Manufacturers seem to have split into two groups when it comes to additive manufacturing (AM):
- Large companies that were early adopters and evangelize its transformative benefits
- Smaller manufacturers who are cautiously trying to determine if AM is worth the investment.
During my work at Catalyst Connection, a nonprofit manufacturing consultancy that’s part of the MEP National NetworkTM, I’ve organized numerous presentations to raise awareness among small and medium-sized manufacturers to help them understand AM so they can think about concrete business applications.
Because the group of manufacturers who are exploring AM is huge, I’ve given dozens of seminars and webinars on the topic. Often, many of the same questions come up, which I thought I’d share to help inform any company cautiously contemplating AM adoption.
1. What kind of learning curve exists for companies that adopt AM?
If a company is currently using 2D AutoCAD, they’ve got a pretty steep adoption curve in front of them. Organizations need to embrace 3D CAD to print 3D parts. There’s simply no way to 3D-print something based solely on a 2D drawing. The drawing must be converted to a 3D CAD model. But once a manufacturer has surmounted that 3D CAD learning curve, they will discover many amazing new doors open to them.
2. How should manufacturers begin experimenting with AM?
The easiest way to gain exposure to AM is prototyping. Once a part is designed in 3D, it’s fairly simple to print it. But while there’s no faster or better way to create a prototype than 3D printing, AM is rapidly evolving from prototyping to production. With AM, you can produce small runs of tools, jigs and fixtures — even runs of just one or two pieces — eliminating the prohibitive time and expense incurred by using traditional manufacturing methods for short runs.
3. What is the perfect scenario for a company to benefit from AM?
The perfect scenario is one that’s supported by three essential elements. The first is identifying the right part or application that will benefit from AM. After that’s established, the other elements are determining the required material for the application and the best AM technology match.
4. How does an AM-produced part compare to one that is cast or forged?
In general, AM-produced parts exceed the specs and requirements of one produced by casting, but do not quite reach the quality level of a forged part.
5. How can machine shops reap benefits similar to discrete product manufacturers?
Additive manufacturing can save machine shops a lot of time and money through something as simple as fixtures used during product finishing. Machine shops often need to work on parts with unusual geometries that are unwieldy, and a custom fixture can be quickly produced and implemented to secure a part during finishing.
6. If a manufacturer is thinking about a metal additive application, should they start with plastic, or just dive right in with metal?
As a general rule, we encourage people to iterate and validate the geometry with plastics because it’s more cost effective. If, however, you plan to go straight into functional testing, then you should use metal right out of the gate.
7. How do manufacturers know when it’s the right time to buy an AM machine?
It comes down to conducting an ROI calculation comparing sourcing versus buying your own system. Just remember that when you do these types of projections, it’s important to make a holistic assessment: include items such as equipment maintenance and upkeep costs, as well as associated training investments.
And figuring out how long it takes to recoup your investment is just half the equation. The other half is strategic. Ask yourself: Is AM something that you need or want to have as part of your organization? Are you comfortable utilizing service providers or do you have concerns about proprietary designs staying in house?
That being said, I always recommend that if you’re just producing a handful of parts, you don’t want to buy yet. Move up the AM learning curve using someone else’s equipment, and reassess once you have the experience to understand what is possible.
8. Are there AM training programs available to educate employees?
Organizations such as Tooling U-SME offer a number of classes that explain the fundamental concepts of AM. Underwriters Laboratories, the safety certification company, offers a three-tiered curriculum that guides participants through foundational industry knowledge to in-depth, hands-on experiential learning. And America Makes offers its Advanced Curriculum in Additive Design, Engineering, and Manufacturing Innovation (ACADEMI) program with a “Metals Design for Additive Manufacturing” course. A number of universities across the country are also developing and offering curricula to both students and incumbent workers.
If the answers to these questions lead to deeper questions about how additive manufacturing can benefit your business — or if you have any that aren’t covered here — contact your local MEP Center to talk to an expert on AM and other advanced manufacturing technologies.
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.