There is a widespread, contagious conversation taking place today about Additive Manufacturing (AM), also known as industrial 3D printing. For a manufacturing process to generate this much excitement is pretty rare in contemporary times.
The enthusiasm is spreading so broadly because “additive” technologies that “grow” parts and products, rather than “subtract” material (via machining), are being embraced by young entrepreneurs and industry giants alike.
From the wings of a Victoria’s Secret angel to patient-specific cranial-plate implants for skull injuries to high-tech nozzles for aircraft jet turbines, the reach and attraction of AM is indisputable. Those who apply themselves can learn to make something unique, be they engineers or artists. And they can do it very quickly and relatively inexpensively at a local service bureau—if not from their home, lab or office.
This is why additive manufacturing, industrial 3D printing and all the variations of growing parts by laser, electronic beam and other means, will dramatically change business!
There is a profound opportunity ahead to design objects that are “value-engineered” to simply do more. We see this across all markets, from consumer to medical, where our customers are inventing new categories of business.
Moreover, such innovations can truly be made anywhere in the world—thereby promoting domestic production and greater in-country consumption. Beyond its reshoring possibilities, AM now means build-it-where-you-sell-it: create to local needs in only the volumes necessary, and radically change supply-chain economics along the way.
Additive manufacturing allows more functions of value (things people want a product to do) to be included in a single part. This has huge business and manufacturing implications, as we will see.
Part consolidation, as it is called, has been a 30-year industry obsession. Taking individual components of a product, and combining them into fewer, more functional parts and assemblies, lowers their cost and increases quality. Molded plastic was the initial material of choice for executing part-consolidation strategies—and that industry exploded with growth. Machining also worked harder to cut fewer, more complex shapes out of blocks of material.
Today AM is the one process that uses most of the common materials, plastics and metals, and accomplishes an almost divine level of this kind of integration. Because AM grows things in layers, it can produce organic shapes that provide more features and greater value. Conceive it, follow a few rules of gravity and access when designing, test it for required strength, and just make it.
In terms of the next industrial business model, the ability of AM to transform electronic warehousing and just-in-time-delivery—with parts made to feed the demand stream, one by one, or a dozen at a time—is simply elegant. One-off parts for 50-year-old tractors are now economical to produce. Scan the old component—skip expensive tooling—and just grow it overnight! And this time why not optimize for less assembly labor and weight? Here is where the new money of AM really starts to take shape.
AM embedded in complementary work cells, spread across the globe, allows companies to avoid large capital investments, material and inventory buildup, long-distance shipping, currency-exchange issues, and demands for localization. If a successful product should call for higher volumes, then scaling up using traditional manufacturing and design is much less risky.
Furthermore, as many young entrepreneurs and large industries are discovering, additively manufactured/3D-printed designs constitute unique intellectual property. And now more people have the opportunity to start small and test their target markets.
There are challenges ahead. Designers need to visualize shapes as pure functions of value. This will change the supply chain, too—how they prepare themselves, understand new delivery cycles and formulate design strategies. Many of them are more than ready. AM is the medium that will accelerate a long effort towards better collaboration between the top office, its engineering staff and key suppliers.
Make no mistake, AM is already being used for high-end production parts in aerospace and beyond. Its quality is increasingly repeatable and predictable, on par with traditional machining, molding and casting.
As the debate moves forward on globalization versus domestic production, AM sheds a different light on how both can co-exist. Making things to serve individual tastes is a trend that AM does well. With its ability to mass customize and take advantage of local economics, AM/3D printing has business-profit dimensions that are becoming more evident every day.
This article was written by Joann Muller from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.