Is 3D Printing the Future of Manufacturing?

by Chirag

The main categories of the manufacturing industry have been the repetitive process, the discrete process, job shops, batch processes and continuous processes. Companies often use more than one of these processes to produce one product2. Depending on the item being produced, production time can range from weeks to months. However, with new technologies such as 3D printing, production times, costs, and product designs have improved recently, and continue to improve. So, is 3D printing the future of manufacturing?

3D Printing vs the Processes

Many companies use a combination of processes to produce their products. The repetitive process is usually a production line that produces the same product over and over, with relatively little change in line setup or changeover. The discrete process also uses production lines; however, the products are more diverse and the line setup can change frequently. Job shops usually have production areas instead of production lines, where one or more versions of a product are assembled2.

3D Printing vs the Processes

In each of these processes setup, changeover, and tear-down take time and cause downtime during production. 3D printing can greatly reduce costly time loss due to these process activities. With 3D printing, losing time to setup and changeover is almost eliminated as changes in the product are made by changing the program in a CAD or other computer system. There is no need to retool or change the machinery. The ability for quick changeover or product design changes also shortens costly downtime5.

For instance, using 3D printing can cut production time of jigs and fixtures by ¼, and is less expensive to create complicated designs5. 3D printing also allows a company to create and test parts before running a large production batch. 3D printing also provides the ability to start new production without the need to wait for time-consuming and costly tooling necessary with conventional manufacturing. Cost cutting and shortening time constraints could be positive aspects pushing 3D printing to be the future of manufacturing5.

3D Printing, Design, and Prototyping

With traditional manufacturing, design is limited to the abilities of the machinery producing the product. With 3D printing, design is virtually limited only by the designer’s creativity. 3D printing allows for greater flexibility and intricacy in the design of products. Changes in how products are structured can be achieved with 3D printing, allowing for more complex and stronger products made with less material1.

3D Printing vs the Processes

Prototyping also benefits from 3D printing. Prototypes can be made more quickly and less expensively with 3D printing. Different versions of a prototype can be created to test the best design and save time on testing and retooling of the prototype to get the most viable product. Advancements in the ability to create prototypes and more intricate designs while shortening time frames and lowering costs make 3D printing a big part of the future of manufacturing1.

3D Printing and Production Size

Manufacturers usually run large quantities of their products to lower the cost of production. Tooling, setup, and changeovers raise costs for smaller runs of a product. With 3D printing a company can run a small batch of a product without the higher costs and time it takes to run small batches with traditional machining. For instance, more than 60% of manufacturers believe that 3D printing will become a way to produce obsolete or older replacement parts within the next 5 years. Also, over 50% believe parts needed after a product goes to market will be produced using 3D printing within the same time frame4. Small runs of specialized products are also more cost and time effective with 3D printing, therefore, products with a smaller consumer target will be more attractive to manufacturers.

3D Printing vs the Processes

3D Printing and Materials

The traditional form of most manufacturing is known as the subtractive process, or removal of material by cutting it away to form the finished product. With this method of production, material waste can be 50% or more. Often the waste material is either disposed of or recycled. 3D printing is an additive process, or material is added in a layering process that eliminates most material waste. For example, creating a product using a metal like aluminum and the subtractive process can leave as much as 60% of the material as scrap3. This scrap then must be recycled or discarded. 3D printing uses the minimum amount of material and practically eliminates the need to melt down and recycle any wasted material.

3D Printing and Supply

A large part of traditional manufacturing is supply and inventory. Ensuring that the necessary parts for production, assembly, and machine tooling and maintenance are available is important to keep the process moving. Warehousing and inventory control are necessary for many industries. 3D printing can eliminate much of the need for warehousing extra parts and materials. 3D printing also cuts back on the amount of inventory as orders can be filled and shipped as they come in rather than in larger batches.

3D Printing vs the Processes

3D Printing and Customers

With traditional manufacturing, the time from sales to delivery can take weeks or months. Machine tooling, material ordering, and design changes take time. With 3D printing and the elimination of tooling and changeover times, this period can be shortened to days or less than a couple of weeks. Material costs can also be lessened as 3D printing uses less material than regular manufacturing. Quicker turnaround time and lower costs make for happier and more satisfied customers.

3D Printing and Customers

3D Printing as the Future of Manufacturing

There are aspects of 3D printing that are considered barriers to manufacturers choosing 3D printing as their main form of production. Some manufacturers consider the cost of the printers and uncertainty of the final product to be reasons to hold off on embracing 3D printing. Some manufacturers, approximately 22%, believe 3D printing will disrupt existing supply chains4. Although 3D printing is not ready for mass production and still too expensive for certain business owners or applications, the technology continues to improve and costs to go down.

If 3D printing is the future of manufacturing it is because of the benefits gained in prototyping and design, and savings in time, materials, and other costs. The 3D printing industry grew more than 17% in 20161. Some manufacturers see barriers to the use of 3D printing as the standard for manufacturing. However, others believe that ignoring how 3D printing can benefit the manufacturing process can lead to competitive losses to those who do embrace the new technology, now and in the future.



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