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6 Ways to Reduce Manufacturing Costs with 3D Printing

Developments in 3D printing have shown that the technology is becoming faster, processes more automated and production volumes increasing. 3D printing has now evolved to a point where it offers significant production value to companies. One aspect of this value is the ability to significantly reduce manufacturing costs in all areas of manufacturing, from design to product development and production. With 3D printing showing its value across all stages of manufacturing, we’ll be sharing the 6 ways the technology can help companies reduce their manufacturing costs.
 

1. Product Development  

Product development or, more precisely, rapid prototyping remains one of the main use cases for 3D printing, and for good reason. Using 3D printing for prototyping can help companies significantly reduce the cost of developing new products. Since 3D printing is based on digital CAD data, making iterations of a prototype merely requires a change in the design. This means that businesses can make multiple iterations of a product much faster and at a much lower cost than conventional manufacturing methods. Faster design iterations in turn mean an accelerated product development phase, as product flaws can be corrected and improvements made early in the design stage – minimising the likelihood of costly mistakes.
 
Another way 3D printing can reduce the costs associated with product development is by minimising the amount of labour needed to produce models, tooling and prototype parts. This is especially true for metal prototyping, which can often be very labour intensive and costly. However, companies like Desktop Metal and Markforged are offering cost-effective 3D printing solutions for functional metal prototyping.
 

2. Lower material costs  

Reducing raw material costs is another reason to consider 3D printing as a viable production alternative. Since raw material in 3D printing is added layer-by-layer and only where needed, the printing process dramatically reduces material waste. Unlike subtractive manufacturing methods, which typically produce more material waste, 3D printing is resource-efficient, particularly when high-value materials are used.  
 
3D printing also allows you to reduce the amount of material needed to produce a part, with metal lightweighting is a great example of this. Metal lightweighting refers to the practice of making metal parts lighter using 3D printing technologies. In industries like aerospace and motorsports, where even one kilogram saved can translate into significant cost savings, 3D printing is one of the few ways lightweight metal parts can be produced cost-effectively.  
 
With subtractive manufacturing, removing material from a part in order to reduce its weight makes it more expensive. Cutting, drilling and machining require extra work and thus involve extra cost. With 3D printing, the complexity involved in producing lightweight structures doesn’t come with an added cost. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: the lighter the part, the cheaper and faster the production process.
 

3. New design opportunities

3D printing enables product designers and engineers to experiment with complex designs and geometries that are unobtainable with any other manufacturing method. For forward-thinking companies, this is yet another way to achieve cost savings whilst maintaining product innovation.
 
One example of this at work is in the area of part consolidation, where designing for additive manufacturing can achieve real cost savings. While with traditional manufacturing requires that multiple components be produced and subsequently assembled to create the final part, 3D printing offers a different approach. Using the technology, a part made from several separate components can be printed as a single, integrated part. The use of part consolidation techniques in this way allows manufacturers to achieve significant cost savings, including labour costs associated with assembly work, reduced inventory costs (as fewer or even no additional components need to be procured and stored) and lower maintenance costs, as the performance of the part is improved.
 
To date, one of the biggest success stories in using 3D printing to reduce part count comes from GE. The company has used 3D printing to reduce the number of components in its new General Electric Catalyst turboprop engine from 845 down to just 11. According to GE, the new approach to the design not only brings the overall cost down but also reduces fuel consumption by 20% and lowers the overall engine weight.  By consolidating parts in the engine, there are fewer parts that need to be designed, certified, inspected and manufactured.
 

4. Low-volume production

There are many cases in which production volumes do not justify investment in highly expensive production tooling. For this reason, conventional manufacturing techniques, like injection moulding, are typically unsuitable for low-volume production. However, as 3D printing evolves into a technology for production, this has opened up new opportunities for a more cost-effective way to make products in small batches. With zero tooling and setup costs, 3D printing becomes an ideal solution to deliver parts in low quantities.
 

While low-volume production is a compelling use case for 3D printing, several companies are looking for ways to push the technology towards even greater productivity. For example, Betatype, a UK specialist in additive manufacturing, recently hit the headlines with  its 3D printed automotive parts. The company was able to optimise two metal 3D printers to deliver 384 metal parts in a single build in just 34 hours. By comparison, it took 400 hours to make this amount of parts using an unoptimised 3D printer. The cost-per-part has also been reduced from $40 to under $4. The company claims that ‘with an installation of 7 machines running this optimised process, volumes can approach 1 million parts per year — parts that are more functional and more cost-effective.’
 

5. Reduced tooling costs

Manufacturing costs can be substantially reduced by 3D printing production aids, such as jigs and fixtures. Jigs and fixtures are often outsourced to external suppliers, where they are CNC machined or manually welded and assembled. However, 3D printing jigs and fixtures in-house can prove to be a much faster and cheaper alternative.  
 

Volkswagen Autoeuropa has been printing custom tools for several years now, using Ultimaker 3D printers. The technology allows the company to create lightweight jigs and fixtures, designed for better ergonomics and improved performance. Most impressively,  in-house 3D printing helps Volkswagen Autoeuropa to achieve more than 90% in cost reductions when compared to sourcing the tools externally.
 

6. 3D printing spare parts

Many industries maintain a stock of spare parts of infrequent and low demand, and this can prove a costly expenditure. With 3D printing, there is no need to keep inventory for such spare parts at all. By leveraging the technology, manufacturers can produce spare parts on demand, reducing the number of stored parts, and thereby decreasing inventory costs.
 

With the advent of distributed manufacturing, OEMs and spare part suppliers are also taking steps to establish localised AM facilities for 3D printing spare parts closer to customers. This leads to faster and simpler delivery, driving down the logistical costs and reducing the complexity of the supply chain.