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Disruptive 3D Printing Forces Companies to Reconsider Manufacturing

3D Systems, additive manufacturing 3D printing, part count reduction, PCR
Manufacturers are missing the board perspective on 3D printing. They need to completely reconsider their manufacturing processes.

3D printing technology has been around for decades, mostly used for creating prototypes. Advances in the technology have allowed 3D printing to morph into additive manufacturing (AM). When making one-offs or spare parts, 3D printing becomes a simple alternative to machining or molded parts. However, everything changes when it comes to production manufacturing. AM becomes a disruptive technology when you can print a single assembly that was previously 15 separate parts.

In this illustration, 16 parts have been reduced to one by using the additive manufacturing process. (Image source: 3D Systems)

“The vast majority of those working with 3D printing still don’t see it in a broad enough perspective. They take this component or part that they’ve made for years, and say, ‘What would it take to 3D print it?’ It takes more time and money, and so they say this doesn’t work for us,” Jack Heslin, president and VP of business development at 3DTechTalks and Lazarus3D, told Design News. “But they’re not redesigning their manufacturing to take advantage of 3D printing. If they do, they might find that what was 100 parts will be 10 parts or less. That will affect their time-to-market, their accounting, their cost, everything.”

Heslin will present the session, The Business Implications & Strategies of 3D Printing, at the Atlantic Design and Manufacturing Show in New York City on June 13.

Fewer Parts, Less Inventory

Heslin notes that manufacturers have not yet fully grasped the advantages of AM—particularly the implications of part-count reduction. “3D printing is still new enough that most companies don’t see how it could fit in with their production. We’re still learning about the implications of additive manufacturing,” said Heslin. “If you are redoing your component to go from 50 parts to 10 parts, everything gets impacted—the shipping, the warehouse, it all changes. In 10 or so years, the impact will be monumental.”

One promising aspect of AM is the impact on inventory. The 3D printing process offers the ultimate in just-in-time inventory, as AM production means inventory doesn’t need to be produced until demand requires a product. Even if AM costs more than machined or molded parts, the reduction in inventory may make up the difference and drive the overall cost of AM below traditional manufacturing.  “Many companies are not talking about their inventory and balance sheet,” said Heslin. “You make something, and you put it in a box, and the box goes on a pallet, then on a boat, and it goes halfway around the world into a warehouse or onto a retail shelf.” With AM, much of the supply chain can be reduced because stored inventory isn’t necessary.

Freed-Up Equipment and a Shorter Design Cycle

Another advantage of AM is the ability to divert equipment to other uses. “If you start to produce 3D print spare parts only as they are needed, it may free up the machine to do new work for new customers,” said Heslin. “3D printing might take longer and may be more expensive, but your capital equipment will be freed up for other work. Then you get into managerial decisions and strategic decisions on how to use it.”

Heslin notes that AM shortens the design cycle because the prototyping stage is greatly reduced. “This will also impact the product’s marketing. Most of the sales people don’t know how their products are going to change until the change happens. But the speed of the prototyping will change the time to market,” said Heslin. “Now, you can print something overnight or in a few days and change it. You can turn weeks, sometimes months, into a few days.”

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.

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