Top 5 Benefits of Additive Manufacturing
3D print will be manufacturers’ digital disruption—decades in the making
The manufacturing industry will be one of the last to face digital disruption at the magnitude we’ve seen in verticals like retail, media, and financial services. Well, I’m here to tell you: It’s all happening. For a technology category that first appeared almost 40 years ago, 3D print has now moved beyond product prototyping for R&D and into the real-world applications of producing end-use parts at scale. From polymer-based parts used in consumer apparel to titanium surgical implants as well as metal parts in jet engines (see image below) and Boeing wing hinges, additive manufacturing is poised to affect the products we use and take for granted every day.
|GE Additive produced the first FAA approved 3D-printed fuel nozzle for its aircraft engines in 2015
and now has more than tens of thousands of units in production.
So what’s changed since Charles Hull, founder of 3D Systems, invented stereolithography in 1983 for rapid prototyping? First, as Moore’s law would suggest, the costs have plummeted while hardware and software capabilities have advanced exponentially. Second, continuous innovations in materials science enable manufacturers to print new polymer- and metal-based end-use components at scale while meeting/exceeding the highest quality standards. But it’s not just about these technological advancements; manufacturers are realizing that additive manufacturing:
- Reduces barriers to entry and time to market. The cost of capital for a complete 3D printing system can be acquired for a fraction of the cost of standing up a traditional manufacturing facility. Some metal 3D printers can even be used in an office environment without special ventilation or specialized waste management requirements. This allows smaller, nimbler competitors to enter new markets quickly and efficiently. Furthermore, printing end-use parts decreases the lead time to create tooling on the factory floor, as engineers can print custom fixtures and rigs needed for new products in days instead of waiting weeks to months.
- Increases part performance. 3D printing enables the manufacturing of parts that were previously impossible to make, creating an opportunity to gain tolerances to repeated stress and strain. I attended a GE Additive event a few years ago where former CEO John Flannery said that engineers can now “design without limitations.” As an example of such a claim, Optomec has printed electronic strain sensors onto turbine blades that can be scanned during maintenance cycles. Rather than replacing blades at specified intervals, Optomec’s customer can now increase the life of their turbine blades and simply scan the sensors to monitor performance and replace them only when scientific measurements dictate that it’s necessary.
- Reduces material waste. As its name suggests, additive manufacturing constructs an object by adding material layer by layer instead of subtracting it. This enables a dramatic reduction in wasted material, which is invaluable to an industry like aerospace (in which 30% of the material can be wasted with parts manufactured by traditional methods). Additive manufacturing also allows more complex, organic shapes to be printed as a single object through generative CAD software. This gives greater design freedom, as mentioned earlier, but the real power of generative design is that is uses AI to optimize part design with less material and higher strength characteristics.
- Enables assembly consolidation. Additive manufacturing will also unlock the ability to consolidate parts on complex mechanical systems because multiple parts that typically work together can now be printed as one. This is particularly attractive in the automotive, aerospace, and agriculture industries where large, complex machines are frequently used and parts management is a significant cost center for owners and manufactures alike.
- Enables mass customization. Much like we see the enablement of mass-customization in the consumer apparel space thanks to direct-to-garment (DTG) printing, the flexibility of 3D printing will allow firms to print customized parts for little extra cost. As an example, Japanese carmaker Daihatsu uses Stratasys 3D printers to let their customers pick the color and texture of a custom-effect skin on their car.
There is no doubt that additive manufacturing is already reshaping (pun intended) how physical products are made today. But I still run into people who think that 3D print is a niche technology in search of a problem to solve. Hopefully, the short list of benefits and examples above will make the doubters lean in a tad more and explore adjacent possibilities. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing the inevitable innovations to come in this exciting space.
And on that note, if you happen to work in additive manufacturing and have a story to share, I’d love to hear from you.
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