Is 3D Printing Ready for End Part Production?

13 September 2018
end part production 3d printing

One of the biggest trends in additive manufacturing over the last decade has been the move from rapid prototyping to production. While 3D printing is still commonly thought of as a niche rapid prototyping solution, the technology’s move from prototyping to end-use parts is well underway. How, then, can manufacturers start to make the transition from rapid prototyping to end part production with 3D printing? And what challenges need to be overcome to make this AM a fully viable solution for end-part production?

The benefits of 3D printing for end-part production

3D printing has become an invaluable tool for product development and design validation, offering a quick and cost-effective way to produce concept and functional prototypes without the need for expensive tooling. However, the benefits of the technology extend far beyond this limited scope. 
Developments in additive technologies mean that manufacturers should now be considering the ways in which they can utilise 3D printing to assist in volume production. While conventional subtractive manufacturing methods like injection moulding and casting are ideal for producing large quantities of identical parts, they are limited for certain applications, like customised parts and products that need to be produced in low volumes.
Clearly, 3D printing is not expected to replace these traditional manufacturing methods anytime soon, but the technology does offer clear advantages for the gaps they can’t fill. 
Low-volume production
When it comes to low-volume production, for example, 3D printing becomes a viable and economically sound option. The ability to go from a digital design to production means that complex products can be created that would otherwise be impossible and prohibitively expensive to manufacture using traditional methods. This enhanced freedom of design enables manufacturers to push the boundaries of innovation and bring new, innovative products to market that much faster.
One of the most famous examples of 3D printing used in this way is the LEAP jet fuel nozzle by GE. Instead of producing the 18 separate parts required for the nozzle separately, with 3D printing, the nozzle can be produced in just a single part – being 25% lighter than its predecessor.
Mass customisation
Customisation is more than just a buzzword; it’s a reality of today’s consumer landscape. With consumers expecting ever more personalised service and products, manufacturers face the challenge of meeting these demands effectively. Here, 3D printing provides the ideal solution: a cost-effective way to mass produce products tailored to the needs of the individual customer. BMW is just one company using the technology in this way, with its customisation service for its MINI car range. Customers can select customised features, such as door handles or parts of the side plate, which are then customised additively.
Leaner supply chains
3D printing offers two game-changing benefits for leaner, simplified supply chains.  Firstly, manufacturers can use 3D printing to move from “made-to-stock” to “made-to-order” manufacturing model. This eliminates the need to maintain extra stock, thereby significantly reducing inventory costs. Secondly, with the ability to now manufacture products on-demand, production can move closer to consumers, accelerating delivery and streamlining the supply chain. Digital inventories, in the form of CAD files, coupled with localised production, could, therefore, transform supply chain management for manufacturers.

Moving from prototyping to final parts?

Huge advancements in additive technologies over the last decade have made 3D printing for end-part production more than a distinct possibility. However, for the shift towards low-volume production to be truly made, advancements in software, processes, materials and hardware still need to be made. While much of this is happening already, it will still take some time for AM to be adopted en masse as a manufacturing technology. Here are some of the challenges that need to be overcome:
Workflow processes
Many OEMs starting to explore the use case of AM for end-use parts lack the software infrastructure to create a scalable additive manufacturing process. As AM is unique in its requirements, standard PLM and MES solutions are not enough to ensure a well-oiled production process. Things lack file optimisation – including file repair and conversion – machine scheduling and build optimisation require dedicated workflow management software that can streamline key production stages and ensure a repeatable production process. 
Another challenge for industrial-scale 3D printing has been the speed of the hardware systems, although recent developments may well change this. For example, Desktop Metal’s series of 3D printers are said to have a speed 100x faster than laser-based systems. These metal AM machines are designed for high throughput of complex metal parts. HP is another company looking to scale up 3D printing for larger batches of end parts; its Multi Jet Fusion 3D printers are notable for high speed and accuracy, enabling the cost-efficient production of up to 110,000 parts.
Process reliability & quality control
A key difference between the needs of rapid prototyping vs. end-part production is that part quality and process repeatability are much more important factors for the latter. For demanding applications like aerospace and medical where part quality is of utmost importance, for example, it is paramount that processes can be repeated and safety assured. For many years, ensuring a repeatable additive manufacturing production process has been a challenge, and one many manufacturers still face.
However, progress is being made in this area. For example, companies like Expanse Microtechnologies are contributing to process standardisation through advanced CT scanning technology. And recently, the Additive Manufacturing Standardization Collaborative (AMSC) was established to accelerate the development of industry-wide additive manufacturing standards and specifications.

Looking ahead

Manufacturers are increasingly recognising the benefits of 3D printing for end-use parts, with industrial giants like Siemens and BMW heavily investing in AM facilities to propel production at scale. In the light of this, companies are increasingly looking at ways to integrate the technology into their wider manufacturing operations. While 3D printing won’t be competing with traditional manufacturing methods, it has the potential to transform the way certain parts and products are produced in this new era of digitisation. Manufacturers, therefore, need a strategic plan and roadmap for implementing additive manufacturing, covering all parts of the process from design to production and post-processing.


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