Why Companies Embrace 3D Printing for End-Part Production

30 August 2021
DMLS 3D Printing applications

As 3D printing continues to mature into a technology for production applications, it has the potential to transform the way certain parts and products are made in the new era of digital manufacturing.

To highlight the recent progress of the technology, below we’re taking a look at the benefits of 3D printing for production, alongside the real-life examples of 3D-printed end-use parts and the challenges to greater adoption.

The benefits of 3D printing for end-part production

Economic low-volume production 

Additive manufacturing (AM) can aid in lowering high-cost parts for low-volume production. 3D printers make parts from digital files, without the need to create expensive tooling such as moulds. This eliminates the need to spread high tooling costs across thousands of parts, which is common practice in traditional manufacturing. 

By 3D printing parts directly, manufacturers can create small to medium batches of parts with minimal overhead and effort, bringing the cost per part down drastically for low volume production. 

Producing parts on demand 

For a company that wants to produce low volumes of on-demand parts faster, 3D printing can be particularly useful. The ability to 3D print parts at the point of need, provides a significant benefit for OEMs and suppliers, as they can reduce the number of parts stored in warehouses and decrease inventory costs.

That’s why companies are increasingly exploring the possibility of 3D printing replacement parts on-demand. For one, the technology can produce some spare parts faster than would be possible with traditional technologies. As a result, 3D printing helps to put a broken component back in operation faster, thus preventing production disruptions. 

Spotlight: Ford 3D prints service parts for Ford Focus

Ford's 3D printed lever arm
3D-printed HVAC lever arm [Image credit: Ford Motor Company]

Earlier this year, Ford, together with 3D printer manufacturer, Carbon, showcased the first digitally manufactured polymer parts in production for the Ford Motor Company. 

One part is a Ford Focus HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Cooling) lever arm, a service component for older models. 

Previously, it was injection moulded, using a PBT material. When Ford needed some new parts made, it turned out that it needed to create a new tool to produce the parts, which would have been time-consuming and expensive. 

To optimise the production of these parts, Ford switched to Carbon’s DLS technology and began manufacturing lever arms on-demand from a digital file. 

Switching to 3D printing allows Ford to support spare part needs of its customers and dealers more efficiently. For one, thanks to the technology, the lead time for the HVAC lever arm has been reduced by more than 50 per cent.  And this takes us to the next benefit of 3D printing for production.

Reduced lead time

Most conventional manufacturing processes require custom tooling to be designed and built for each new geometry. However, the development and manufacturing of tooling can take weeks, or even months, and any product design changes at this stage can mean starting again from scratch. 

AM can be used in production to go from CAD directly to the final part, eliminating some of the long lead times for tooling. Manufacturing teams are taking advantage of this new approach, launching products sooner than would have been possible with conventional tooling.

Spotlight: Lockheed Martin slashes tank delivery time from two years to three months

Take Lockheed Martin as an example. The aerospace and defence company has used EBAM, a large-scale metal AM technology from Sciaky, to 3D print domes for giant satellite fuel tanks.

Lockheed Martin 3D prints titanium domes for spacecraft
Lockheed Martin 3D prints titanium domes for spacecraft [Image credit: Lockheed Martin]

The satellite fuel tank consists of a traditionally-manufactured titanium cylinder that forms the body and two 3D-printed domes that serve as caps. The three parts are welded together to form the final tank vessel.

Thanks to the high deposition speed of the EBAM system, which can reach up to 11 kg of metal per hour, Lockheed Martin was able to deliver the domes in three months instead of two years – a whopping 87 per cent reduction in lead time.

Design flexibility 

In traditional manufacturing, design complexity typically comes with additional costs. As a result, the scope of geometries that can be created, using traditional processes, is restricted. Parts designed for machining or injection moulding are typically confined to shapes that are cost-effective to produce. 

With 3D printing, however, design complexity doesn’t govern the part cost. An additive process creates complex lattice structures and intricate shapes with no more effort than simple geometries. 

The ability of 3D printing to create more complex designs can also be used to increase the performance of a part. 

Spotlight: Bugatti’s 3D-printed brake calliper

French automaker, Bugatti, leveraged the design freedom of 3D printing for its latest Chiron supercar, producing, what is said to be the world’s most powerful titanium brake calliper.

Bugatti 3D-printed brake caliper
A 3D-printed brake caliper [Image credit: Bugatti]

While the brake calliper functions just like a normal calliper, the combination of 3D printing and titanium means that it is much stronger and roughly 40 per cent lighter than the aluminium part currently in use. 

Using a metal 3D printing process, called Selective Laser Melting (SLM), the Bugatti team was able to experiment with a variety of geometries and wall thicknesses, unattainable with traditional manufacturing techniques. 

The result: an intricately-shaped brake calliper, with wall thicknesses between 1 mm and 4 mm.

Last year, Bugatti successfully tested the calliper at high loads and is now preparing to take the component into production. 

Other examples of using 3D printing in production 

The examples of end-use 3D-printed parts span across many industries, but aerospace is perhaps the biggest sector developing and using 3D printing in production. 

When it comes to interior components, 3D-printed spacer panels have been flying on Airbus A320 aircraft since 2018. Typically, these parts would have been made using injection moulding, but with 3D printing, the process has been offered much more efficiency.

airbus 3D printed spacer panel
A 3D-printed spacer panel [Image credit: Airbus]

The panels are 3D printed, using a high-performance ULTEM material, and, thanks to the optimised design, they are faster to produce and 15 per cent lighter than conventional alternatives.

3D-printed structural aircraft parts 

In addition to cabin parts, 3D printing has been used for some structural aircraft components. For example, Airbus division, Airbus Helicopters, started large-scale production of 3D-printed metal latch shafts for its A350 aircraft last year. 

With a laser-based AM technology from EOS, Airbus Helicopters are able to produce latch shafts 45 per cent lighter and 25 per cent cheaper, when compared to a traditionally manufactured latch shaft. 

Furthermore, Spirit AeroSystems, which manufactures fuselages for Boeing commercial aircraft, has recently begun installing the first titanium structural component made through AM for the Boeing 787. The part is a back-up fitting for an access door latch. 

The key benefit of 3D printing the part, compared to the previous production method of machining, is the possibility to reduce the cost of the part by significantly reducing the amount of metal needed to make it.

3D printing for consumer products 

Several brands of consumer goods have also adopted 3D printing for production. For example, Chanel is now 3D printing millions of mascara brushes, in collaboration with French 3D printing service provider, Erpro Group. 

The mascara brush was created using SLS, a technology that uses a laser beam to fuse layers of polyamide powder. With 3D printing, the design of the brush has been optimised – for example, the rough, granular texture achieved with SLS technology improves the adhesion of the mascara to the lashes.

Read also: How L’Oréal Accelerates Time to Market with 3D Printing 

Using 3D printing in footwear manufacturing

Almost all big footwear brands, like New Balance and Adidas, are incorporating 3D-printed elements, like heels and midsoles, into some of their sneakers. 

New Balance, for example, used Formlabs’ SLA technology to 3D print the heel of the 990 Sport sneakers and the forefoot of the latest FuelCell Echo Triple shoes, both featuring a complex lattice structure design. 

According to New Balance, 3D printing allowed it to drastically shorten its design-to-manufacturing cycles and completely revamped how they approach the design of their shoes.

3D-printed bicycle components

Finally, a number of bicycle manufacturers have begun to explore composite and metal 3D printing for bicycle components, from frames to brackets. 

In one example, the Dutch company, MX3D, renowned for its 3D-printed steel bridge, used metal 3D printing to produce an aluminium frame for its Arc Bike II. 

Designed to be lighter and easily customisable, the Arc Bike II has been 3D-printed in just 24 hours, using large-scale Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing technology.

The challenges to end-part 3D printing

Adopting 3D printing for end-part manufacturing is far from being easy though. 

There is more to it than just investing in the machines. End-part additive manufacturing must meet a number of requirements, including but not limited to repeatability, traceability, quality assurance and staff expertise. 

For companies embracing 3D printing for advanced applications, there’s a question of how they are going to factor these elements in their 3D printing operations. 

There’s also another issue of integrating 3D printing with the wider enterprise environment. A lack of connectivity with the IT infrastructure can create information silos, which in turn can limit the company’s ability to assess the performance of its 3D printing production. 

Sooner or later, the need to scale production may become a challenge for companies. At this point, organisations would need to consider solutions that can help them automate and future-proof AM operations

Read also: Additive Manufacturing in a Smart Factory: 5 Keys to Success

More additive production applications are on the horizon

While 3D printing hasn’t yet disrupted large-volume manufacturing, the production of 3D-printed parts and goods is already happening. 

This is because the capabilities of 3D printing technologies have grown significantly over the last decade, allowing technology adopters to create new designs and achieve greater production flexibility.  

Ultimately, 3D printing has embarked on the path of production only recently. It means that a lot more AM production applications are set to be unlocked in the near future. 


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