Internet of Things. Automation. 3D Printing. The Factory of the Future imagines a shop perfectly tuned to advance, change, improve, and speed up manufacturing. It encompasses something as familiar to us as CAD, to interconnected tools capable of sharing data on a scale unimaginable to us 20 years ago. It’s an idea that challenges us to constantly rethink how we define “advanced technology.” Perhaps that’s why we’re constantly asking, “Where does – and where will – 3D printing fit into the factory of the future?” In other words, what is the realistic scale and scope of 3D printing when it comes to advanced manufacturing?
Essentium partnered with Dimensional Research to survey more than 100 decision makers at large manufacturing companies* and compiled their answers in the white paper, "3D Printing at Scale: A Survey of 3D Production Manufacturing Stakeholders" (which you can download here for free!).
Below follows their responses to how they currently use 3D printing, what's holding the technology back from widespread adoption, and how they plan to scale up their use of 3D printing in the future.
We asked our manufacturing decision makers how they currently use 3D printing technology in their production pipeline, including how they allocate 3D printing for certain applications. Not surprisingly, they list Simple Prototyping as their main use for 3D printing, with 61% of 3D printing applications falling under this category. Manufacturing Aids and Tooling Jigs come at a close second with 60% of applications. Right behind these ancillary production applications is Limited Run Production Parts as the third most common use for 3D printing. Limited Run Production Parts is defined as end-use, 3D printed parts produced at volumes of less than 100. Forty-five percent of all 3D printing applications for these large manufacturing companies are Limited Run Production Parts. While this is a significant percentage, because it shows the viability of customized 3D printing for end-use production, widespread use of 3D printing for full scale production remains limited. Full Scale Production is defined as end-use parts produced at volumes greater than 100. 3D printing is used for full scale production only 21% of the time.
That’s not to say 3D printing is never used for large volume production. Twelve percent of the companies interviewed have used 3D printing for thousands of parts at some point, and 5% have used 3D printing to produce volumes in the tens of thousands.
The relegation of 3D printing to prototyping and limited run parts isn’t for lack of vision: 41% of those interviewed expect their use of 3D printing to increase dramatically over the next 3-5 years. Large manufacturing companies expect to see Full Scale Production applications jump from 21% to 36% of all 3D printing applications over the next decade.
What’s holding them back from scaling up production today?
The main inhibitors to adopting 3D printing for Full Scale Production come down to cost, technology, and training. Of the companies we interviewed, 42% list the expense of 3D printing technology as the main inhibitor to scaling up 3D printing to Full Scale Production while 35% list the cost of materials as prohibitive to adoption. Behind that, 34% note that there is a gap in innovation for scaling the technology while 31% say 3D printed parts aren’t reliable enough to scale just yet. Finally, 30% list the main inhibitor to scaling up production as a lack of personnel with the expertise to use 3D printing, while 22% note that the lack of training among their existing staff is slowing adoption.
We asked if these barriers have dampened manufacturers’ outlook on 3D printing as a whole. Their answer? Ninety-one percent believe 3D printing will reach the promised level of advanced manufacturing within the next 5-10 years. Most manufacturers expect to ramp up 3D printing for Full Scale Production in tandem with lower cost printers, lowering material costs, and advancements in the technology that improve performance overall. As 3D printing becomes more affordable and scalable, there will be an even greater push to focus on training personnel as the technology becomes invaluable to production pipelines. Therefore, we can expect 3D printing to remain a staple of the Factory of the Future, capable of advancing, changing, improving, and speeding up manufacturing as we know it today.
*Company size of those interviewed: 32% >5,000 employees; 68% between 1,000 and 5,000 employees. Decision makers roles fell under: 43% design or engineering; 40% production, operations, or supply chain; 17% procurement or finance.
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