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Additive Manufacturing Can Reduce Part Counts Significantly

3D Systems, additive manufacturing 3D printing, part count reduction, PCR
Manufacturers can experience productivity gains by using 3D printing to reduce the overall number of parts in products and assemblies.

Designing a complex product (or assembly) always presents challenges. Creating a design that requires as few parts as possible—while retaining full functionality—can be even more of a challenge. In general terms, reducing the number of components in an assembly contributes to a better manufacturing process—an imperative for all manufacturing. However, performing part count reduction exercises while using traditional processes only takes you so far in parts-count reduction.

Shown is the difference between traditionally manufactured products and single part products created using additive. (Image source: 3D Systems)

The addition of additive manufacturing into the production mix enables a step change in part count reduction while delivering multiple business benefits that are not often evident from the beginning. However, maximizing the effect requires a change in the thought process for design and an understanding of additive manufacturing. Manufacturers are successfully working toward this goal—often with the assistance of 3D printing experts.

Transformational Productivity with Additive

Under traditional processes, an assembly may need multiple design engineers—often spread around the world, maybe in different organizations, and possibly working on multiple CAD platforms. Manufacturing of the parts may require multiple sources with multiple datasets being used. Inspection of the parts and assembly will be frequent, and maintenance of the finished assemblies can require multiple repair sources and a lot of parts in bins or on back order.

Bringing additive into the mix enables the same assembly to often be produced as a single, monolithic part—both in metal and plastic. It also simplifies the entire design and supply chain by having single design, production, manufacturing, inspection, and maintenance sources.

Changing the Bottom-Line Numbers

With a successful design, you have a single, functional part being produced—meaning one digital CAD file, with significantly fewer design engineers involved. Manufacturing now only has a single source, with one data source and far fewer points of failure both in the supply chain and part quality. There is now a single inspection source, significantly improved tolerances, and virtually no tolerance stacking. Maintenance is transformed through having one repair source and immediate access to parts. If there is any delay for a 3D printed part, the back order should be a matter of a few days, not weeks or months.

Part count reduction using additive delivers a part far faster, with optimized weight and also designed for true functionality. A single, integrated part can deliver vastly improved performance through integrated features, which are not possible with traditional manufacturing techniques. There are also fewer points of failure and, if designed correctly, massively improved mean time between replacement or major overhaul. In addition, your supply chain has just transformed from, say, 50 suppliers to just a few, combined with lowered labor cost associated with assembly work. Your parts lists, BOMs, and PLM data also are simplified.

Improving the Top-Line Revenue

While all of the factors above can transform your bottom line costs, part count reduction using additive manufacturing can also transform your top line revenues. For example, with a better part that meets customers’ needs more quickly, you now have a faster product time-to-market and resulting profit. The more agile supply chain means you can repair and maintain products more easily, keeping customers happy and inviting repeat business.

Whenever I engage with customers on this topic, I am quickly able to see that light bulb moment once we have worked through a few examples. Industrial designers and engineers almost need to discard the old ideas of, “How would I do this in sheet metal?” and start to imagine, “What would the perfect part look like?” More often, with the traditional shackles removed, part count reduction is a natural, organic process. With additive manufacturing, you can, for example, include integrated conformal cooling channels or hydraulic delivery lines. Other features, which are there only because of traditional manufacturing requirements, can be removed.

Thinking Additive as a Solution

The original assembly of 20 parts on the top, with the 3D printed single, monolithic burner on the below. (Image source: 3D Systems)

Let’s take a look at a quartz burner system for a European light bulb manufacturer. The original assembly weldment shown below had 20 parts, was tricky to assemble, and had a lifecycle of about 6 months. Our team in Belgium worked with the customer to create a single monolithic part that is 3D printed in Ni718 materials on our 3D printers. And the results really sell themselves:

  • Part count reduction – 20:1
  • Production time reduced by 75%
  • 50% reduction in material volume
  • 60% more cost effective
  • 3X improvement in mean time between failure (MTBF)

The 3-time improvement in lifetime for this part is through a combination of the material volume reduction, the conformal cooling channels that are less than 1 mm away from the burning gas, and the use of the Inconel material for heat resistance.

Part count reduction is enabled through plastic additive too, and the same approaches come into play. This vacuum-formed duct required 16 parts plus adhesive to assemble prior to 3D printing in plastic. By combining the parts into a single part, the customer could produce the part consistently with reduced labor requirements and no tooling. This eliminated risks of assembly error and created a better, lighter product.

The image on the left is an example of the number of parts required in traditional manufacturing. The example on the right involved one part. (Image source: 3D Systems)

The motorsports exhaust we recently researched with a customer is another great example. On the left side of the image below, you’ll see the 20 or so sheet metal parts used to assemble the exhaust, including numerous hydroformed components—each of which required individual tooling and a long time to assemble.  On the right, you’ll see the single, monolithic part printed in XHP-Ti on our metal 3D printers.

Another 3D printed in just 23 hours compared to the weeks it usually takes to produce the assembly conventionally. Design time was reduced from 6 weeks down to 6 days with a single CAD data file. Assembly errors are removed and assembly checks are reduced to one inspection. No fixtures are required for welding and, with a typical wall thickness of 0.5 mm, it is approximately 25% lighter than the original fabricated exhaust.

It is fair to say that almost any manufacturing operation can benefit from adopting part count reduction using additive manufacturing. All it takes is your CAD system and a design engineer saying, “What if?”

Colin Blain is a principal advanced applications engineer for 3D Systems with a specialty in design for additive manufacture. While he is based in the UK, he is part of the global group of application engineering teams at 3D Systems.

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