An interesting tech development that is currently making waves around the world is 3D printing. In its most basic iteration, 3D printing involves adding materials (such as metal and plastic) to form a 3D object. These machines rely on a software component, such as a computer-aided design (CAD) program or a computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) program, to turn the digital file specifications into an actual, physical object.
With such capabilities, it’s no wonder that 3D printing is most popularly used for rapid prototyping. Presently, about 60% of all 3D-printed parts are made to be used in prototypes. But industry observers are surmising a big shift from this “niche” application and a breakout into wider adoption of 3D printing—particularly for various manufacturing applications.
What’s causing this paradigm shift of 3D printing application from ‘prototyping’ to ‘production’ technology? The answer lies in that 3D printing is an additive process, different from the traditional subtractive model followed in manufacturing. The latter assumes that raw factory material is to be cut, drilled, milled, sheared, or machined off to create a product. But additive manufacturing, using an implement like a 3D printer, will involve creating physical products from scratch. There’s considerable potential for 3D printing to improve accuracy, processing time, and waste reduction and management in the manufacturing process.
That said, you may be interested in acquiring 3D printers for your own business. But before you buy one or you commission a company to make one for you, you should know whether or not it will be of good use in fulfilling your manufacturing requirements. Here are four questions that we feel will help in your decision.
For what applications will you use your 3D printing machine?
The components in 3D printing machines are quite specialized and best suited for particular applications. 3D printing machines with an XY gantry system may boast qualities like quiet motion and low-velocity rippling and use advanced linear stages and no-contact encoder components for precise positioning. This makes them ideal for manufacturing applications that involve complex design work—and on the flip side, perhaps less necessary for less intricately manufactured products.
How much are you willing to spend?
Though the costs of 3D printing machines have gone down in the last decade, they are still considered expensive technology. On average, one may need to spend upwards of $5000 for a single machine. This is independent of the cost of materials, post-processing, maintenance, and a knowledgeable operator’s expertise. In other words, you need to see whether or not you can accommodate 3D printing costs into your manufacturing budget.
How much time are you willing to allot to implement changes in the production line?
It’s easy to imagine how 3D printing can improve manufacturing processes’ quality and efficiency—if you’re thinking very far ahead. In the long term, a 3D printing machine could shave days off of a production cycle. But in the short-term, the technology could take weeks, or even months, to integrate into the assembly line. Your company’s engineers, materials scientists, and laborers will need to learn several new things: the machine, the differences in the materials it works with, and how it will be incorporated into different stages of your production workflow. Only introduce a 3D printing machine if you think these interruptions to your manufacturing schedule are warranted and necessary.
Are you willing to reinvent your manufacturing process?
Suffice it to say that 3D printing technology isn’t just a means of adding tools to the assembly line. It can be a means to implement large-scale manufacturing changes, such as reducing waste and shrinking a company’s carbon footprint. One day, you could oversee your company moving more out of subtractive manufacturing and investing more in additive manufacturing. If your company is ready to rethink its manufacturing processes in this significant manner, then yes, 3D printing technology might be the breath of fresh air you have been waiting for.
Good luck on procuring a suitable machine, and cheers to a new age of 3D printing-based production in your business!