3D Printing Manufactures More than Hype and Hyperbole

3D Printing Manufactures More than Hype and Hyperbole

This piece was originally published in the March 2017 issue of electroindustry.

Kevin Connelly, Senior Program Manager, NEMA

In 1928, Henry Ford completed construction of one of the greatest monuments to industrial manufacturing. The River Rouge plant was built on the model of receiving raw materials on one end and rolling a finished car off the other. I would love to have seen raw steel melted, formed, molded, stamped, and bent into parts, and then to see those parts assembled, painted, coated, and finally brought together to form a ready-to-drive vehicle.

The 600-acre River Rouge factory is now home to Ford’s Rouge Center, an industrial park that includes six Ford factories. Imagine, if you can, the reduced footprint that could be achieved if the promises of 3D printing were to be realized. Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing offers a wide range of benefits, including reduced inventories, improved performance, less tooling, and faster time to market.

In 2013, the research firm McKinsey Global Institute published “Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy,” which suggested that 3D printing could have an impact of up to $550 billion a year by 2025. This stands in contrast to the publicity focused on the residential market. 3D printing applied to the manufacturing supply chain has the potential to not only incrementally improve the bottom line of manufacturers but also disrupt the manufacturing process and supply chain.

Reducing the cost and complexity of manufacturing enables parts to be manufactured in house. Parts can be designed for a specific use instead of designed for general use and adapted for the specific. This results in greatly reduced manufacturing equipment: fewer parts in storage means less capital tied up in parts inventory.

Hype and Hyperbole

It is generally believed that any advance in technology is rarely, if ever, a panacea. Hyperbole and hype should be assessed to decide how, or even whether, to best take advantage of the technology.

For example, the internal combustion engine ushered in a significant era in our modern lifestyle but is responsible for a great deal of air pollution. In the early 1950s, nuclear power was seen as an unending source of energy, but the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 triggered a 33-year ban on new licenses. Almost every new communication technology introduced in the twentieth century, from radios and TVs to computers and smartphones, improved our ability to communicate, but many people feared they were responsible for destroying young minds.

As we implement 3D technologies, it may be prudent to look critically at the ability to produce a multitude of parts, assemblies, and products with only the interchange of a digital file. In some respects, this will eliminate the need for parts, as they are currently known. Today, many parts are produced as interchangeable devices for the purpose of accommodating the manufacturing process.

Interchangeable parts, however, may not be necessary in the 3D model. Furthermore, as manufacturers produce more products in house, on demand, and without specialized molds, the need to have sufficient inventory is greatly reduced.

Manufacturing Efficiency

Leaving the hype and hyperbole behind, here are a few undisputed advantages:

  • Quicker to market: The ability to quickly, and with relative ease, produce customized parts and assemblies will offer manufacturers the ability to rapidly accelerate the time to market. As organizations refine or perfect the product innovation cycle, prototyping and test marketing will become quicker, wider in scope, and more flexible. On the other hand, nimble organizations may be enabled to quickly and continuously get innovative products to market, potentially establishing market dominance. This has its own consequences: getting products to market without a quality system that adapts to the new speed of product development could expose manufacturers to liability. As the product development cycle shrinks, product development will likely evolve to incorporate greater emphasis on client feedback and customer centered design.
  • Increased customization: Eliminating the expense and complexity of setting up molds allows manufacturers not only to produce and deploy prototypes quickly, but also to market smaller batches and more highly customized products. Want something with specialized features, but are only in limited amounts for a small but important client? No problem. Want something with a specific form factor? No problem. In the past these scenarios would have been too expensive to even consider, but with the advanced customization made possible with 3D printing, specialized products in small quantities will be much more reasonable.
  • Zero inventory: The ability to print on demand will reduce the inventory of parts and could, if managed correctly, reach zero inventory with all parts being printed out on site, just in time.
  • Eliminate the middle man: It is not too hard to imagine that the 3D model could completely disrupt the supply chain as it currently exists. If manufacturers determine that it is more cost effective to produce parts in house and on demand, they may begin to decrease or eliminate the need to have an outside firm supply parts.
  • Easier entry: The advent of 3D printing is likely to see new manufacturers emerge. Already in the consumer market are local 3D printers that will print replacement parts or specific designs for consumers. Consumers may also buy and use 3D printers themselves. There are also one-off job shoppers that will produce a part for a small fee. Home consumer with appropriate digital files can make replacement parts or their own designs without the time and expense of having molds developed. Reducing the barrier to entry will likely increase innovation and influence the existing players in the market.

On the other hand, there are risks and concerns:

  • Shifting landscape on quality: Even as some quality issues are eliminated in the early stages of 3D printing, challenges remain with new entrants, smaller quantities, and how quality itself is addressed. Quality procedures may need to be adapted to the details of each product. Also, new production methods may allow for different specifications (e.g., smaller wall thicknesses), which does not necessarily mean that the product quality will be sufficient at that wall thickness, only that the production method allows for it. Some manufacturers might learn that lesson too late.
  • Material integrity: As the technology evolves, concerns may shift from confirming the integrity of a mold or a large capital-intensive process to concerns of correct material mixture and application and file integrity.
  • Greater potential for counterfeit: The technology doesn’t introduce anything new, other than tremendous manufacturing flexibility. Certainly counterfeit products are available today, but the ease of manufacturing does make it much easier to counterfeit a product. The best analogy is the music industry. Prior to Napster’s appearance, it was possible to re-record music. Napster facilitated pirated music. 3D printers may introduce inherently dangerous materials into environments where the operators may not have the appropriate safeguards in place. For example, a manufacturer that stamps out a piece of metal may begin to print that piece. If that manufacturer is not aware of the hazards and how to ensure safe operation of the equipment, there could be substantial risk. There are no 3D-specific safety standards available.

Predictions, of course, are never accurate, at least not in toto. Dystopian and utopian visions of the future rarely pan out, but they do spotlight possibilities. The movie Minority Report depicted drones and micro-focused marketing, concepts that have in some way come true. Precognition, the ability to view the future and anticipate crimes, has not materialized—yet.

The items discussed in this article are not intended to predict how 3D technology will play out. Instead, it is an opportunity for decision makers to analyze as many sides as possible in order to take advantage of this evolving technology and avoid any missteps.

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