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3D Printing Considerations for Production in Manufacturing

By Marney Stapley
North Forge Fabrication Lab Director

Advancements in Additive Manufacturing (AM, also known as 3D printing) increasingly enable companies to move beyond prototyping to end-product manufacturing. Here are some areas to consider:

Cost

According to Deloitte’s research, AM can compete with the cost of traditional manufacturing methods at levels of production up to approximately 14,000 parts. Most direct cost comparisons are done with injection molding (IM) and the production of relatively small plastic parts. 

The comparisons of the direct cost associated with AM and traditional manufacturing methods consistently point to tooling and machine costs as key differentiators. 

Tooling and its cost far outweighs the unit cost of each additional part. Beyond its production, tooling must be maintained, stored, and often tracked over long periods of time. 

Machine costs tend to take up the majority of the cost structures for AM. New product-capable 3D printers can be very expensive. Build volume is critical on these printers to fill out build volumes to sufficiently pack the production envelope. Materials costs can be about 30% higher with AM compared to traditional methods such as IM. Material recyclability drives cost as well. 

Speed to Market 

AM can be perceived as slow, particularly in the case of single-object builds. Remember that the parts being produced are “near net shape” in a single process and that all steps related to casting, machining, and other equivalent processing for more traditional approaches should be considered. 

Faster design iterations may accelerate time to market, and market responsiveness may also be improved through accelerated product modification and changeover due to reductions in tooling use.

In addition to improved responsiveness and cost savings, market risk may be reduced where an improved ability to make minor product adjustments results in greater market acceptance.

Greater value by designing for AM 

AM lets designers focus on supporting the intended function of an object rather than on its manufacturability. An example by Mark Cotteleer, Deloitte’s Research Director showed that in aerospace, AM can reduce component weight by 30-35% and eliminate up to 90% of material used. In a specific example, one aircraft manufacturer redesigned a generic bracket using AM. The resulting part was estimated to save 22 lbs per aircraft. 

Manufacturers should consider the implications of product redesign, with or without attempting supply chain changes, in order to truly understand where AM represents a viable production technology and where it does not. 

AM offers companies an opportunity to innovate. Here are a few areas to help evaluate the business case for AM:

  1. Begin with the focus on relatively small, complex, plastic parts. This is where the most substantial evidence exists for AM to outperform/by-pass the cost efficiency of more traditional manufacturing methods. 
  2. Tooling is fundamental and may shift towards AM due to its expense, flexibility, and impact on time to market. Even if traditional tooling is justified for large production runs, it may be feasible to deploy AM technology for product introduction, allowing tooling to be recycled or discarded rather than tracked and stored. 
  3. Material costs. Consider business cases where material costs can be dramatically reduced. In particular, evaluate circumstances where vendor-supplied materials may be required and where they may not. 
  4. Look at the financial implications of the capital cost of a new technology investment. Seek advice on leasing, depreciation and tax implications. 
  5. Have a wider perspective on time. Before deciding AM is slow, consider the full production cycle involved in traditional methods, including lag time between production steps. Also consider time to market and delivery lead times as a part of the value proposition. 
  6. Understand product innovation based on AM. Skilled designers may find ways to redesign components to reduce material used while maintaining or improving product performance. Redesign can help offset often higher AM material costs and add value for customers. AM technologies can help companies differentiate themselves by creating unique market offerings.
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