Moving 3D Printing into Mainstream Manufacturing

By Protolabs

In this blog we explore how additive manufacturing is moving beyond prototyping into mainstream manufacturing and how it is solving issues in many industries that other production processes cannot. 

It is a fast-evolving technology that offers a number of advantages so it’s worth exploring where we are at the moment, and then revisit the process regularly because the equipment is constantly improving and the number of materials available is growing.

Greater design freedom

For product designers its ability to generate almost any 3-D shape allows you the freedom to create parts that often perform better or cost less than those using other processes. 

A good example is in producing lightweight parts for the aerospace and automotive industry where weight saving can improve performance.  One example is a 3-D printed titanium bracket for Airbus that is 30 percent lighter than before but which has the same performance and durability.

Reduce future fabrication

This design freedom also means that you can design and produce a single component or product with multiple features instead of having to produce a number of parts for assembly.  This will not only reduce the number of parts but it will also save time by eliminating the need for additional fabrication.

Cost effective customisation

And because there is no need for moulds or fixed tooling, every part produced by a machine can be unique, which paves the way towards cost-effective customisation.  This has obvious benefits for trialing new product variations, but also leads us closer to fulfilling greater customer choice at a reasonable price per part. 

There is no better example of such customisation than in the medical industry where it has been used for countless applications. 

A good example is the production of prosthetics to produce more personalised and comfortable solutions faster and at a lower cost.  The process starts with a scan which then allows the clinician to build for example the new hip to exactly match the patient.  This saves the surgeon time since they do not need to adapt the joint during the operation and it also aids recovery for the patient.

Other solutions include developing specific surgery templates, individual surgical instruments for the surgeon and or the procedure and the development and production of specialised medical devices.

Faster time to market

One reason why 3D printing is so popular in product development is because it eliminates the time-consuming process of producing tooling and fabrication.  In most instances you can have the part or product more quickly.  For injection moulding for example, steel tools typically take 10 -12 weeks to produce. While we can reduce this at Protolabs to between 10-12 days by using aluminium tooling – it is still does not offer the same immediacy.

For additive manufacturing you can upload a CAD and generally leave the equipment to produce it. This reduces the time to market. 

For prototyping and product development there are obvious benefits but as the technology evolves and the number of materials available for processing increases, this advantage has become even more apparent for mainstream production.

And if market feedback suggests that the product or part needs further modification after launch, then 3D printing allows you to quickly resolve any issues without the time or cost of retooling.

Maintenance and spare parts

And once you have launched your product many will require future spare parts to prolong their life.  Traditionally this meant producing more parts and storing them.  Using 3D printing you can simply store the digital file and then produce spares when you need them. 

For many companies the cost of storing such inventory can be large and at some point many decide to discontinue support – which can lead to loss of reputation.  Thanks to 3D printing this can become a problem consigned to history.

With the number of new processes and materials becoming available in additive manufacturing, it is a good choice for low volume and responsive production.

Additive manufacturing equipment is getting faster and organisations like Protolabs are exploring greater automation to make production even quicker.  Will it enable mass production in the future? We are not there yet but we have learnt not to rule anything out as far as additive manufacturing is concerned.

While many see the technology as the holy grail of manufacturing it is not the answer for all production.  Other processes such as CNC machining and injection moulding can offer businesses advantages and there is often a case for mixing and matching technologies depending on your precise needs.

At Protolabs we produce components using six different 3D printing technologies, CNC machining and rapid injection moulding.  Let us help you make the right choice for your next project – whether it is prototyping or for manufacturing.