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Additives’s Impact on Manufacturing Pt. 1: How 3D Printing Is Changing Manufacturing Today

Posted on Mar 18, 2019 by Cullen Hikene

The Rise of 3D Printing

Over the last decade, 3D printing has garnered many headlines. Whether it’s the hype around consumer 3D printing or the massive impact on the industrial community, a substantial amount of ink has been dedicated to the technology. 3D printing changes manufacturing through the way we design, make production parts, and support products in the aftermarket. In this post, in conjunction with CMTC and the NIST MEP Network, we will spell out a variety of ways that additive is changing manufacturing today. Also, keep an eye out for an upcoming post where we will discuss how additive manufacturing stands to further change manufacturing in the future.

The Wait is Over

A direct result of 3D printing’s impact on design processes is the rate at which new products can be developed. Instead of having to wait for tooling for a given design, designers can simply print onsite or send a CAD file to a service bureau and get parts in hours or days. Previously, waiting for weeks, months, or even years was the norm. This has a comprehensive effect on the overall product development lifecycle. Decisions on final part designs can be reached much faster because the amount of time required for effective design is compressed.

Not Just for Prototyping Anymore

3D printing grew up as a prototyping technology. It offered a faster way to go from an idea to a tangible model than previously imaginable. By allowing for designs to be drafted in a computer program and then printed once a viable design is reached, the time to market for new designs was condensed massively—sometimes by an order of magnitude. In conjunction with this speed, 3D printing has also helped better products come to market. By allowing for fast iteration on tangible designs, design flaws and bad ergonomics that might have taken months (and a lot of additional investment in tooling) to identify can be spotted sooner and fixes incorporated into the design. As a result, the general quality of parts is improved by designers’ abilities to explore more designs in a shorter period of time, arriving at a better final design.

Fabrication of Parts

A lot of attention has been also focused on how 3D printing helps us create end-use parts through prototyping. Now, increased attention has been paid to how 3D printers are fabricating actual end-use parts for select applications. However, one of the first uses outside of prototyping was tool creation. Around a decade ago, the range of polymers available for 3D printing expanded significantly. This happened in conjunction with the emergence of extrusion and powder bed fusion 3D printing systems, which processed true thermoplastics rather than thermoset resins as did the vat photopolymerization (a.k.a. SLA) machines.

Once engineering thermoplastics such as ABS, polycarbonate, and polyetherimide became available, managers and engineers began considering if 3D printing could solve unique practical challenges they encountered on a daily basis. These shop floor applications extended well beyond fit or form models, such as creating custom jigs, fixtures, or end-arm effectors to allow for better handling of items. 3D printers are capable of economically fabricating these often unique geometries that would never be suitable for mass production. In this way, 3D printing changed how manufacturing supports people on the shop floor as well as the ones designing and fabricating end-use parts.

Long-term Solutions

Another way 3D printing changes manufacturing today is in how we fix things. 3D printing allows for the on-demand fabrication of replacement parts. Naturally, this is not always necessary. Sometimes a replacement part is readily available at Lowe’s, Home Depot, Grainger, or McMaster-Carr, to name a few, but sometimes those parts are difficult to come by, especially for products out of production. If your collector car from the 1950s breaks down, it can sometimes make sense to print replacement parts rather than attempt to search the global marketplace.

This is even more pronounced if a 50-year-old part breaks down on your assembly line and the holdup is costing revenue every minute. Or perhaps you are in a forward-deployed location and your aircraft cannot fly without printing a replacement part straight away. In any of these circumstances, the ability to 3D print stopgap solutions is significant, and with the rapid advancement we have experienced in printing quality, these short-term solutions may soon become long-term ones.

Conclusion

As we explained in this post, additive manufacturing has fundamentally changed the way we manufacture things. From design to tooling to replacement parts, additive manufacturing is a game-changer, and its impact is just beginning to be felt, as the speed and capability of machines have just passed a tipping point. You may have noticed we hardly touched the topic of actual production parts, which we view as still just breaching the tip of the iceberg at the moment, but that’s soon to change. Read our next blog post when we talk about how additive manufacturing will come to further impact manufacturing in the years to come.

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