Additive manufacturing (AM) has the potential to completely redefine manufacturing in certain areas. So of course manufacturers of every size are now looking seriously at 3-D printing as a complement to existing and traditional manufacturing methods.
But before you start any serious capital expenditure on the technology, it is critical that you create a top-down corporate strategy that reflects areas where your manufacturing operation and end-use parts and products can truly benefit.
Implemented properly, additive manufacturing can significantly reduce material waste, reduce the amount of production steps, inventory being held, and reduce the amount of distinct parts needed for an assembly. But you need a strategy to make it work.
As you build your strategy, you need to understand the benefits and where they can apply to you. You need to be familiar with the choice of technologies and what each can bring, and then you need to research your options.
The rapid prototyping of the 1990’s is by no means the additive manufacturing technology we have access to today. Now it’s all about new 3-D printing processes, better and more materials, M&P design allowables, better and cheaper lasers, smaller machines with wider footprints, and so on.
As I help many manufacturing customers form their own AM strategies in my work at Quickparts, I have, in collaboration with Tim Shinbara of the Association for Manufacturing Technology, started to identify several ‘Pillars of Affordability’ that additive manufacturing can deliver. These pillars will form the backbone of your AM strategy.
The Three Pillars of Affordability
Pillar of Affordability #1: Value Stream Mapping
Additive manufacturing as a rule uses only the materials needed for the part, which dramatically reduces waste during production. It also doesn’t experience the long lead times you would typically have in making molds, casts and finished (direct to manufacture) parts in certain materials.
But, your ability to scale your AM manufacturing is based solely on adding more and more 3d printing machines, which, compared to massive production line manufacturing, doesn’t bring value.
During your value stream mapping, where you aim to reduce lead times and waste, AM can do just that. It can bring your Buy-to-Fly ratio almost down to 1:1 as opposed to 30:1 in many traditional methods. This is particularly important when working with very expensive or precious metals, especially if the products are of a limited edition or a short run.
AM also means that if you need usable parts almost immediately, then you can have them, rather than having a lengthy lead time to create new tooling.
Additive manufacturing can reduce the amount of steps in a production process, both in tool making and direct manufacturing, reducing the need for manual assembly, even to the point where the entire assembly of the right part might be printable.
Pillar of Affordability #2: Design for Performance
When a design change is made late in the process, especially after tooling has been made, costs of that change rise significantly. Often those costs are expensive enough to mean that the design change may not be implemented unless the product is critically flawed. This means that minor design changes, those ‘nice-to-have’ additions, will probably not be incorporated into the product until a much later stage when new tooling is required.
AM technologies can alleviate these issues by delivering very short lead times for parts and tools that can easily incorporate a design change. This means that instead of discouraging design changes, a company can focus on making the best product without having to worry about the effects this would have on production timelines and costs.
As design for performance becomes realistic, manufacturers have the best products available, the latest designs, and latest changes and updates, without having lengthy product time-to-market.
With better quality products, you should be able to get and retain happier customers, more satisfied customers, less returned products, and a better reputation.
In addition, additive manufacturing processes can significantly reduce and possibly eliminate the total amount of tooling required, making it a much more minimal part of the cost equation.
Pillar of Affordability #3: Reducing the Bulk
Each part needed in an assembly increases the amount of fasteners, clips, glue etc., which adds weight, bulk, cost and complexity in assembly. Essentially, the fewer the parts you have in an assembly, the better it will perform.
AM parts can be manufactured in a more complete state thus reducing the amount of ‘connective tissue’ required to put them together and decreasing part count. Many materials in AM are so good now that they easily match traditional materials in performance and specification. The reduced part count means fewer fasteners, means less cost and less weight in the assembly.
AM can also mean that you can lower the supply chain count – fewer parts that break and fewer parts to replace. Fewer links in the supply chain reduces logistics, shipping, out-sourcing out-time and energy. Energy is a national asset and a national focus.
Depending on what your corporate strategy key performance metrics are – such as reducing lead times, reducing waste, improving your Buy-to-Fly ratios, incorporating design changes more easily, customer or patient specific products – additive manufacturing might well have the solutions you are looking for.
For companies that cannot (or don’t want to) afford to invest in in-house AM systems immediately, additive manufacturing through 3-D printing contractors is an ideal solution. And those services can also help a bigger company ease into additive manufacturing in a way that balances needs, allows research and testing to be done, with minimal outlay.
A decent on-demand parts service will have engineers on-hand to help educate, identify materials and processes that meet the design specifications, and will understand how the 3-D CAD data will work best into this process.
Companies that are integrating AM into their production processes have been successful by carefully choosing what products should be created through AM, while retaining traditional production methods for other parts that have different needs, requirements etc.
Companies moving into AM might find that old ways of defining design specifications and materials are about to turn on their heads. Typically, I find that if I ask a design engineer for the specifications on a part he will show me the materials sheet, not the actual requirements.
AM can turn this around – set the engineering specifications and then find a material that will meet that requirement. Value in the product was just lost by not applying the requirements that should be used.
And finally, don’t forget that AM technology and materials are constantly being improved, changed and updated. Even if there is not a suitable material for your needs now, chances are good that in quick time, an applicable material will become available.
Before taking over as the vice president of Aerospace & Defense, MANTEC & Program Development for 3D Systems, Jim Williams served as president and CEO of Paramount Industries. He currently chairs NAMII’s Executive Committee and Governance Board.