Everyone knows that additive manufacturing is great for taking a CAD design and turning it into a
physical model. Prototyping and concept modeling have traditionally been where additive manufacturing has found its niche with production, design, and manufacturing engineers. Today users of professional 3D printers are taking the next steps in the evolution of the technology and finding ways to incorporate additive manufacturing into production parts. Producing end use parts with additive manufacturing technology not only dramatically reduces your production costs and delivery times, it also reduces inventory while creating new supply chain efficiencies and new business models.
What is Driving Additive Manufacturing of Production Parts?
Primarily the key driver of bringing additive manufacturing to the world of production parts has been the expansion of materials. For a company like Stratasys, being able to bring to market tough durable plastics like nylon and ultem for their fuse deposition modeling technology has opened the door to printing jigs, fixtures, check gauges, functional prototypes, hydroforming, and training guides. Soluble support materials have given users the ability to try printing complex parts with the intent of washing away support material, leaving a carbon fiber wrap or an electroplated part. Also the advancements in the 3D printing systems have come a long way. Some of the Fortus production line printers Stratasys offers allows build accuracy down to .005 of an inch with very high build part repeatability.
Using Polyjet technology for production parts has also been driven by advancements in the photopolymer materials. By combining different materials to create what Stratasys calls their “digital ABS” users can print molds to be used in low volume injection molding, silicone molding, or blow molding. Parts can be produced that are of the exact plastic a customer desires which is great if you need a small batch of replacement parts or would like to do functional testing on a part made of the exact same material as the one you are planning on bringing to mass production.
What Benefits are Users Seeing?
For the most part after users have decided that additive manufacturing is a good fit for their production applications, benefits are seen in three main areas, time saving, cost saving, and increase in design freedom. When implementing additive manufacturing to production the first benefit most users see initial is time saving. With traditional manufacturing methods production floor engineers and their managers rely on when their CNC shop is available for tooling, or reaching out to another vendor to produce the parts needed. By bringing a 3D printer in house you now have access to a technology that can quickly and effectively build parts and avoid nagging project delays. Cost savings in most cases is the main driving factor for implementation of additive technologies. By being able to produce things like low volume injection molds, functional prototypes for testing, and on demand replacement parts, costly traditional means of manufacturing can be avoided. Rather than tooling a block of aluminum for an injection mold prototype, why not print a mold that is a fraction of the cost? Or reduce the need to carry a large replacement inventory in your warehouse because now you can print replacement parts when you need them. Last, users of additive manufacturing are seeing a drastic increase in innovation. Parts that come off a 3D printer have little to no design constraints, so if a worker needs a specific design for a fixture it’s very easy to meet the demands of the worker.
The needs of the manufacturing floor engineer are constantly evolving as the demands for optimizing production go up. This intern leads many engineers to ask the simple question “how can we do this better”. The answer to that question often times results in an answer that includes additive manufacturing.