If your thinking about ways your business could make use of 3D printing, and wondering where the industry is currently…Think back to (or try to imagine) where desktop computers were in the late 1980’s. These were the early days of personal computing, before most people had even heard of “Windows”, or the “Internet”. Many people, including myself, were fascinated by the prospects of personal computing, but wondered “what can the average person do with a personal computer”? Fast forward 30 years…What don’t you do?
3D printing is poised to revolutionize manufacturing, in much the same way that personal computing revolutionized communications and information. No longer will companies require huge investments into factories and infrastructure in order to produce commercial goods. Manufacturing will become increasingly democratized, accessible, and distributed.
So what’s your strategy? Whether or not you currently have one, here are 5 tips you should keep in mind.
Focus initially on production with the highest value and/or complexity.
3D printing has an incredible advantage in that it is not bound or limited by traditional workflows. Basically, if you can conceive and create something digitally, you can turn that digital model into a physical model with the push of a button. 3D Printing reduces or eliminates many of the physical steps required in traditional manufacturing. These steps add time and expense to the manufacturing process, and often represent barriers to entry for new ideas and new products looking to get their start. The more complex the product or production, the greater the chance that 3D printing can offer material advantages.
Look at all stages of your production workflow for opportunities to incorporate 3D printing.
Regardless of what you produce or how you produce it, there are likely ways you can take advantage of the benefits associated with 3D printing in your workflow. This is true not only because of the myriad of current and potential use cases for additive manufacturing, but also because of the highly accessible nature of 3D print. You don’t have to have deep pockets to access 3D printing technologies. In fact, digital manufacturing has never been more accessible. For example, 3D printing of metals has undergone huge (x10) reductions in cost within the last year alone. Whether it involves owning printers and producing your own output, or outsourcing parts to one of dozens of prominent online 3D print service providers, 3D printing is quickly finding its way into virtually every level of the production cycle, across most industries. This includes, but is not limited to the following;
Look at the potential for new products and production techniques.
3D printing is not typically a fabrication method that gives rise to greater economies of scale. Nor does it typically lower material costs for products currently mass produced from readily available inputs (although in both cases exceptions do exist). As a result, many manufacturers overlook the use of 3D printing simply because they do not see an opportunity for it to lower the cost of their current output. This approach fails to recognize 3D printing’s inherent ability to manufacture more complex products without higher cost. Manufacturers have an opportunity to add complexity to products, which could potentially differentiate them more effectively, and provide greater utility to the consumer. This increase in utility would naturally command a higher price. In the case of mature markets where margins are tight, this could be a game changer! Therefore, an effective alternative to making products cheaper using 3D printing, is the prospect of making products which are more valuable.
Drop biases and assumptions you may hold about the current state of 3D print.
3D printing is evolving quickly and significant advances in materials, software and the underlying platform technologies are occurring at an accelerating pace. Take a closer look…you may find that what wasn’t possible 6 months ago, now is! For example, I read an article recently about a software algorithm developed at the University of Michigan which doubles the speed of standard FDM printers, without any further investment in hardware. Of course, there have been many instances over the past 30 years where the hype surrounding 3D Print outpaced the reality. Scepticism regarding the potential for “real” production using 3D printing remains high in the minds of many manufacturers. Let’s face it, 3D printing isn’t going to replace traditional manufacturing anytime soon. We live in a world where many of the things we produce are made with such efficiency that there is nearly zero (marginal) cost associated with additional production. In such cases, the majority of cost is tied to capital infrastructure, as well as expenses associated with marketing, transportation, and storage of products once they are manufactured. Of course new products also face significant costs and challenges associated with their development in this environment.
What skeptics are failing to appreciate are the benefits of developing a hybrid strategy which incorporates both traditional fabrication methods as well as 3D print. A simple example might help to illustrate this point. Arguably, there would be no economic reason to 3D print a long length of standard plastic conduit tube for use in a traditional system. These are produced now at a very low unit cost for materials, labor etc. However, 3D printing could be used beneficially to replace or enhance the production of non-standard elements in that system, such as the small plastic connectors used to join the pieces of conduit together. After all, despite the fact they represent only a small fraction of the overall system in physical terms, it is the connectors that are often most costly, and offer the greatest potential for enhancing their utility with additive manufacturing based on the advantages it offers with customization, specialization, added functionality, supply chain management, etc. This simple example has relevance across a wide variety of products and industries. Hybrid manufacturing using a combination of digital and traditional technologies is already well established and will continue to grow at an accelerating pace. 3D printing represents the tip of the spear in what historians will recognize as a paradigm shift in manufacturing on a scale not seen since the advent of the assembly line
Get started on exploring a 3D printing strategy for your business today.
Don’t wait for your industry, or your competitors to climb on board before you begin your own investigations into 3D printing. The digital revolution is here! As a result the manufacturing industry (like many others) is undergoing profound changes. One of the greatest is occurring at the design level. Whereas companies used to rely heavily on physical drawings and hand-made models for initial product design, most now use digital models (CAD) to create computer generated versions of almost everything they use or make. The benefits of digital design are somewhat self evident and the process is becoming ubiquitous. A natural extension of this digital design revolution is the use of digital manufacturing to create products directly from digital models, thereby bypassing the multiple physical steps and limitations which might otherwise be involved in traditional production. It’s important for manufacturer’s to begin developing a basic understanding of these technologies and how they can be applied to their businesses.