3D printing: what impact will the technology have on manufacturing?

Posted on 1 Nov 2023 by The Manufacturer

As 3D printing/additive manufacturing continues to transform processes for companies large and small, we take a deep dive into the technology with one of the largest providers in the industry.

Here, the Chief Industrial Business Officer at Stratasys, Rich Garrity, gives The Manufacturer his take on where and how 3D printing is making an impact, the challenges it solves and what the future holds.

Stratasys is a world leader in manufacturing polymer 3D printing – or additive manufacturing (AM) – solutions for the entire production cycle. Via smart and connected 3D printers powered by industrial-grade additive technologies, an extensive materials range and advanced software, the company is helping to re-shape how products are designed and manufactured.

Stratasys is empowering customers across various industries to quickly and cost-effectively 3D print everything from multi-material, full-colour prototypes to robust production line tooling and fit-for-purpose final end-use parts.

What are the main markets served by 3D printing/additive manufacturing technology?

Be they SMEs or major multi-nationals, AM is revolutionising practices for manufacturers in a host of sectors, including aerospace, automotive, mobility and healthcare. To offer some insight, in the automotive sector, brands can now create ultra-realistic prototype models that precisely mirror the actual final parts, injecting flexibility at the design phase, speeding up processing times and ensuring go-to-market times are met.

What’s more, as we continue to see advancements in materials, AM is now also increasingly being utilised to then produce the end-use parts themselves.

In aerospace, AM has brought forth advanced materials that meet stringent industry standards, such as those for high chemical resistance and fatigue performance. This enables companies throughout the supply chain to create all manner of tools and parts, including fully functional end-use flight parts.

Lighter than their metal counterparts, such parts help to reduce the weight of the aircraft, thereby saving thousands every year in fuel costs. Even organisations like NASA and the United Launch Alliance are leveraging AM technology to improve the way space vehicles are made.

And, proving that space isn’t the final frontier, the use of advanced 3D printing solutions within the healthcare sector are quite literally saving lives. Today, surgeons can improve patient outcomes by producing precise multi-material, full-colour 3D printed models of a patient’s anatomy that detail exactly where a tumour is located before the actual surgery, enabling them to plan and practice ahead of the operation itself.

What trends are you seeing within the industry?

A key trend we’re seeing is the ongoing evolution of 3D printing from a prototyping tool, as it was previously, to a fundamental technology for both prototyping and manufacturing. Pushing this evolution, alongside the development of the 3D printers themselves, is the rapid expansion of available materials, enabling an exponential growth of applications in an increasing number of sectors.

Another trend is the shift in conversation around AM. With the maturation of the technology, there is a more detailed focus on the process, which means the discussion is widening to look at additive design, process certification, scheduling, file preparation and other functions.

Additionally, talk of integration and automation are more commonplace, and 3D printing is now considered a large part of Industry 4.0. Like other industries, we’re starting to discuss the role of AI in driving adoption of the technology, and I’m sure this will only become a bigger focus in future.

Recent advances like Selection Absorption Fusion (SAF) technology is now enabling fast and cost-effective end-use part production

Can you explain how manufacturers can benefit from 3D printing/AM technology? How can it improve business resilience and increase agility?

Insofar as improving business resilience and agility, 3D printing by its very nature enables the production of parts exactly where you want them, when you want them and in the exact quantity required. In contrast to traditional manufacturing methods, no ramp up time or costs are incurred. 3D printing is like an electric motor – flip a switch and it’s immediately on full power.

I think this agility was exemplified during the COVID-19 pandemic when automakers like Daimler, Ford and Jaguar Land Rover used their 3D printing capabilities to pivot production and create thousands of pieces of essential PPE. Likewise, GM turned to 3D printed tooling to quickly convert production lines designed for cars into ventilator production lines.

For many manufacturers, it is the ideal solution when implementing a decentralised production model, as a global network of 3D printers can be easily managed, enabling local production of consistent parts. Moreover, it eliminates the need for tooling, and a 3D printer can effortlessly produce ten distinct items in succession just as easily as it can craft ten identical parts.

Can you explain how 3D printing technology can help manufacturers deal with the today’s challenges?

Whenever the supply chain is impacted, the lesser the dependency manufacturers have on external suppliers, the better. Businesses fully exploiting 3D printing’s capabilities reduce such dependency, enabling increased versatility and self-sufficiency to ensure continued production.

In turn, this makes for a more end-to-end sustainable production process. Manufacturers do not need to over-produce to satisfy MOQs, which means they aren’t forced to then store large physical stock in a central warehouse, which then needs to be shipped to where it’s needed, or disposed of if that stock has become obsolete before it can be used.

Digital transformation is key to realising Industry 4.0 and as I mentioned, AM is one of its core pillars, enabling the link between the digital ecosystem, enterprise resource planning and physical production.

Software advancements and automation in AM continually streamline this process, supporting the manufacturing revolution. Similarly, the automated processes are easy to learn and can free up employees for other tasks, in turn addressing skills shortages.

Does 3D printing technology pose a threat to traditional manufacturing technologies?

I don’t see 3D printing technology replacing methods like injection moulding. There are some instances in which the latter may be a more viable option, especially in instances where hundreds of thousands or more parts are required.

Our goal is to address the segment of manufacturing where AM has indisputable advantages – where its implementation could enable critical cost reductions, facilitate the production of parts that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, or make for a shorter supply chain.

To use the automotive sector as an example, our value is based on leveraging AM for certain select parts, where we know it makes business sense and can unlock important benefits – not in taking over production of the entire car.

For instance, AM has a clear advantage for short to medium runs. Traditional composite tooling is a perfect example, long associated with high costs, lengthy lead times and wasteful practices that impact overall production timelines and innovation. 3D printing, particularly Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology, enables the rapid, cost-effective production of composite moulds and tooling.

Not only this, but actual 3D printed parts can boast the same important advantages as traditionally-produced parts, such as temperature resistance, whilst also enabling reduced lead times, lightweighting and significant cost savings. It also unlocks the possibility of mass customisation, as producing unique parts is faster and more cost effective with AM than traditional methods.

However, it is also worth noting that AM is beginning to take ground in new areas that would historically have been best suited for other production methods, with recent advances like Selection Absorption Fusion (SAF) technology now enabling fast and cost-effective end-use part production in the tens of thousands and with the level of control, accuracy and consistency expected from injection moulding.

Stratasys is empowering customers across various industries to quickly and cost-effectively 3D print everything

How can a manufacturer (both large and small) get started and how much does it cost?

I would recommend that any manufacturer takes a thorough look at the market and fully explores the technology options available. However, the foremost 3D printing/AM vendors will always work with prospective customers to assess their exact needs and objectives and consult them closely to explore the most viable technology solutions to fulfil their present and future requirements. The cost will of course be dependent on those particular needs.

I would always encourage manufacturers to consider other factors within their 3D printing buying decision. Has your vendor the established and reputable technical and consultancy expertise, as well as ongoing after sales support? Do they work with other partners – including software and materials experts – within the 3D printing eco-system to ensure customers are properly supported in these areas, and that their needs of today, as well as those of tomorrow, will be adequately catered for?

What does the future of 3D printing look like within manufacturing?

As I’ve highlighted, ongoing advancements in the technology are enabling cost-effective production of parts in much larger volumes, and this trend is expected to continue. Simultaneously, significant progress is being made in materials development, expanding 3D printing’s applications across vastly different sectors, from industrial manufacturing to healthcare.

When assessing a product’s bill of materials, it’s evident that 3D printing can economically produce an increasing number of parts. Typically, between 20% and 50% of components now make technical and economic sense for 3D printing – a percentage predicted to grow over time. The analysis of which parts are suitable for 3D printing is also a core factor. Some additive OEMs will assist customers in this process, while software providers utilise automated solutions – analyses are now rapidly advancing and in turn driving uptake.

From our perspective, Stratasys’ priorities will be investment in robust software capabilities, ongoing materials development and delivering comprehensive solutions to many different industries. While we continue to develop exciting new 3D printers, our focus on software and materials is equally compelling, particularly as we address complete digital workflows for key applications in industrial manufacturing, aerospace, automotive and healthcare.

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