3D printing is more than what you think
The common perception is that 3D printing is good for small, composite and unique objects. This was the case in the past, but not today.
There are projects to build complete houses using 3D printing, creating the concrete wall structure in a fraction of the time and cost required by traditional construction methods. You can also print a wide range of materials from plastics, metals including titanium, clay, concrete, food, ceramics, composites and even solar panels and organic cells.
3D printing is also a great solution in a lean manufacturing environment. In my past life as Manufacturing Manager in the automotive industry, presses and machines were running the same batch for hours. Over time we introduced lean manufacturing processes to reduce the WIP stock wherever we could, by creating manufacturing cells and reduced batch sizes.
All manufacturers know that a lean approach is less productive when you look at the work order level, but at a company level, the reduction of capital immobilised in WIP stock, the huge reduction of manufacturing cycle time, the improved product quality and employee satisfaction far outweighs the lower cost of producing thousands of items in a single batch and then storing them for months, waiting for final assembly.
A new way to design products
3D printing is also a revolution in the way we design products. In traditional engineering, you may compromise the design of the product by taking into account manufacturing process limitations, ease of assembly, part replacement. Design engineers now can print parts within parts with less manufacturing and design constraints.
Imagine that you need to build an item made of a casing and an inner part. With 3D printing, you don’t need to worry about assembly – you don’t need a lid with screws to close it. You don’t need to design the casing to allow machining like drilling holes and forming threads, making the casing lighter, more robust and without moving parts. When you add on all the assembly and tooling required for batch manufacturing, machining, storage and assembly, it is easy to understand that in many cases, 3D printing will actually be cheaper.
Education is the key
In my view the greatest challenge is the education of design engineers to embrace this new technology and apply it where it makes sense. We all know that change is hard. To draw a parallel with software programming, it is difficult for someone that cut procedural code for many years to embrace Object Oriented Programming (OOP) or more recently functional programming.
The companies that will look at 3D printing as an opportunity, will create better products and innovate in ways that we can’t even imagine today.