3D printing: changing the shape of manufacturing

Although diverse 3D printing projects continue to capture the selective gaze of mainstream media, Andy Middleton, president – EMEA at Stratasys, lifts the lid on where the technology is making a more important and widespread impact.

Andy Middleton_ President, Stratasys, EMEA
Andy Middleton, president, Stratasys – EMEA.

Ask a random selection of the general public about where 3D printing – or additive manufacturing – is making its biggest impact and the answers will likely be varied.

Opinions might range from chocolate printing to the building of entire houses, to the still unchartered territory of human organ printing. Even a good number of those who have some understanding of the technology will still cite prototyping as the mainstay of its capabilities.

This is perhaps due in part to the broader news coverage, opting to highlight what are deemed the more ‘interesting’ of examples. Typically, these don’t accurately reflect the true nature or extent of 3D printing’s potential and its impact.

The truth is that, having been around for 30 years, the technology has evolved incredibly, no longer confining itself to solely offering a faster, more cost-effective method of prototyping.

Although still a significant area of use, 3D printing has developed to offer a much wider proposition to the industrial manufacturing world – particularly within sectors such as automotive, aerospace and engineering.

The factory of the future – right here and right now

For manufacturing applications, we’re seeing a tremendous uptake of 3D printing in two areas – augmented manufacturing, and alternative manufacturing.

From a commercial standpoint, this is where 3D printing is truly disrupting things, encapsulating the factory of the future concept.

This doesn’t just apply to individual businesses, but for manufacturing as a whole, which in turn creates a positive knock-on effect with the potential to affect economies.

Augmented manufacturing – disrupting manufacturing processes

Used to position; hold; protect, and organise components and sub-assemblies during the manufacturing process, tools like jigs, fixtures and guides are virtually invisible when production is running smoothly, but their importance becomes evident when problems arise.

As a result, to avoid production halts or product defects, new tools must be rapidly designed, manufactured and deployed to maintain workflow. The downside is that they are typically fabricated from metal, wood or plastic in small quantities using a manual or semi-automated process, with the result that each tool takes between one and four weeks to design and build.

Using Stratasys additive manufacturing technology, Volvo Trucks has reduced turnaround times on certain clamps, jigs and supports from 36 days to just two days
Using Stratasys additive manufacturing technology, Volvo Trucks has reduced turnaround times on certain clamps, jigs and supports from 36 days to just two days – image courtesy of Stratasys.

Furthermore, with elaborate or intricate tools sometimes requiring several cycles of design, prototyping and evaluation to attain the required performance, it’s easy to see that this can be a costly area of manufacturing from both a monetary and time perspective.

The use of 3D printing for such applications relieves the strain that would otherwise rack up costs and manufacturing lead-times and provides a fast and accurate method of producing these manufacturing tools. Using Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) 3D printing technology, the traditional fabrication process is substantially simplified, such that tool-making becomes less expensive and time consuming.

Immediate and real benefits for industry

The immediate and real benefits for manufacturers are instant improvements in productivity, efficiency and quality.

Among the assembly tools 3D printed by Opel with its Stratasys FDM 3D Printers are those used to position the roof onto vehicles
Among the assembly tools 3D printed by Opel with its Stratasys FDM 3D Printers are those used to position the roof onto vehicles – image courtesy of Stratasys.

Indeed, those companies deploying it within their operations aren’t simply replacing machinery, they are redesigning their entire production lines to make the work more efficient; accurate; fast; simple, and profitable.

In certain cases, some of our own customers have reported lead time reductions and cost savings of 90% or more. A good example is German automotive company, Opel, which 3D prints a range of manufacturing and assembly tools to advance the production of its iconic ‘Adam’ hatchback car.

A similar scenario is taking place at Volvo Trucks’ engine production facility in Lyon, France. Here, Stratasys additive manufacturing technology is employed to produce different durable – yet lightweight – clamps, jigs, supports and even ergonomically-designed tool holders that ensure a more organised working environment for operators.

A better alternative

Assembly line tools produced by Volvo Trucks with Stratasys FDM 3D printing technology include this durable, yet lightweight punching tool
Assembly line tools produced by Volvo Trucks with Stratasys FDM 3D printing technology include this durable, yet lightweight punching tool – image courtesy of Stratasys.

The continued evolution of 3D printing will continue to come from applications where it offers a more efficient process to traditional manufacturing. For example, for the production of low volume quantities or on-demand parts that improve supply chain workflows.

The acknowledged holy grail of 3D printing – alternative manufacturing – has established itself as a genuine substitute to challenge traditional methods of production – something we continue to see demonstrated by our customers.

This is underscored by major aerospace giant, Airbus, which uses more than 1,000 end-use flight-ready parts in place of traditionally manufactured parts in its A350 XWB aircraft programme.

By using our additive manufacturing technology, the company is able to reduce supply chain risk by rapidly manufacture strong, lighter weight parts almost on-demand and increase supply chain flexibility – thereby substantially reducing production time and manufacturing costs.

Airbus has produced more than 1000 flight parts on its Stratasys FDM 3D Production Systems for use in the first-of-type A350 XWB aircraft
Airbus has produced more than 1,000 flight parts on its Stratasys FDM 3D Production Systems for use in the first-of-type A350 XWB aircraft – image courtesy of Stratasys.

Boldly going where no 3D printed parts have gone before

Meanwhile, our partnership with rocket manufacturer, United Launch Alliance (ULA), has seen our FDM 3D printing technology used to produce 3D printed parts in place of metal parts on the company’s Atlas V rocket, which was launched into space earlier this year.

Using 3D printing, ULA consolidated part count from 140 to 16 parts for one complex assembly, significantly reducing installation time and resulting in a 57% part-cost reduction. According to ULA, switching to manufacture components using 3D printing has contributed to annual savings of up to US$1m.

Despite having turned a corner, the manufacturing sectors of many Western countries are still bearing the brunt of recent challenging economic climes. The fortunes and indeed long term success of individual companies will play a huge role in safeguarding the sector’s continued passage into calmer waters.

Looking ahead, I believe that the positive impact of 3D printing within manufacturing and the way in which an increasing number of companies are adopting this efficiency-driving, cost-reducing technology will be instrumental to supporting this.