When many people think of additive manufacturing (AM), they think of rapid prototyping. After all, 3D printing is synonymous with AM, and 3D printers have increasingly appeared in schools and homes as the technology has matured and become more affordable.
But the technology hasn’t just become cheaper — it’s become more advanced, and that advancement has opened the door to full production capabilities that can deliver tangible benefits to manufacturers.
Let’s be clear: Despite all the advances in AM, there are still situations where it makes more sense to use traditional manufacturing methods. But for an increasing number of small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs), AM can deliver innovation, quality and scheduling advantages that can pay immediate dividends, as well as put your business on a successful trajectory for the future.
How do you determine if — and where — AM can provide benefits to your business? Here is a framework, based on extensive research conducted by the MEP National NetworkTM, a national organization of manufacturing experts dedicated to advising small and medium-sized manufacturers, which can help you make informed decisions.
4 Factors for Evaluating Additive Manufacturing
Four key areas will help you determine whether AM is right for your business and provide a structure to appraise its applicable benefits:
One of AM’s key benefits is its ability to achieve highly intricate geometries and small organic features that would otherwise be extremely difficult or impossible to produce with traditional manufacturing approaches.
Additionally, AM can enable multi-part assemblies to be combined into a single design. An example of this is General Electric’s work on its fuel nozzle tip at the GE Aviation plant in Auburn, Alabama. Previously, its fuel nozzle tip comprised about 20 separate pieces manufactured by traditional methods which were welded together. By switching to additive manufacturing, GE was able to produce the fuel nozzle tip as a complete, singular part in a fraction of the time and without the waste generated by individual sub-assembled pieces. Perhaps more importantly, the simpler design reduced weight, improved fuel burn by 20%and achieved 10% more power.
However, in rare cases where extreme precision is required, or when your product has very simple geometries, traditional manufacturing is still the way to go.
Many small and medium-sized manufacturers are unable to move forward with projects because they simply can’t meet a minimum-quantity threshold for financial feasibility. Additive manufacturing offers a possible solution: It is a great option for low-volume production because it does not require as much upfront investment from a tooling standpoint.
This kind of small-batch, specialized manufacturing is becoming increasingly commonplace in industry. However, traditional manufacturing with CNC machining and injection molding is often still more cost-efficient for high-volume production.
Project Schedules and Revisions
One oft-overlooked benefit of AM is its potential logistical impact.
Additive manufacturing cycles are faster than traditional manufacturing cycles, which decreases lead times. A prototype can be quickly created, tested, revised and finalized for production in a fraction of the time required by a comparative traditional manufacturing cycle. Or, multiple design options can easily be produced and tested at the same time, to ensure your customers are receiving exactly what they need without starting from scratch each time.
This quicker turnaround time also unlocks the door for rapid customization for multiple clients — i.e., a part’s design can be quickly tweaked to meet the needs of different customers, prototyped on the spot for review and testing, be revised, and made ready for production.
Additive manufacturing offers a variety of materials for molding, casting, and machining and the list is constantly growing. Currently, the most popular materials include thermoset polymers, polypropylene-like resins and rubber-like resins.
There is also a range of plastics, from commonplace materials like PLA (polylactic acid, a vegetable-based plastic) and ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, a plastic used in toys and keyboard caps) to heavier materials like polycarbonate, nylon, Ultem® (a semi-transparent plastic resistant to heat) and a slew of composites.
Metallic options such as stainless steels, gold, titanium, aluminum, alloys and Inconels (nickel-chromium super alloys that are resistant to oxidation and corrosion) are also available, where direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) melts metal powders with a laser and layers them together to create everything from jewelry to aircraft parts.
Additionally, emerging specialty materials are being researched and used, such as gypsum, ceramics and silicone. The Hershey Company is even 3D printing with chocolate!
Additive Manufacturing Expertise at Your Fingertips
Incorporating additive manufacturing into your manufacturing mix can be a challenging project. Even after analyzing your business through the framework above, it’s one thing to imagine how AM could transform your plant, and quite another thing to make the jump. Luckily, there are resources to guide you through the process, from planning to implementation, such as the MEP National Network, which has been advising U.S. manufacturers on the adoption of new technologies and processes for over 30 years.
A network of state-based Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) Centers, such as Catalyst Connection, the MEP National Network unites experts across the country that have a common mission to support small and medium-sized manufacturers as they explore advanced manufacturing technologies such as additive manufacturing, helping manufacturers determine if, when and where adopting new technologies makes sense for their organizations.
If you’re ready to explore additive manufacturing, contact your local MEP Center and let their experts help you discover whether the technology makes sense for your business — today and in the future.
Connie Palucka is the vice president of consulting at Catalyst Connection, part of the MEP National Network. She has over 25 years of global sales, business development, and product development experience, and works with America Makes, a public-private collaborative partner in additive manufacturing technology research, discovery, creation and innovation.