The Advantages of 3D Printing

3D Printing continues to make waves in the manufacturing sector due to its unique capabilities.  Other conventional fabrication methods such as machining, injection molding, casting, and forming each have many constraints that manufacturers have been working around for decades; however, many of these limitations are simply not applicable to 3D printing.  The layer by layer process of building parts eliminates several of the limitations of conventional methods such as tooling, design complexity, waste, and long lead times.  As a result, supply chain management decisions are beginning to recognize the advantages of 3D printing to drive value through better cost control, speed, flexibility, and quality. 

The advantages of 3D printing are: faster lead times, more design freedom, lower cost, mass customization, new material capabilities, and better recycling of materials. 

Increased Design Freedom

Almost all conventional fabrication methods utilize some type of machining, either directly or through machined tooling, whereby a cutting tool selectively removes material to form a part. The constraints that occur in machining while fabricating a highly complex design is either that the cutting tool cannot reach all the features, or the amount of complexity would require a longer machine run and thus increase the cost.

3D printing can produce highly complex geometries with ease and no increase in cost. Parts can be designed for 3D printing using topology optimization software that better matches their intended function. Anticipated loads are applied to the CAD design and the software yields a highly complex, but optimized structure that uses less material, but still provides the same amount of strength.

Large assemblies with many components can also be consolidated into fewer parts. Normally, smaller and low complexity components are built and then welded or fastened together. Instead, 3D printing can produce a single custom shape. This has several advantages including less cost to design, fabricate, assemble, and source large bills of materials. Additionally, the optimized shape has less joints that could potentially leak or break.

Faster Lead Times

3D printed parts can be made much faster than products manufactured through conventional methods because there is no tooling required and far less fabrication and assembly required. Conventional manufacturing requires the fabrication of many components that must subsequently be welded or fastened together to make a product. This requires many weld jigs, assembly jigs, and other tools. The advantage of 3D printing is that these assemblies can simply be printed in one piece, saving time, labor and resources.

Lower Cost

There are several areas in which 3D printing provides superior cost savings, including inventory costs, tooling costs, and material costs. In contrast to conventional methods, 3D printing can economically produce batches of highly unique products. Not having to invest in a production run of 10,000 units lowers both inventory costs and risk as supply can be manufactured on-demand. Spare parts can also become more affordable as companies need only carry a digital CAD model in a repository rather than hold inventories of physical products. Using the increased design freedom that 3D printing offers, products can be designed using less material, thereby lowering the material costs of products.

Mass Customization

Each consumer is different and subsequently has different wants and needs. However, to deliver affordable products, conventional manufacturing requires mass production of identical products to amortize the fixed costs across many identical units. Industries such as medical devices and consumer products can especially benefit from highly unique and customized products. Medical devices can be made to perfectly match the patients’ body, improving the effectiveness of many medical treatments. Consumer products can also be made with customized names, logos, and features to better match consumer preferences. Normally, highly unique and one-off products are unaffordable, but 3D printing allows for the economical manufacture of highly unique and custom products.

Better Material Capabilities

It is common for many products to experience different levels of heat and stress across different regions of the part. Despite this, many parts are created with the same material throughout. The advantage of 3D printing is the ability to use different materials in different regions of the part. For instance, one region of the part could use a material that may cost more but is better suited for high temperatures, while the rest of the part that will not experience any unusually high temperatures can be made with a less expensive and less heat resistant material.

Additionally, due to increased freedom of design, part designs can be optimized to only use the amount of material necessary to withstand the load forces that the part must operate under. Material can simply be added where required and omitted where not required. This topology optimization creates parts that weigh less but provide the same level of strength.

There are many materials, such as super-alloys, that are very difficult to cut or form. In contrast, the 3D printing workflow simply atomizes these materials into a powder and laser sinters the powder into a part. This can enable easier manufacturing of products for applications that require extremely hard materials.

3D printing materials can also be easily reused. Reverse logistics operations can take old 3D printed parts and melt them down back into feed-stock that can be reused to make new 3D printed products. This can have many implications that can enable more material savings while decreasing the environmental impact.

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