In the last couple of years alone, we’ve seen a whole new wave of independent sellers on sites such as Etsy leveraging the power of 3D printing, rivalling the truly ‘hand-made’ market. With high-quality digitally manufactured products, there isn’t even the logistical problem of excess inventory anymore - on demand production has become the norm as models only get printed once the order button has been clicked. Since this major hurdle has been lifted, anyone with $300 and a dream can be a digital merchant.
In fact, having seen the benefits of the technology to small businesses, an EU Horizon 2020 program accelerating the adoption of additive manufacturing, AMable, has previously offered over €360,000 in funding to SMEs in the 3D printing industry. As part of an open call, awarded SMEs were provided with new connections to carry out application experiments for 3D printed functional products. The program was ultimately intended to drive competitiveness in the European manufacturing sector by facilitating the aforementioned supply chain benefits.
Ultimately, it’s clear that 3D printing is disruptive and it’s here to stay. It breathes new life into the simpler supply chains of smaller businesses while completely overhauling the process chains of major multinational corporations. GE is a prime example of this, as they have 3D printed a working version of the GE9X aircraft engine, demonstrating the capabilities of additive manufacturing. The engine is lighter, faster, and more fuel-efficient than any of its predecessors. The previous assortment of 855 separate parts has been reduced down to just 12 - a feat of optimization unimaginable with traditional manufacturing. With that, it’s clear, 3D printing is growing closer and closer to producing end-use critical parts for industrial applications.