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Making Factories Run Better with 3D Printing

Current advances in 3D printing are making it an integral part of manufacturing, including electronics manufacturing.  It can cut down processes from weeks to days and costs from thousands to hundreds. The 3D printed option is not only more efficient and economical, but actually better in terms of performance, as well as carbon footprint.

“We make your factory run better” is the tagline for the maintenance services offered by ATS.  

One of the ways it accomplishes that mission is by providing necessary parts, which it can now do faster, better, and cheaper with 3D printing. I spoke with Mike Waltrip, general manager of Industrial Parts Services at ATS, about the benefits 3D printing brings to his business in particular and manufacturing in general. 

As 3D printing technology has advanced to encompass a far greater range of materials with more functionalities, it serves as far more than a tool for rapid prototyping or for customized novelty items like 3D printed avatars.  For the manufacturing marketplace, 3D printing is nothing less than “a paradigm shift,” according to Waltrip. That is because an increasing number of people are using the technology to take the place of machine manufacturing. 

Waltrip explained that as ATS is in the business of managing and running storerooms for manufacturing. As one of the markets they serve calls for repairing industrial components, they are very aware of the problem parts that are hard to find poses for manufacturers. Using traditional manufacturing methods, when the need for a part that is not somewhere in stock arises, a business faces high costs, in terms of both time and money. Replicating the part entailed sending it to a designer for analysis who would then need several weeks to produce it for thousands of dollars. 

That approach is neither economical nor efficient. In contrast getting such parts 3D printed reduced the production time to mere days and a cost of hundreds of dollars for the same part.  As Waltrip said, “They can re-engineer part, put it into the platform and then have the response in days to make the buy or not decision.”  With such an obvious benefit, ATS opted to integrate 3D printing into its business model in the form of a partnership with  3Discovered.

3Discovered is a product online exchange platform based in Chicago that brings together producers and buyers. It allows design owner to load 3D images to the platform and for people who offer 3D printing services to bid on the projects available.  With the options put before them, buyers can select based off price, lead time, or whatever their primary consideration is.

As Waltrip explains, the 3D printing advantage is about more than savings. In some cases, the 3D printed parts is actually better than its machine-produced counterpart because of the flexibility offered by the technology. It's possible to reprint a design in different materials, depending on one's needs. For example, 3D printing can be done in both food grade and non-food grade plastics, or shifted from a heavier material to a lighter one when weight is a consideration.

Designs can even be shifted from plastics to metals to “withstand production environments.” As today's 3D printing encompasses titanium and other types of metals, it is possible produce metal parts that actually outperform the “equipment made of heat-treated metal” that they replace. In those cases, the 3D printed metal products can be made even harder, as proven in validating tests. 

 Another way 3D printing produces better results is by producing “more efficiently and with a smaller footprint” than machines do, particularly for parts with some complexity involved, like some valves.

I asked how the intellectual property involved in the 3D printed designs gets protected in the exchange platform. According to 3Discovered's terms, The Design Owner owns the copyright, and 3Discovered requires all the service bureaus to delete digital files after they complete the print order. Something even more interesting that it does is “IP Remix – allowing third parties to monetize IP much like iTunes works.” Design owners have the option to upload designs “to a branded site (of another design owner)” to earn money for each sale of their design. In effect then, one supply chain leads to another, a digital one for designs.

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