Nearly all supply chains are experiencing stress coming out of the pandemic, even if only in transportation of their products. Labor, materials, capital and strength of dependent networks are holding back many industries from meeting the surge in demand for goods and services.
As industrial supply chains look hard at their current production, shipping and sourcing strategies, it’s no surprise that some are reviewing their Just-in-Time (JIT) and inventory-on-hand practices. While they handle more macro issues of working capital and orders on the horizon, these companies are also looking to tune their existing approaches as best as possible. A very real option, going forward, is to use additive manufacturing (3D printing) more aggressively to sharpen the agile and flexible manufacturing tactics already in place. Additive is ideal for one-off parts, short production runs, and near on-demand fulfilment.
Why is it time for additive?
Additive is quickly evolving from a prototyping and special applications manufacturing process to one that can authentically fit on many factory floors alongside CNC. Even average industrial-strength additive systems can do direct part replacement of non-mission-critical parts for many industries; many additive vendors use their own machines to create components for their systems.
When considering the economics of additive in this role, manufacturers of all stripes should weigh, in comparison, the cost of tooling, along with volume and time requirements. Shorter product lifecycles often favor additive for agile production. Moreover, parts may be scaled-up or down in production to address unstable demand. Additive in many cases also has superior metallurgical traits.
Before I address the opportunities for additive in agile manufacturing, let me address the concerns. We have long preached about the possibilities of additive for mass customization and fast, short production. Yet leaders in aerospace and energy, for example, have been skeptical about additive quality and production repeatability. Early adopters turned away because additive could not meet the most innovative and demanding requirements—if at all—without redesign and compromise, exhaustive parameter experiments and calibration, poor early yields, individual-part monitoring and repeated testing.
This still continues to be the case for many legacy additive systems trying to produce high-value, high-performance components and assemblies. However, the more advanced additive systems are now achieving these desirable outcomes through optimized build-chamber dynamics and user-friendly automation. Guidelines are being introduced by NASA and others on material parameters and production metrics. Advanced additive systems now conduct real-time, in-situ, process monitoring and control—delivering critical quality and repeatability for novel designs that simply couldn’t be achieved in the past.
OEMs, because of their size, complexity and asset strategies often move at slower speeds to address crisis and new technology acquisition. They are adept, however, at leveraging their supply chains. Contract manufacturers often have flexible, agile manufacturing practices in place to utilize the capabilities that additive can provide in direct-part replacements. In the supply crisis, for example, long-order cast components for the aviation industry could be delivered rapidly, allowing that industry to regain some footing and cut costs. Little or no design adjustment is needed to adapt additive for these products.
Existing parts—where assembly and finishing costs, along with quality, have been an issue—can use additive for transforming single-part assemblies into efficient, multi-functional components. This has been proven to dramatically shrink supply chain strings, reduce costs and cut production time. It’s also ideal for the scalable, order-to-demand tactics needed for our current and future economy.
Lastly, advanced additive systems can help redefine markets with blank-slate, novel and fully optimized designs. Additive is needed for the unheard-of performance we now expect from jet engines, power-generation impellers and other aerospace, oil & gas, and alternative-energy products. We are seeing additive radically move the performance markers in these industries—and quickly. Mohawk Innovative Technology, Inc., for example, working on a new type of s-CO2 system for a DOE solar-power project, greatly increased the efficiency of its system and found cost savings of two-and-a-half times that of making such a component using traditional casting methods.
There is a lot to say about the state of additive today and the need for better production efficiency in the nation. Early additive manufacturing alliances and contract manufacturer networks are beginning to make realistic contributions to distributed manufacturing, scalable, on-demand product delivery, and repeatable production. In fact, the manufacturing infrastructure is positioned, hungry, and ready to go.
Benny Buller is founder and CEO, Velo3D.