What Better Than 3D Printers to Close the Loop in the Digital Workflow?
Roopinder Tara posted on November 15, 2017 | 5350 views

A growing number of companies, each from different backgrounds, products and culture, are eager to claim they understand what you need to manufacture in the modern age. The latest is 3D Systems, who invited us to its Littleton facility (near Denver). Its products, 3D printers, are perfect for the last step in the digital workflow, and they should be your factory, we are told.

3D Systems facility in Littleton, Colo., is home to its health care and metal printers.
3D Systems facility in Littleton, Colo., is home to its health care and metal printers.

3D Systems does indeed seem to take out some of the steps from the traditional (non-digital) workflow. Growing a functional part in a 3D printer from a CAD file means no drawings were printed and no physical prototype may have been created.

A 3D printer is better able to be in a digital workflow than is a metal cutting machine, even a CNC machine. A good machinist or CNC operator is forged from years of experience. A 3D printer attendant only needs to make sure the heads aren’t clogged or the jugs of resin don’t empty. One attendant can attend to a lot of machines.

3D Systems introduces the media to the modular 3D printer system, meant for serious manufacturing production. Framed on the left is Chuck Hull, founder of 3D Systems, who captured the concept of a modular 3D print system in what was figure 4 of a patent application and now, after 32 years, sees his concept come to life.
3D Systems introduces the media to the modular 3D printer system, meant for serious manufacturing production. Framed on the left is Chuck Hull, founder of 3D Systems, who captured the concept of a modular 3D print system in what was figure 4 of a patent application and now, after 32 years, sees his concept come to life.

Big CAD Is All In

Big CAD companies are approaching the digital workflow from the other end, the side that creates the data that the 3D printers are fed. We can supply all the information you need to make the part, they seem to say.

Pity the poor machinist, who may be wondering if the modern world has forgotten about him.

For decades, CAD has tried to do a full digital workflow with cutting machines. This has led to some success. But even with CNC, there was enough of a divide between two groups in an organization that it prevented seamless cooperation. The engineer still feels he is throwing his design over the wall into the machine shop—and says a prayer that they’ll get it right. And he doesn’t want to be called into the shop to hear some apron-clad old-timer berate him for not knowing that his machine can’t make a cut or that his drills need a flat face to start drilling.

Is This the End of the Machinist?

CAD companies saying they can handle manufacturing is, no doubt, seen by the machinist as arrogant and belittling. How can someone at a desk who has never cut metal know more than someone who has studied and practiced in the trade?

But engineers will argue that the digital workflow smooths out the process. It gives control to the engineers. It overcomes some of the limitations a reliance on cutting matches has imposed. It can mean having a part made on the desktop or in the next office, not in a machine shop or factory. It will be delivered faster. It can skip steps. No mold is needed, for example (and no moldmaker). What used to be a multipart assembly becomes one part. An optimized shape that would have made machinists laugh you out of the machine shop can be made without the slightest protest.

Vyomesh Joshi, CEO of 3D Systems (left), and author.
Vyomesh Joshi, CEO of 3D Systems (left), and author.
The vision of total digital workflow is clearer than ever. And 3D Systems’ CEO Vyomesh Joshi seriously intends to make 3D Systems very much a part of it.


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