Your competitors are adopting additive, are you?

By Glen White
According to Forbes, 68% of survey respondents forecast that their spending on 3D printing will increase in 2015, and the Harvard Business Review report...

According to Forbes, 68% of survey respondents forecast that their spending on 3D printing will increase in 2015, and the Harvard Business Review reported that projections have industrial-grade 3D printer sales rising while the range of printable materials continues to expand (May 2015 Feature Article). Great, so why is additive manufacturing getting all the attention today? It’s simple, as additive technology (3D printing) has matured, the benefits for commercial and industrial applications are not only becoming more recognizable, forward thinking companies are already leveraging the technology to gain a competitive edge.

Additive what?

To understand some of the benefits of additive technology we need to start by providing some context. Let’s start with traditional manufacturing technology. When someone says “traditional manufacturing” they are almost always referring to subtractive processes on a large scale; machining or injection molding. Machining is a subtractive process where cutting tools are used to remove material from stock (metals, plastics, woods) to produce a finished part. The more complex a part, the more machining operations required; often requiring more than one machine. It’s not uncommon for many parts to visit two or three machines before they are completed. Injection molding is different.

Injection molding is a process where precision molds, usually machined out of hard metals such as tool steel, are used to provide form to material, usually plastics that are heated and injected into the molds, and then rapidly cooled and ejected. Injection molding has transformed the use of plastics as the go-to-material for everything from consumer electronics (radios, remote controls, music players) to medical devices (blood glucose meters, AEDs, heart monitors) to automotive components (dashboards, seats, trim) to household appliances and utensils. This list goes on, just look around the house and office to see how many items you use on a daily basis are made of plastic – almost all of it was injection molded. But, it all starts with machined molds.

Additive technology is exactly the opposite of machining, and does not require the tooling required with injection molding. With additive technology, or 3D printing, layers of material (thermoplastics, metals, paper, and even biomaterials) are added, layer by layer, until a finish part is produced. Unlike subtractive technologies where a tool must be able to reach into the stock to remove the material and produce features, additive is not limited by the length of a cutting tool or the capabilities of a machining center (how many axis it has, for example). Thus, with additive there is not “tax” for complexity. This allows a part with complex shapes and features that would normally be difficult or impossible to machine or mold, such as hidden channels or closed chambers, to be produced with a simple button click. It really is that simple. When you combine additive technology and scale, you get additive manufacturing, or AM. Take it one step further, and significantly reduce human intervention through automation, and you have Direct Digital Manufacturing, or DDM. Now, if you really want to understand why companies are quickly adopting additive technology and why AM, and DDM, are beginning to factor into how companies actually design and produce products, it helps to understand the economics behind the technology.

The Economics of Additive

The economics of traditional manufacturing are pretty well understood and accepted. The more parts you produce, the less you pay per part. As you can see in Fig. 1, with traditional manufacturing  there are typically high upfront costs, especially for single prototypes and limited production runs. When it comes to machining, regardless of how many parts you are going to produce, you still have to schedule machine time, set up the machine(s), and run the parts. Unless a contract manufacturer (job shop) specializes in prototypes and short run production, most suppliers try to avoid low volume jobs – or charge a healthy premium to do the work (again, refer to Fig. 1). For injection molding the costs are even greater. Because a mold is required that means someone has to machine the mold(s). Most molds require an initial investment starting in the tens of thousands of dollars, and can quickly reach $100k as part size and complexity increases. Accordingly, when it comes to machined and injection molded parts, companies have to produce large quantities if they want to justify these upfront charges and reduce unit costs.

Here is something to consider when you look at the costs associated with traditional manufacturing. How many companies limit how quickly they can innovate and release new products, or new variations of existing products, to market because they have hundreds or thousands of “parts” sitting on the shelves and don’t want to scrap them? How many competitors are given windows of opportunity to enter industries and grab market share from large or well-known companies (brands) because of the situation described above? Hint – it happens more often then you could image.

The economics of traditional manufacturing, as outlined above, is no big secret or revelation. Again, it’s just the cost of doing business. But what about the economics of additive manufacturing? In Fig. 2, you see why Additive is such a big deal. The upfront costs associated with prototyping and small production runs, for all but the most exotic or specialized parts, are much less than traditional manufacturing. While it takes high quantities of parts, or large volume, to get the unit price down with traditional manufacturing processes, the total cost per unit for parts produced via 3D printing is almost linear. Even more so when you turn to AM and DDM.

With these type of economics it is clear that anyone producing parts today has to take a serious look at additive, but what are the real benefits aside from reduced upfront costs?

The Benefits

The benefits additive offers designers and engineers, start-ups, and large companies speak for themselves. Here’s a short list:

  • As mentioned above, no tax for complexity – provides freedom to innovate
  • Every part can be different – unlimited customization, and with customization, higher profit margins
  • Iterate designs faster – go to market with a better product
  • In-market product testing – get it right before mass production
  • Low volume, niche products are now viable – reduced upfront costs, no expensive tooling
  • Improve designs faster – respond quickly to customer feedback and give them the products they want
  • On Demand production for end-use products and spare parts – zero or limited inventory allows you to save upfront capital, mitigate the overhead involved with product obsolescence, reduce storage costs associated with inventory, and print what you need, when you need it

The Risks

None. If you don’t have the volume to justify the purchase of a printer, there are plenty of services available to provide you with 3D printed prototypes and end-use parts. Our company, CloudDDM, specializes in industrial grade additive parts with the added benefit of fast turnaround thanks to our operations being based out of the UPS Supply Chain Campus in Louisville, Kentucky. Simply upload models (STL files) to our CloudDDM App, choose your material and print options, and checkout. Parts are printed, packaging, and put on a plane. It doesn’t get any easier than that. And, we are just one of a growing segment of manufacturers, known generally as additive manufacturers, providing 3D printing services to companies who can’t justify the expense of ramping up additive manufacturing operations, in-house.

What can You do right now?

Chances are, if you have read this far it means you have not already adopted additive as a manufacturing process for prototyping or producing end-use parts. If this is you, go out and purchase a 3D printer. It doesn’t have to be a large scale, industrial printer. In fact, you can pick up a great desktop 3D printer, with material, for under $5k. Two models to consider are the MakerBot Replicator 2 and the Airwolf 3D AW3D HDR. Either way, get one. You should have hands-on experience of how additive actually works. As an added bonus, you now have an excuse for getting your own printer. (You know you want one.)

Next, start reviewing your company’s product portfolio and start identifying products and parts that could benefit from being produced via additive technology. If you design parts for third parties, consider how additive could help your customers by reducing costs, help them reduce inventory, and enable them to produce better products, more quickly.

Once you have identified some candidates, check around and see what it would cost to produce prototypes, small production runs, large production runs. This will help you begin to develop a strategy around how to leverage additive technology (3D printing) and transform product development and fulfillment, giving you an edge over your competition.


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