One of the negative side effects resulting from the past couple of years of media hype around 3D printing has been an over emphasis on the past and the future, with much less emphasis on the present. Right here and now in 2016 the impact of 3D printing on the global manufacturing industry and its supply chain is significant, but not as significant as it could be for a 30 year old industry. It’s an overlooked fact, and it bugs me that much of the current value of these technologies gets overlooked in favour of plastic trinkets (destination land-fill site) or futuristic innovations of 3D printing that will potentially enrich our lives in ways we can only imagine — and we dedicate inordinate amounts of time — and column inches — relaying such imaginings!
Don’t get me wrong, I love quite a lot of those trinkets (a fair number grace my home and litter my children’s bedrooms). Moreover, the potential of 3D printing never fails to inspire me. My main bugbear here is that the real nitty-gritty of 3D printing for manufacturing applications today gets lost amid the noise. For companies that could — and should — benefit from 3D printing across the enterprise and supply chain, the noise can have an off-putting effect on uptake.
Everyone forgets the supply chain, here’s why
Worse, when industrial applications are the primary focus, the go-to stories are generally centred around innovative prototyping or manufacturing end-use parts. There are still big chunks of the manufacturing chain that don’t get a look in — there are many more applications across production lines where 3D printing can add value and reduce time and costs.
With a history spanning the best part of three decades now, the 3D printing industry has its origins in prototyping applications and today it does remain the most wide spread application, and it is still growing. Indeed, the first additive processes (Stereolithography, Selective Laser Sintering and Fused Deposition Modelling) were all labelled “Rapid Prototyping” (RP) technologies.
This was because the nature of the rudimentary platforms and the even more rudimentary plastic materials were suitable only for temporary concept development prototypes. They would then typically deform, break, discolour (or all of the above), within days of coming off the machine.
R&D into improving platforms and strengthening materials saw Rapid Prototyping evolving into Rapid Tooling, Rapid Casting and Rapid Manufacturing during the nineties and early noughties. The irony here is, at the time, there was nothing “rapid” about these technologies when compared with traditional alternatives or technologies in situ at their manufacturing. And, now that they can, the RapidX terminology is considered dated and old fashioned but would actually be useful for discourse and understanding of additive capabilities.
The application doesn’t have to be flashy to be impactful
Focusing in on 3D printing for casting and tooling applications has less appeal for the media and the world at large for sure; but there is a huge swathe of businesses where just such a focus can open up myriad opportunities. These applications are the bread & butter applications that will ensure the 3D printing industry continues to grow significantly in the near and mid term — before we all get accustomed to printing our houses, cars, and kidneys.
Ok, I may be sinking to the lowest form of wit there, but coming back to the title of this post, there are many companies out there now, some of them among the earliest adopters of 3D printing / additive manufacturing, that have certainly already made 3D printing in manufacturing a reality. However, this is but a small fraction in the context of the entire global manufacturing sector.
Many early adopters of industrial 3D printing now take the improvements of speed and agility for prototyping within their early product development processes for granted at the form, fit, and functional stages. However, long-term users and new users of additive technologies for prototyping are also reaping the benefits of developing innovative products based on complex shapes that could not have been considered without the capabilities of 3D printing.
Just one excellent — and current — example is Aleph1 Audio, where designers were able to “address age-old issues in loudspeaker design.” Rather than tinker with the status quo, 3D printing technologies have enabled a ground up rethink of effective design for improving acoustic solutions. The economic benefits and reduced time to market are not unwelcome either.
Prototyping is good, but there is more
Thinking beyond prototyping is the key to drilling deeper into the manufacturing enterprise however, where additive technologies can, and are, being strategically applied to create tool masters, investment casting patterns, tool inserts, low volume injection moulding /production tooling and, of course, customized and directly 3D printed jigs, fixtures, and end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) used on the production line.
It is hard to overstate just how great an impact that industrial 3D printing can have across the entire manufacturing supply chain, but there are a couple of issues that prevent widespread coverage in the way that the potential to directly print biomedical and supercar applications (for example) are covered — these applications are largely invisible, and let’s be honest, they’re not as pretty. But they are valuable — in time and currency. This is not to say that industrial 3D printing can fix every manufacturing problem, but, the chances are, it can go some way to help!
Too good to be true? Not when there’s empirical data
I believe that another challenge is “the believeability factor.” There are actually increasing numbers of published examples of industrial 3D printing that demonstrate vast savings in time and money that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) struggle to believe. Take just one example of a company (Pryer) that switched out traditional injection moulding tooling for an FDM tool that served exactly the same purpose as effectively. The 3D printed tool was ready in a week, compared with the traditional 2 month lead time, and it cost 75% less. Seems almost unbelievable, right?
It seems to me that the old adage “if it seems to good to be true, it probably is,” is being subliminally applied by companies faced with these figures when, in actual fact, it shouldn’t. This is not something that can be addressed in marketing materials — this needs a one company at a time approach. Not something that can happen quickly.
But, it is happening. I heard recently of a mid-sized pharmaceutical company that has been researching industrial 3D printing in terms of adopting an enterprise wide strategy. To date, by all accounts, this company with multiple locations and 4000+ employees, makes use of a couple of desktop 3D printers. They now believe the time is right to get serious about industrial 3D printing, and have hired someone to make that happen.
Reality is the central point of this post
3D printing in manufacturing is real today and not just at the beginning and the end of the manufacturing process, but all the way through. Talking of the end of the process — in terms of 3D printing being used as a production process, there are early signs and some examples of this being a significant growth area for additive tech. However that is a post for another day.
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