Trade shows often come with an unstated theme. The second LiveWorx conference in 2015 came with the theme: "IoT can be deployed from product development through manufacturing and customer use." A couple years ago, Siemen’s PLM World users’ conference was all about digital twins. At Advanced Design and Manufacturing in Cleveland last year, presenters and attendees were talking about how small- to mid-size companies were ready for smart manufacturing technology.
|The unstated theme of last month's Rapid TCT 3D printing show was that additive manufacturing is ready for prime time. (Image source: Rapid TCT)|
At the Rapid TCT 3D printing show last month, the unstated theme on the trade show floor was: 3D printing is ready for product manufacturing. Not just small runs, not just custom production, but honest-to-goodness manufacturing across multiple industries. The buzzword on the show floor was "serial production"—code for "manufacturing."
The concept of economically viable 3D printed manufacturing seemed to be on everyone’s lips. The idea of 3D printing with advanced metals was very yesterday. At Rapid TCT, the news over and over was the mainstreaming of additive manufacturing. Behind all of the acclaim for 3D print-based production was the explanation of the economics that prove additive manufacturing is viable on a wide commercial scale.
The Economics of Additive Manufacturing
While nobody I met on the floor was making a case for using additive manufacturing for the mass production of hundreds of thousands of units, the economic case for tens of thousands of units was clear. “If it costs you $50,000 to produce 5000 parts, it seems like each part costs $10. But when you use the first part, it actually costs you $50,000. When you use the second part, then each part has cost you $25,000,” John Dulchinos, VP of digital manufacturing at Jabil, told Design News. “If you no longer need that part and there are 1,000 remaining, then each part ultimately costs you $12.50.”
|On the show floor at Rapid TCT, everyone seemed to be talking about the viability of 3D print manufacturing. (Image source: Rapid TCT)|
The idea is that unused inventory is a liability that distorts the real cost of manufacturing. Aside from the expense of unused parts, there’s the balance-sheet cost of parts sitting on shelves. 3D printed parts are radically just-in-time. “With additive manufacturing, you may pay more for an individual part. But without the problem of leftover inventory or two years’ worth of inventory still on a shelf, additive manufacturing can be less expensive,” said Dulchinos.
First Aerospace, then the World
While additive manufacturing on a widespread scale is new, the concept has been viable for many years for some industries. “We’ve been supplying manufactured parts using 3D printing for longer than people realize,” Scott Sevcik, VP of manufacturing solutions at Stratasys, told Design News. “We’ve had a 12-year relationship with Boeing. They’re an early adopter of 3D printed parts. For 30 years, this technology has been moving toward manufacturing. Boeing and aerospace in general have recognized the value of highly complex, low-volume manufacturing using 3D printing.”
One of the roadblocks to the manufacturing of 3D printed parts was the quality, reliability, and durability of the printed products. Aerospace accepted additive manufacturing once it was assured that the parts were as strong as machined or molded parts. “Boeing had confidence in the materials. That’s why they embraced additive manufacturing," said Sevcik. “They knew they could scale large without a negative impact on the materials. And they could control the process in a highly detailed way.”
Though it varies with each industry, spare parts can carry heavy costs. They can sit on shelves for years and, ultimately, up to 20 percent of those parts remain once they become obsolete. 3D printing eliminates that cost. “With aftermarket parts, you gain efficiencies with additive manufacturing. It reduces waste, since you don’t have to produce a part until you need it," said Sevcik.
Another argument that bolsters the case for additive manufacturing is the ability to print complex assemblies that were previously a composite of multiple parts. “Efficiency comes with the elegance of 3D printed parts. You can reduce weight, and with the complexity of the parts, you can reduce the number of parts,” said Sevcik. “In an Atlas V rocket, they were able to reduce 140 parts to 16 parts by making parts that were more complex.”
Rapid TCT may have put to rest that long-held idea that 3D printing was great for prototypes and one-off replacement parts, but not for production. Booth-by-booth, I kept hearing the economic case for additive manufacturing or, as they liked to call it, “serial production.”
Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.