Is 3D Printing Ready for Scaled Production?

While additive manufacturing has received attention for its promise of mass customization and generative design, not everyone believes it’s ready for large-quantity production.

3D Printing is revolutionizing design and customization. It has become the go-to process for prototyping. As an additive manufacturing (AM) process, 3D printing has proved effective in many applications in Aerospace and Medical, but technical constraints may be holding 3D printing back from become that next manufacturing revolution.

For one, few companies have redesigned their products and supply chains for AM friendliness. “One of the biggest barriers to additive manufacturing is that the way companies utilize the technology doesn’t match what their production requires,” Ken Burns, technical director at Forecast 3D, told Design News. “When opportunities to use additive manufacturing come to the production side, there are so many barriers. You need to do x, y, and z, to make it work, and that affects the price point.”

Forecast 3D, 3D printing, additive manufacturing, prototyping, mass customization, HP multi-jet 3D printing
While 3D printing is moving beyond prototyping, the additive manufacturing process may not be ready for scaled-up production. (Source: Forecast 3D)

Burns will present the session, Three Untold Truths in Manufacturing with 3D Printing, at the Pacific Design and Manufacturing show on Feb. 6 in Anaheim, Calif. During the session, Bruns will delve into the topic by offering case studies that explain the challenges companies face as they consider AM for production.

One of the challenges Burns points to is the difficulty of setting up the supply chain to support a shift to production 3D printing. “The current supply-chain production landscape doesn’t have a fit for 3D printing,” said Burns. 3”D printing quickly gets discredited and pushed to prototyping,”.

He noted that the best path to AM for manufacturers is when they apply the process to new products rather than switching existing production. “The opportunities for additive manufacturing today are with brand new applications. They are easier to sell to management because they don’t hit the barriers,” said Burns. “Replacing the production of something that is injected doesn’t fit in that box. It’s a square peg in a round hole, and it’s painful.”

Generative Design, Mass Customization, and Prototyping

Generative design creates offers design options produced by software to take advantage of 3D printing capabilities. While this process has gained attention for its ability to reduce weight without sacrificing integrity, it hasn’t yet caught fire outside advanced markets such as aerospace and medical. “There is not a lot of generative design happening yet. Most people don’t even know what to do with that at the moment,” said Burns.

Burns sees more promise in prototyping with 3D printing and using the process to customize the manufacturing. “In prototyping, 3D printing works because of the small scale. You don’t have to think about repeatability,” said Burns. “On mass customization, there are real opportunities. You can reach the price point.”

Prototyping may still be the strongest fit for 3D printing. Yet, if the prototype results in an excellent product, that doesn’t necessarily mean 3D printing offers production opportunities. “You can’t do a prototype and then turn around and do 100,000 of them,” said Burns. “You can will start with a prototype, but that doesn’t you can scale to 1000s or tens of thousands.”

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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