Additive Manufacturing Both Ubiquitous & Nascent

Four out of five manufacturers say that they are using 3D printing today. At the same time, prototyping claims the lion’s share of the activity. We are at a tipping point where, over the next few years, 3D printing will likely change manufacturing and its supply chain dramatically.

“The reality is that he cost of printing has come down so much in the past few years that it is easy for anybody to be at least be dabbling in 3D printing,” John Dulchinos, vice president, Digital Manufacturing at contract manufacturer Jabil told EBN.  “A lot of it ends up being just that. However, anyone doing design work who isn’t using 3D printing is behind the curve.”

In short, the promise and complexities associated with 3D printing in manufacturing abound. “As one of the fundamental building blocks around 3D printing, additive manufacturing over time will have a profound impact on supply chain,” Dulchinos. “We were all starting at ground zero, though. There isn’t a lot of well-defined literature or history on using additive manufacturing for functional production parts.”

Industrial 3D printers and new printing materials are bringing the price of printing parts into closer parity with injection molding. However, organizations need to work toward seamlessly integrating the technology into their existing processes in a way that works.  Jabil, working with Dimensional Research, sponsored a research report that bears these findings out. The 3D Printing Trends Report polled 303 people in manufacturing who are responsible for decisions around 3D printing.

To bring 3d printing from prototyping to production parts, though, well-thought out processes and tools are critical. For example, manufacturers continue to struggle with questions of measuring quality, Dulchinos explained. For example, how can a part be “known good” when it could have been printing on any printer and any part of the printer bed? What methodology, discipline, or process would solve that quandary? How do you make it repeatable?

Further, the advent of production-level 3D printing will change the face of the supply chain process in a variety of ways. For example, for molded parts, organizations might make quarterly or even annual forecasts in order to capture efficiencies of scale. With a 3D printer, a variety of parts for one end product might be produced on a single printer bed. “Instead of doing it batched by part numbers, we would do it for families, and do it just in time,” said Dulchinos. “In traditional manufacturing, there are setup charges so the last ones are cheap compared to the first ones. In 3D printing, it’s all digital files and so the setup charges are lower. You are thinking about the aggregate business rather than a volume module. 

Other changes may occur as well. The nature of 3D printing also may allow for parts that must be injection molded separately and then assembled be printed on a 3D printer as a single part.  The ability to create products on demand may also push the trend of near-sourcing as well. “Now, we are at a point where we can move production back and forth from different factories by shipping files,” Dulchinos said. “True digital production operations allow for the rebalancing of manufacturing and that changes the way you think about supply chain.”

Further, additive manufacturing has the potential to support customization of products, a key factor for many consumers. “Today, the current state of the art is single color but directionally the technology is going ultimately allows us to change part characteristics on the fly,” Dulchinos explained 

In short, additive manufacturing is bound to gain traction because the benefits will outweigh the costs overall for many manufacturers. Dulchinos said:

3D printing is really simple: You have to be selective about applciations but it is clear that we are watching the beginning of a revolution. It delivers two value propositions. First, it enables frictionless manufacturing, in that you don’t have to invest in a tool to product things, and that opens the door for things you couldn’t do before. The other is the ability to have freedom of design.

The infographic below outlines some of the findings of the report. Take a look and let us know in the comments section below where you see the promise of 3D printing in manufacturing.

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