Neil Hopkinson, from Stratasys, on the volume production opportunity with additive manufacturing
Over the past two decades, we’ve seen 3D printing – also known as additive manufacturing (AM) – evolve from a rudimentary prototyping solution into a technology now deep rooted within manufacturing. What was then a tool limited to a select group of industrial companies has flourished, transformed and been delivered into the hands of designers, engineers and manufacturers all over the world – forming the multi-billion-dollar global industry we see today. We’ve watched the industry expand from schools and workplaces securing small, entry-level desktop 3D printers in the early 2000s to the infiltration of almost every level of business in the decades since. It has thrived and matured in ways back then we could scarcely have dreamed of; we’ve seen 3D printed models of organs save lives nearly every day, rockets built with 3D printed parts launched into space, 3D printed clothing hitting the runway in high fashion, and multitudes in between.
As technologies have advanced, the clunky, one-size-fits-all prototyping fabricators of AM’s infancy have started to be replaced by specialised, manufacturing focused solutions. The dental industry blazed a trail in this respect; going back to the early 2000’s stereolithography machines were tweaked and tuned to achieve new levels of efficiency and cost to create dental aligner molds. Now we are seeing entire portfolios of systems and solutions dedicated to manufacturing in the dental sector.
Additive manufacturing comes of age
This approach has certainly encouraged healthy competition industry-wide and allowed us to reach much deeper into applications to provide real-world solutions that make a meaningful difference. Indeed, no longer does 3D printing carry its image of the nineties, when it was considered a futuristic plaything of a few lucky designers. On the contrary, today’s specialised industrial-grade 3D printing solutions, combined with a burgeoning ecosystem of advanced material vendors and post processing system suppliers, have together seen the technology become a formidable lynchpin for the global manufacturing industry.
Be that as it may, for much of the industry, the holy grail of volume production still remains an area largely unchartered.
While great strides have certainly been made in penetrating traditional manufacturing over the past decade, the reality is that to date the use of AM has mostly been limited to low volume production. When the volumes required have gone into the thousands or tens of thousands, the economic business case just hasn’t been there versus injection molding. Fortunately, as the market has matured, so too have the machines, leading to a rise in new technologies with the potential to answer the long held wishes of many manufacturers: the benefits of AM, but at scale.
The business case for volume production with additive manufacturing
One such technology launched in the last twelve months is SAF™, a new form of powder-based AM and the culmination of over a decade of R&D. Using a single pass print-and-fuse process, manufacturers can produce tens of thousands of end-use parts with the level of control, accuracy, consistency expected from injection molding – but now reaching a cost-per-part which frequently renders injection molding or CNC machining uncompetitive. When you then add to the mix that those ten thousand parts can all be completely different and customised, then for manufacturers the business case becomes unignorable.
So, when should manufacturers be considering AM for volume production? What kind of applications are best suited? The sweet spot is certainly applications where high volumes of small or complex parts are required. While design complexity is an inherent challenge of traditional manufacturing methods, this where AM excels. So having the choice to now choose between AM and injection molding for volume production depending on the application, gives companies a new level of flexibility with their manufacturing – whether that’s optimising existing product lines or opening up new business opportunities with batch sizes and customisation previously not possible.
We’re already seeing many examples of customers that are producing SAF-printed parts at a range of different production volumes and at a fraction of the cost of injection-molding. Of course, this is before taking into account the additional efficiencies they enjoy by having parts on-demand instead of stored as large volumes of physical inventory. This is happening in several industries, from thousands of small fixtures on packaging lines to highly complex internal components for medical devices. All firmly in the sweet spot of AM for volume production. For applications requiring small AND complex parts, then manufacturers should really be taking notice.
When it comes to the value of volume AM for customisation, award-winning German design firm, DQBD GmbH, is a prime example. The company is aiming to produce fully personalised cycling saddles, printing several of the saddle’s load-bearing parts at scale using SAF technology. Such has been the success, DQBD recently revealed cost savings for the first batch of over €25,000 versus injection molding and reduced lead times from three-to-six months down to ten days. This gives DQBD the design flexibility and production quality needed to realise its vision of a completely customised cycling saddle.
But beyond the direct production efficiencies within product development, manufacturers should also take note of other often overlooked added-value benefits. Designing parts with additive already in mind means parts can be optimised by the very nature of their design. End-of-arm tools for robots on the production line are a prime example. By redesigning the tool with light weighted internal structures, knowing that they can print that complex geometry, we’ve seen customers reduce the weight of these tools by almost 50%. This significantly alleviates the strain on the robotic arms, which is crucial because not only does this increase their speed of movement and productivity, but a lighter tool reduces the rate of degradation of the robot. Now if you think that manufacturers can now produce these tools at scale, cost-effectively and on-demand, this gives them huge opportunity to optimise their production lines. Other opportunities like these to improve the efficiency the factory floor are endless.
A bright manufacturing future
Looking towards the future, AM for volume production offers plenty to be excited about. As vendors continue to advance and specialise machines, the AM industry as a whole becomes more sophisticated, more competitive and more nuanced, driving the emergence of new solutions uniquely targeted at breaking down specific barriers to entry for different segments. If I look at my experience with SAF technology, even a few years ago the advances made would have seemed like a pipedream. Having watched this technology grow from the 1990s where producing a handful of 3D printed parts marked a successful week to one in which we are able to produce more parts than we can store, it seems impossible to overestimate the industry transformation that can occur in five, ten, or twenty years.
In the short-term, however, as supply chains grapple with uncertainty and volatility, the requirement for more flexibility in manufacturing will only intensify the spotlight on AM and its role within volume production. As an industry, I believe this is something we’re now truly ready to embrace, and able to deliver manufacturers the technological maturity they’ve long been waiting for.