Add Muscle And Flexibility To Your Manufacturing Operations With 3D Printing

Robert Merlo

Part 3 of a 3-part “Manufacturing Fitness” series

Concluding our series on manufacturing fitness, we now turn our attention to 3D printing – the process of physically manufacturing a product directly from a CAD model. Simply upload the CAD file to a 3D printer, feed it with some sort of base material, and the printer builds the object layer by layer.

This layering approach is what gives the technique its other name: additive manufacturing. The base material that gets added or layered can be almost anything imaginable. Typically, it’s plastic dust – but it can also be metal or concrete. In some futuristic scenarios, it can even be human tissue. So, if you’re looking to add muscle to your manufacturing operations – lean, flexible muscle, that is – then additive manufacturing or 3D printing may be the answer.

While 3D printing is certainly on the rise, perhaps the most significant factor holding back wider adoption is its slow speed of production. This issue, however, may soon be solved. According to UPS, one of the most prominent players in the 3D printing space, the average speed of production for 3D printing is expected to increase by 88% by 2023. Already, 3D printing represents a multibillion-dollar market that is projected to hit $21 billion by 2020.

Use cases today

Most manufacturers want to know what 3D printing is good for today. In terms of products that can be produced, the list is quite long: eyewear, dental molds, prosthetics, jewelry, smartphone cases, musical instruments, architectural models, car parts, medical devices – the list goes on.

But why would 3D printing replace traditional manufacturing approaches for any of these products? It all depends on the manufacturing context. Here are some ways in which 3D printing is being used today:

  • Prototyping: 3D printing is quite flexible for single-use scenarios. Organizations with design and engineering skills can quickly draw up CAD models for new product ideas and generate physical versions of products with a 3D printer. Traditional manufacturing approaches – such as machining, casting, and forging – can be cost-prohibitive for quick prototypes. 3D printing helps drive a more iterative approach to innovation – one that makes it easier and more cost-effective to get physical products into the hands of stakeholders, decision-makers, and focus groups who can then determine whether or not to move forward with further development.
  • Replacement parts: Keeping all possible spare parts in inventory is costly, and depending on third-party providers to deliver a needed part can mean long wait times. But if you have a 3D printer and the needed CAD drawings available – or if you can find them quickly – you can use 3D printing to produce the part on-site. For organizations running large vehicle fleets, warehouses, or manufacturing facilities, 3D printing offers a way forward that can help minimize downtime due to equipment failure or maintenance.
  • Profitable individualization (configurable products): 3D printing represents an intriguing solution for highly configurable products where keeping all possible combinations of parts in stock can be a logistics headache. At a time when organizations seek ways to profitably address the expectations of customers for individualized products that fit their unique needs, companies can use 3D printing to meet demand by simply printing out the parts that customers require.
  • Sustainability: 3D printing localizes production – which cuts down on shipping costs and the carbon footprint associated with it. When products are produced using plastic dust or powder, the products are also 100% recyclable – so whatever is produced can be returned to the dust from which it is formed, making the base material available once again for use in new products. For organizations serious about their sustainability efforts, 3D printing can help put the circular economy into action.

Networks for 3D printing

As the 3D printing market matures, the cost of printers is coming down. Today, lower-end hobbyist machines for in-home use weigh in at just around $300 while professional-grade machines can cost more than $10,000.

But does it make sense to own your own printer? Increasingly, the idea of 3D printing as a service is taking hold – with 3D printing farms emerging to serve the needs of the market. UPS, in fact, offers 3D printing services from its many retail outlets across the U.S. Organizations or individuals can simply send CAD drawings to UPS, place an order, and pick up the final product when it’s ready – or have it delivered by UPS as needed.

But how do you get the CAD drawings if you don’t have the ability to generate them in-house? Here is where the idea of a manufacturing network for 3D printing comes into play. Manufacturing networks that connect organizations to suppliers and manufacturing service providers have been around for some time. Increasingly, these networks are offering pre-made CAD drawings for, say, spare parts – or services for custom drawing as needed.

Let’s say you’re a refrigerator manufacturer. In a 3D printing world, instead of keeping all of the parts for every model you produce in stock, you can provide the schematics for each part to manufacturing networks where suppliers can offer the service of 3D printing the part on demand. Or you can maintain your own printer farm and serve your customers yourself.

The point is that as 3D printing takes off, manufacturing networks will play an increasingly important role in facilitating the market – enabling more organizations to take advantage of the benefits that this new mode of manufacturing has to offer. So when it comes to maintaining your manufacturing fitness in a highly competitive environment, think of 3D printing as a way to add some of the muscle and flexibility you need to succeed.

For more information, download the latest IDC report on digital manufacturing.

Robert Merlo

About Robert Merlo

Robert Merlo is Vice President of SAP Solution Marketing, responsible for Strategic Positioning of the Digital Supply Chain and Manufacturing Portfolio of SAP Solutions. Specifically focused on R&D and Manufacturing.