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How 3D Printing Is Revolutionizing Manufacturing

Mon, 04/28/2014 - 3:25pm
Bruce Bradshaw

With traditional manufacturing methods, it’s not practical to manufacture a single item or short run of products — it’s simply too expensive, in terms of both time and money. Securing factory space, setting up a production line, and procuring jigs and fixtures all incur substantial costs that can’t be justified for a few items.

But what if there were a way to fill those needs — a handful of parts to restock low inventory, a specialized tool or three prototypes for testing — for far less expense? And what if those items could be created overnight, in-house, in a hands-off process? That’s exactly what 3D printing technology offers manufacturers. The freedom to test out more ideas; to make exactly what’s needed, whenever it’s needed; to customize parts and tools for unique applications; and ultimately, to make better products. The Design Series and Production Series of 3D Printers from Stratasys can help manufacturers create detailed prototypes, essential manufacturing tools, and durable end-use parts — without sharing confidential design information or waiting weeks for items to be shipped.

PROTOTYPES: GETTING IT RIGHT FROM THE START

With an in-house 3D printer, manufacturers can inexpensively produce multiple iterations of a design. Modern printing technology, which includes multi-material modeling, creates realistic prototypes that replicate everything from flexible rubber grips to rigid transparent panels. These accurate models give manufacturers the opportunity to identify problems and perfect the details of their designs before moving forward.

Catching design errors before committing to a production run can yield big savings, but there’s another benefit to using 3D printing at this early stage: When prototype production is quick, inexpensive, and readily accessible, designers make more prototypes to test their ideas thoroughly.

One example I like to use is If I’m not quite sure how I want my part to flex, I print five different versions overnight, and I put them in the hands of designers, engineers, or even end-users, and I ask, Which one provides the best functionality, grip, and comfort? When they get critical feedback in the real world early in the development process, manufacturers are able to bring products to market faster, and with significantly improved designs.

The feedback is almost uniform across every customer who owns a Stratasys 3D Printer for longer than six months. Across the board, customers decrease their time to market with products, and the other part — the tangible part — is the increased quality of their designs.

OUTSOURCED OR HOMEMADE?

Often, manufacturers that outsource their 3D printing to a service bureau don’t see the value of owning a 3D printer until they try it. Fender Musical Instruments, known for its iconic guitars, has decreased its time to market by 40 percent by moving to in-house 3D printing. The switch from using a service bureau meant that instead of waiting as long as two weeks for a prototype, Fender designers can produce one overnight. In addition, Fender found that it was ultimately half as expensive to produce their own prototypes — it typically costs just $4 to $6 per cubic inch to produce a part on a Stratasys 3D Printer.

But the question of where to have prototypes made doesn’t have to be an either/or choice. Some customers own one or more Stratasys 3D Printers, and opt to supplement their production by outsourcing to a service bureau such as RedEye, a division of Stratasys with production facilities around the globe, when they need extra capacity or a larger build size than their own machine can accommodate.

TOOLS: MAKING THE THINGS THAT MAKE THINGS

3D printing is making a significant impact in manufacturing today, but due to its lack of “headline” appeal in the media, applications such as injection molding and jigs and fixtures are being overlooked. Many manufacturing tools can be created with 3D printing more quickly, and less expensively, than with traditional methods. Molds, templates, jigs and fixtures — all can be ready for use in hours, not weeks. Ryan Sybrant, Business Development Manager at Stratasys, noted that this is one of the fastest-growing applications for 3D printing. “These functional tools help us do our jobs and lead to more factory-floor efficiency by reducing labor costs and manufacturing time,” he explained.

A PATH TO SAVINGS — AND SPEED

“Jigs, fixtures, guides, gauges, etc., are usually produced in very low quantities, so they are expensive,” explained Terry Wohlers, 3D printing expert and President of the independent consulting firm Wohlers Associates. “3D printing is often better at producing low volumes compared to conventional manufacturing, so companies can reduce time and cost.”

“When you look at the price of a lot of manufacturing equipment out there — especially in injection molding — or if you decide to outsource that for tooling, that can be extremely expensive,” confirmed Sybrant.

Take a car company for example that contracts with an overseas firm to get the tools for a new manufacturing line. When the tools are delivered three months later, there are tolerance problems that require changes. There’s a huge expense associated with that.

Thanks to the flexibility of 3D printing, manufacturers can create their own tools as a permanent solution or as a stopgap measure. For example, a manufacturer who has to wait weeks for an injection mold to arrive can produce that mold in-house and take advantage of bridge manufacturing to get to market sooner.

Maybe a company’s long-term plan is for 100,000 widgets, but I can’t get a conventional mold made in time for the holiday season. With a 3D printer, I can print a mold that allows me to produce 500 or 1,000 to get my widget on the shelves just in time for the holiday rush, while waiting for my tool that I need to produce large volumes.

REPLACING HEAVY METAL

Traditionally, tooling has been crafted from metal using techniques such as milling. It’s an expensive, time-consuming process that often must be outsourced to a machine shop. By opting for 3D printed plastic tooling instead, manufacturers can save money, put the tool into use on the factory floor sooner, and even improve its design for greater efficiency and better ergonomics. Because 3D printing can create designs that cannot be manufactured by milling, tools can incorporate enclosed hollow areas that reduce material use and weight. Plastic tools are also lighter than their metal counterparts by nature, a benefit that can reduce worker fatigue.

“If you’re replacing a metal tool that someone on a factory floor is lifting every day, you can reduce the weight by 50 to 70 percent — that means a lot,” Sybrant explained. “That person is going to be more efficient throughout the day, they’re not going to have the burnout, and you can find so many applications just by walking on a floor and seeing how people are utilizing it.”

THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE JOB

“A 3D printed tool can last as long as the metal version, but you do have to understand what the best usage is for the technology,” said Sybrant. “We’re not saying 3D printing is going to cannibalize CNC or injection molding, but for applications when you can use it to optimize production and be more economical, it’s absolutely the right choice.”

Modern materials yield sturdy 3D printed tools that can resist petroleum, solvents and temperatures of up to 390°F. “There are tools that have been on factory floors for years,” Sybrant affirmed. “But if a tool does wear out or break, a replacement can be created overnight.”

That speed also gives manufacturers a new workflow option: digital warehousing. Instead of storing an infrequently used metal tool, workers can print a plastic version, recycle it when the need has passed, then print another from the stored digital file. “Inventory space is a luxury, and it costs time and money to track tools all the time,” Sybrant noted.

PARTS: END-USE QUALIT Y WITHOUT THE FACTORY

In addition to prototypes and tooling, modern 3D printing technology can produce durable, stable end-use parts — bypassing the production line altogether. The Production Series from Stratasys uses a range of materials, including high-performance thermoplastics, to create parts with predictable mechanical, chemical, and thermal properties.

“Low-volume production is a market segment that traditionally hasn’t been covered well,” Sybrant noted. “Most injection molding houses, for example, won’t take an order under a set number of components, or they charge a high fee to make it worth their while. It often makes more sense to complete the job in-house instead.”

Boeing, for example, makes aircraft for multiple airlines. Although the plane itself is essentially the same from one order to the next, the interiors vary; as a result, a particular air duct may bend to the right instead of upward. They don’t want to have to go have a $40,000 tool made overseas to create just 25 of these parts. They’re better off printing them off their 3D printer and using them as a finished part directly on the aircraft.

THE MAGIC NUMBER

What size of production run is appropriate for a 3D printing process? “That depends on the size of the items,” explained Sybrant, who has seen production runs for 2,500 pieces. Wohlers said, “It is usually in the tens or hundreds, but the quantity can vary greatly, depending on the value, size and complexity of the parts.”

“You’re not just building one [part] at a time,” Sybrant pointed out. “We have one example of an avionics company that prints toroid housings, and they can print 500 at a time with our largest machine, and it’s an overnight build. They have requirements in the thousands... it takes basically three runs, and they’ve got the inventory that they need.”

No matter how many pieces are being printed, each can be unique; there is no requirement of consistency, as there is on a manufacturing line. Sybrant continued, “If each one of those 500 pieces had to be slightly different, you can still have all 500 in one run. The 3D printer doesn’t care what geometry you’re putting in there.”

As Wohlers explained, “[The items in a single run] can be similar yet different, as in the case of dental copings (for crowns and bridges), plastic dental aligners (for straightening teeth), and in-the-ear hearing aids. With these examples, thousands of parts are produced, yet each one is unique in shape and size.”

“We’re seeing a real big area of growth in mass customization,” said Sybrant, “and the reason why we’re seeing that growth is because now they have tools that allow them to do this cost-effectively. Everybody wants something different, everybody wants something that’s more their style these days.”

VERSATILITY: BENEFITS FOR MANUFACTURERS OF ALL SIZES

Being able to manufacture with the 3D printer cuts across every industry, from medical devices to consumer goods to automotive and beyond.

The neat thing about 3D printers is, they don’t discriminate. There are reasons that large organizations, like a Boeing or a large automotive manufacturer, can benefit from 3D printers — but also for smaller companies, it allows them to compete with the 10,000-pound gorilla in their space, if you will, because they can actually be more agile and possibly be quicker to market than their competitors are. In a lot of cases — and this cuts across both large companies and small companies — it can lower their cost to get to market and improve the quality of the designs. It helps both ends of the spectrum compete much better than they could otherwise.

Sybrant said, “The company range, from small to medium-size to large, are all benefiting from it. You’ve got a lot of startups that don’t have a lot of CAPEX to spend. Our most expensive machine is around $650,000 and we have a host of about 20 machines that are available for significantly less that fit a variety of applications and markets.”

“Everybody’s utilizing it,” Sybrant continued. “How they’re utilizing it is a little bit different, but the main thing is that they’re using it to make them- selves more cost-effective, bring stuff to market faster, and become a much more efficient company overall.”

These goals are universal: Regardless of their size or their focus, all manufacturers need to improve their product quality and their speed to market and the prototyping, tool creation. Short-run production capabilities of 3D printing technology can help them do just that.

The value of prototyping is becoming better understood, but it’s combining the needs of manufacturing with prototyping that makes 3D printing an essential tool for organizations to be agile and competitive in today’s rapidly changing world.

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