For a number of years I viewed 3D printing as a solution looking for a problem. I visited the Consumer Electronics Show and saw people printing accurate 3D chocolate renderings of their heads, which whilst being very clever, is largely useless. I wondered to myself where the technology was going, but in the last year or so things have changed and 3D printing seems to be finding its feet in terms of technology and applications, confirming its place in our future.
3D printing is now impacting the electronics supply chain from innovation to fulfillment; this is in part due to price. We are currently seeing 3D printers priced below $2,500, opening the technology up to consumers and innovators, while creating the opportunity to build 'print farms' with multiple printers producing small runs efficiently and economically. Another factor driving adoption is the use of more 3D printable materials, making more complex and more usable products possible.
Here are a few of the ways 3D printing is impacting the electronic supply chain.
Design made simple
Starting at the coalface of innovation, 3D printing is providing inventors with the ability to test their ideas much earlier than would normally be possible. 3D printed versions of products can be produced from Computer Aided Design (CAD) files and shared with potential consumers, investors and manufacturing partners. The ability to create products in three dimensions on a CAD system was seen as revolutionary 20 years ago, and those 3D renditions of products helped designers share their vision. We are now in an era where that on screen rendition can be produced with accurate weight, size and texture and used to finalize a design very early in the product realization process.
This is a term I hear more and more. People are looking to get real prototypes built quickly and cheaply, often as proof of concept, but also to test the validity of a design before going into more traditional manufacturing processes. Bringing 3D print into the prototype environment can accelerate the process hugely, negating the need for complex tools or processes. At a recent event at a Silicon Valley EMS company, the conversation was around an environment where innovators could start the day with an idea, complete a design by lunch and leave that evening with a working prototype. This kind of rapid prototyping is exactly what the fast moving consumer goods market wants as windows of market opportunity become shorter and consumers become more fickle and demanding.
Tooling gone soft
Another area showing huge potential for 3D printing is in cutting out some of the expensive tooling iterations. And I mean expensive in both time as well as money. Creating 3D printed tools, even if they are just to prove a design, might mean fewer iterations, fewer engineering changes, shorter times to production and perhaps fewer $50,000 invoices for traditional hard tools that need to be remade for the smallest change.
Fixtures for manufacture & test
Contract manufacturers are starting to use 3D printing for their own manufacturing needs rather than just for the products they make for their customers. Many are using 3D printing to build jigs and fixtures to hold odd shape components during the production process. This could be a test support fixture, a jig to hold an odd shape sub-assembly while it is being assembled or soldered, or a one-off tool used to assemble a part into a hard to reach area of a product. These are all things that simplify the process and make the EMS more flexible and agile.
We think of 3D printing as a serial version of a parallel process, building one component slowly, while traditional manufacturing builds many parts as quickly as possible. Print farms turn that paradigm on its head with rows of 3D printers being used to make volumes of products that go well beyond the one-off. More competitive pricing of printers is making this possible and it may eventually have an impact on the way manufacturing is geographically deployed. Recently at the IoM2016 tradeshow in San Jose, keynote speaker John Dulchinos, Jabil's vice president of automation, talked about print farms being located close to the consumer, contrary to the more recent trend of larger and larger centralized manufacturing facilities. The idea that 3D printing could be in every town, or even in retail stores, as part of the manufacturing supply chain is indeed a fascinating prospect opening up all kinds of possibilities to innovators.
Part of the recent trend in manufacturing towards Industry 4.0, IoM or Manufacturing 4.0 is the idea of a 'batch size of one', where the product can dictate the manufacturing processes as it passes through production. One driver of 'batch size of one' is mass customization, along with the concept of taking a platform and adding customization to the last point to make something unique and specific to the consumer. 3D printing has a role to play here and because it's a data driven process it can produce every version of a product in a unique configuration for each unique consumer. This creates an interactive experience for the consumer as they design their own device online and offers full traceability from order to fulfillment.
Show me the cupcake
I've heard the phrase 'show me the money' many times, but recently, during Frost & Sullivan’s Manufacturing Leadership Summit in Southern California, I heard the phrase 'show me the cupcake'. The panelist was referring to a design philosophy where, rather than looking at drawing and renderings, he wanted to see a simple sample. Make me a cupcake; if we like it we'll try a birthday cake, if that works a wedding cake and so on. Well, now we can 3D print the cupcake, getting us out of the innovation gate quickly and effectively.
As can be seen from these examples as well as applications in medical electronics and many other sectors, 3D printing has a lot to offer. It is doubtless an important tool for the future of manufacturing and is finding its way into many design and production environments.