The truth about economies of scale for additive manufacturing processes
03 May 2017
Economies of scale are a key concern for all companies offering manufacturing services, regardless of their industry, or the specific processes and technology they employ. For some time now, these concerns have served to slow the uptake of additive manufacturing processes as viable production tools. The argument typically goes that additive manufacturing technology does not deliver the same economies of scale that traditional manufacturing does. In other words, the cost to deliver a 3d-printed part will always stay the same, regardless of whether one or 100 are to be produced. This is in contrast to traditional methods, where it is far more cost-effective to produce parts in large quantities. In light of this, we are often told that additive manufacturing is only suitable as a prototyping tool (albeit a fast, versatile and effective one), and will never supplant subtractive methods.
To a certain extent, this is true. Additive manufacturing processes are difficult to beat when it comes to the potential for customisation and the delivery of one-off parts, while the economies of scale offered by traditional methods make them highly attractive for large mass-production runs. However, with the rapidly accelerating move towards strategic automation and streamlining of project workflows across multiple industries, and dramatic improvements in technology and materials for additive manufacturing means that the situation is no longer quite as clear cut as it once was…
Developing complementary tools and process enhancements
Previously, additive manufacturing processes were unable to match the economies of scale in traditional manufacturing due to limitations in volume packing and build scheduling, which limited the number of parts that could be printed in a single run. As a result, large-scale production would typically prove impractical due to time constraints. However, ongoing research into volume packing and build scheduling methods is answering these concerns, allowing printing runs to be optimised, delivering the shortest build times without any compromise in quality.
Automation plays a key role here. Software platforms that are designed to meet the specific requirements of additive manufacturing projects are becoming increasingly sophisticated, allowing build scheduling to be calculated automatically, as soon as all project data has been received and approved.
The rise of truly integrated manufacturing solutions
The development of these software tools means that additive manufacturing is now slowly establishing itself as a viable production tool across a range of industries. However, this does not mean that additive manufacturing should be treated as a complete replacement for traditional manufacturing. For large-scale production, traditional methods still offer unmatched economies of scale, particularly for parts that will be produced routinely, with little (if any) need for customisation.
In the long term, it will be better to focus on bringing the various manufacturing processes available together, utilising them selectively in order to gain the fullest benefit from their capabilities. Forward-thinking companies are already exploring how multiple manufacturing methods can be utilised within a single project to deliver results that would be difficult or impossible to achieve otherwise. For example, a metal part could be 3D printed, then further refined using CNC machining to achieve the finished result.
The development of such hybrid processes has huge implications for industries such as automotive and aerospace, where one-off and limited run parts must be regularly delivered alongside routine, large-scale production runs. In such cases, a carefully considered combination of manufacturing techniques can result in tangible cost savings and process improvements. Traditional methods can be utilised for large-scale production runs to take full advantage of the resulting economies of scale, while additive manufacturing can be deployed for any small product runs or customised parts that would not be cost-effective to produce otherwise.
There can also be numerous hidden benefits in such solutions. Consider the need in many industries to maintain a stock of spare parts for emergencies. Storing these until they are needed can prove a serious ongoing expense, but spare parts could be 3D printed when they are needed instead, eliminating the cost of storage altogether.
Putting all this into practice
If integrated manufacturing approaches of this sort are to establish themselves, it is vital that software and workflow management tools are developed to ensure their successful implementation. When multiple processes need to be brought into alignment, effective workflow management must take place throughout every stage of the project lifecycle if efficiency and quality targets are to be met.
As we touched on above, software tools are rapidly evolving to suit the needs of additive manufacturing projects in this regard. We foresee these tools evolving further in the near future, bringing multiple manufacturing processes together as fully centralised workflows. This will allow innovative new solutions to be identified and implemented, with the flexibility to do so on a project-by-project basis.
As complementary tools and best practice evolve in this way, economies of scale will no longer be the primary deciding factor on which manufacturing processes companies choose to explore, and new techniques and technologies will reveal their full potential. We are very much looking forward to seeing the results!