Additive manufacturing goes mainstream

There’s little doubt that the adoption of 3D printing technology is gaining momentum. Although much of the market activity and press coverage tend to lean towards the “makers” community and small scale, sometimes esoteric, applications and upstart companies, mainstream manufacturing companies are adopting additive manufacturing at a growing pace, and for good reasons.

first-3D-printed-jet-engine

Product companies use 3D printing to accelerate new product development and produce customized or limited-run products, and, in particular, parts with complex geometry that are difficult or even impossible to manufacture using traditional processes and tools.

But progress in industrial additive manufacturing is very uneven. While printing parts made out of plastic and other resins is quite pervasive, metal scintillation and printing ceramic parts requires more sophisticated printing devices and higher level of expertise, and is not as common. 3D printer vendors and manufacturing companies continue to explore new materials and additive manufacturing technologies.

While there may not be a consensus among analysts and technologists about the pace of advancement in 3D printing and its long term impact on the manufacturing industry, there is no doubt that its adoption will continue and accelerate.

“3D printing will change manufacturing as we know it”

Breathless headlines from the press and pundits that describe how additive manufacturing is changing and even threatening traditional manufacturing are oblivious to some of the challenges and practices of real world industrial manufacturing.

An essential element of manufacturing is serialization—assigning each part a unique identifier that can be used to trace its origin and history. Part traceability is critical in effective quality management, supplier management and recall campaigns. When parts are printed willy-nilly, manufacturers are unable to control the quality and distribution of these parts and, in fact, may be liable to damage or harm caused by inferior quality products.

Controlling the quality of parts printed at the point of consumption isn’t simple. First, the finish quality of 3D-printed parts isn’t as perfect as it appears in glossy magazine pictures. These parts have to be deburred and finished, and, consequently, verified to conform to dimensional tolerances. Absent a serial number and a centralized manufacturing quality system, these activities cannot be traced and verified should the need arise. In fact, the quality management process should also be able to confirm the qualification and certification of the technician performing the quality assessment, as well as the maintenance and calibration history of the printer – for instance, was the resin filament at the correct temperature when it was deposited?

And speaking of resins and other materials used in additive manufacturing, the final quality of a 3D-printed part depends not only on the printing process itself, but also on consistent quality of the raw printing material. Here, again, a quality management system is needed in order to associate the manufactured part with the batch number of the printing material, which, in all likelihood, isn’t tracked.

Finally, lack of serialization leaves the door wide open to IP theft and part counterfeiting, and manufacturing companies face increased risk of revenue leakage and liability exposure from poor quality parts.

Additive manufacturing goes mainstream

Additive manufacturing in many product companies isn’t integrated with the main manufacturing process. Too often it is considered an experimental process that is utilized in special projects to produce bespoke part designs. Although this posture helps in funding projects and improving the technology, it may also delay the transition of 3D printing as a mainstream manufacturing process.

3D printing technology vendors and researchers will continue to improve the technology. Manufacturing companies need to develop the necessary workflows and practices to address the supply chain gaps and move from “special projects” to mainstream production.

Mature manufacturing companies should not find mainstreaming 3D printing too difficult. Part serialization will allow the incorporation of parts, even if manufactured at the time and point of consumption, into the enterprise ERP and MRP backbone: quality management, supplier management, service and warranty management.