3D printing, originally called rapid prototyping, is moving squarely into production. As technologies have continued to progress over the last four decades, additive manufacturing is seeing accelerated adoption in the workflow of manufacturing operations around the world. Enhanced capabilities in terms of hardware, software, and materials are adding to the potential of 3D printing to transform manufacturing, impacting areas such as prototyping, tooling and molding, replacement and spare parts, end-use components, and supply chain.
The initial use of this technology continues to reign supreme as a key application area, as 3D printing speeds the prototyping process.
While traditionally a prototype would be outsourced for creation, requiring days, weeks, or months for turnaround for each subsequent iteration, 3D printing can bring the full prototyping process in-house. Significant savings can be realized in terms of both time and money as building new prototypes layer by layer rather than milling material away reduces material costs, requiring only the amount necessary for a given build with little to no waste.
Next-generation machines and materials are also bringing these prototypes closer to the look and feel of a final product. Marketing materials can be created earlier in the process, as professional photographs can capture the look of the product with matched colors and tolerances, particularly beneficial in areas such as eyewear that follow seasonal trends. Speeding time to market in product design, prototyping, and marketing is a major benefit of 3D printing.
While generally regarded as rather a less-than-glamorous application, tooling and molding represents an important factor in manufacturing. Tools and molds 3D printed on-site fit the exact needs of a specific production line, including customized jigs, fixtures, gauges, dies, molds, cutting patterns, and other equipment used in the manufacturing process.
The automotive industry in particular is seeing great benefit from 3D printed tooling as custom-designed jigs and fixtures, for example, ensure the right tool for the right job along the production line. Desktop 3D printers are seeing great use in creating tooling in-house, both strong parts made with reinforced materials and flexible tools made for unique applications such as in detail work.
3D printing is a disruptive technology, but the 3D printing of molds represent one of many applications showcasing the complementary, rather than inherently competitive, possibilities of the technology compared to traditional molding technologies.
Use of nascent and traditional technologies side by side enables a more streamlined production process with custom-made molds and the well-established volume and cost reduction benefits of injection molding for full-scale production.
3D technologies including 3D scanning, advanced design software, and 3D printing are more and more frequently coming together to reverse engineer parts for replacement applications. Increasingly popular in the automotive sector for discontinued parts for older-model vehicles, as well as for custom parts for luxury automobiles and personalized motorcycles, 3D printing allows for the creation of unique geometries sure to fit each vehicle. Similarly, household wares requiring spare parts are seeing the benefits of made-to-order custom or replacement components such as oven knobs, furniture connectors, and other around-the-house pieces.
Spare parts have traditionally been held in inventory, requiring a significant storage footprint and logistics for shipping those parts on demand. Holding inventory in stock of each part can take up valuable warehouse space, wasting resources in both production and storage, and after a model has been discontinued parts become difficult to replace once stocks are depleted.
Creating parts on-demand via 3D printing ensures that spare parts are not held in inventory but rather made to order, reducing waste and shortening the supply chain.
With introductions of stronger materials, including both metals and reinforced polymers, 3D printing is increasingly making inroads into end-use part production. The manufacture of final production parts represents a new era for the technology -- as well as something of a holy grail for industry participants as the technology offers known advantages in low-volume manufacturing and, increasingly, larger quantities of product.
The aerospace industry is leading the charge in many ways on this front; as critical tolerances and exacting specifications must be met in this sector, qualification is a necessity. Validating 3D printed components for use is creating a new framework from which many industries can benefit as best practices trickle down for less-exacting final parts production.
Enhancements in terms of isotropic strength in particular have been in focus, and as more can be delivered on this front, we will continue to see production grow as an application for additive manufacturing.
Traditionally, parts and products have been created in one location and shipped -- freighted via train, truck, plane, and ship -- to distributors and then to final destinations. The implementation of freight in global trade has made goods from more areas more available as more means of transportation have opened up since the last century’s industrial revolution.
Industry 4.0, however, allows for greater accessibility and democratization with localized production through advanced technologies including 3D printing offering a more sustainable alternative to goods sourcing. Logistics companies are increasingly exploring additive manufacturing for use in their own operations, as the environmental impact of global shipping operations continues to be felt. Manufacturers also feel this impact in their bottom line, as shipping is an expensive component of operations.
Localizing production and bringing more of the manufacturing process in-house allows for reductions in inventory and in the footprint -- environmental and physical -- necessary for operations.
The implementation of 3D printing into operations is disrupting the global manufacturing industry; this, as we see in mid-2018, is both an inevitability and an evolving current reality. The full potential for disruption remains to be seen, but projections for industry growth remain bullish as technological improvements continue to make more realizable applications and specifications possible.
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