Rapid advancements in the world of “additive manufacturing” and 3D printing have opened up incredible possibilities for businesses, small and large. Bringing manufacturing in-house, smaller businesses can not only print their own product prototypes, but in some cases even take on the larger runs of finished product manufacturing — ready for the final consumer. As for larger enterprises, AM can provide improved manufacturing methods, making them more efficient, reducing waste and being able to handle more advanced production runs.
This gives companies a lot of control in their manufacturing process, and can have some significant benefits to the bottom line.
Why additive manufacturing?
Additive manufacturing (AM) refers to the technology and process of creating 3D objects layer by layer. Materials like plastic, metal, concrete and even biological tissues can be used to create a final product — almost anything you can dream of creating. More broadly, AM includes technologies like 3D printing, rapid prototyping (RP) and direct digital manufacturing (DDM), and requires computers with 3D modeling software, machine equipment and one or more of those layering materials.
Leading manufacturers in the aerospace, healthcare and manufacturing industries are forging new paths and seeing serious benefits by adopting AM. These industries are continually looking for ways to improve customer value through better products, while also cutting costs. In the right situation, these companies see the potential to meet or exceed direct costs from traditional manufacturing.
Advancements in AM increasingly enable companies to produce more complex and customized parts in a way that traditional manufacturing may not be able to produce. In Manitoba, organizations like North Forge Technology Exchange offer access to fabrication labs, allowing people a chance to get their hands dirty and try out some of the new manufacturing tech in the space.
As AM is offering companies of all sizes an opportunity to innovate, there are a few areas to help evaluate your own business case for the new technology. Of course, cost is a major consideration when selecting the right manufacturing method, but there are also trade-offs between the size of production, speed to market, quality and other considerations.
Cost and volume
According to research from Loughborough University, AM can compete with traditional manufacturing and injection molding (IM) methods when levels of production are up to 14,000 parts. That gives your manufacturing a lot of leeway, especially with relatively small production runs. However, that’s not to say that AM can’t handle higher production runs. Further analysis demonstrates the economic benefits of AM production for small electrical components in runs up to 121,000 pieces.
In the past, most direct cost comparisons were between IM and the production of relatively small plastic parts. Now, direct cost comparisons are being shown between AM and traditional manufacturing methods — and they consistently point to key differentiators.
- The cost of tooling (creating the actual tools, cutting jigs and injection molds that will be used to make the product) can far outweigh the unit cost of each additional part. Beyond just your production, tooling must be maintained, stored and often tracked over long periods of time.
- Machine costs tend to take up the majority of the cost structures for AM.
- New product-capable 3D printers can be very expensive. Build volume is critical on these printers to sufficiently pack the production envelope.
- Materials costs can be about 30 per cent higher with AM compared to traditional methods such as IM.
- Material recyclability drives cost as well.
Speed to market
Although AM is innovative, it can also be perceived as slow — particularly in the case of single-object builds. 3D printing simply isn’t meant for mass production yet, as every detail of product models must be printed in thousands of layers. Remember that the parts produced are "near net shape,” meaning they are ready for production as opposed to being just a prototype. That single process must account for all the steps that would have been related to casting, machining and other equivalent processing for more traditional approaches — and that takes time.
However, time to market can be accelerated through faster design iterations and accelerated product modification. Time can also be saved through reductions in changeover — the time it takes to change the tooling in the manufacturing process — since AM tooling can often reduce the steps in casting, machining and other related methods of traditional methods.
All of these speed improvements can mean better market responsiveness. In addition, market risk may be reduced since manufacturers can make minor product adjustments faster and gain a greater acceptance of their product in the market.
AM lets designers focus on supporting the intended function of an object rather than on its manufacturability. For example, a part can be designed so it is lighter weight by eliminating excess material, as opposed to choosing a design solely to meet certain manufacturing specs.
An example by Mark Cotteleer, Deloitte's Research Director, shows that AM used in the aerospace industry can reduce component weight by 30 to 35 per cent and eliminate up to 90 per cent of material used. In one specific example, an aircraft manufacturer redesigned a generic bracket by using AM, and that was estimated to save 22 pounds per aircraft. Such savings, even on the simplest components, can translate into drastic returns.
Manufacturers should also consider the implications of product redesign, with or without attempting supply chain changes, in order to truly understand where AM represents a viable production technology. In some cases it may not be viable, so it is important to complete a fair analysis. This can be done by comparing the costs for 3D printing parts to manufacturing the same parts with traditional processes.