Manufacturing with 3D Printing: Believe It
Todd Grimm posted on January 09, 2012 |
3D printing for production parts is real, is here and is now. Don't dismiss the concept before you r...

It’s real. It’s here. It’s now.

While production 3D printing may be easy to write-off as premature; easy to disregard as something futuristic; or easy to discount as something for massive corporations; companies around the globe are capitalizing on the technology.

Laser sintered light fixtures

Laser sintered lighting is ideal for production 3D printing. EOS GmbH.

However, there is one caveat. Production 3D printing isn’t right for every company and every project. Your challenge is to discover when it works. This is complicated by the fact that 3D printing is unique in every way. You’ll have to learn what the differences are and determine how to leverage its advantages while overcoming limitations.

This is the biggest obstacle. It is easy to dismiss 3D printing if it is evaluated in terms of standard operating procedures and specifications for conventional processes. The way you measure manufacturing performance and success will be largely inappropriate for 3D printing. It will focus decision-making criteria in all the wrong places and overlook 3D printing’s unique advantages.

Laser sintered jewelry

Intricate shapes make jewelry a sparkling example of laser sintered production work. EOS GmbH.

3D printing is powerful and enabling. The key to successful product and process innovative is to leverage that by seeking out what has proven to be impractical or impossible with molding, machining and casting. Look for the applications where performance is unsatisfactory or ideas have been nixed because of feasibility. Leave the things with which you are happy alone, for now.

What I am saying is that you need to stretch, learn and try. I have long believed, and have yet to be convinced otherwise, that the biggest hurdle isn’t technological. It is the challenge of breaking free from status quo.

Start Here

The key to success is applying 3D printing to low-volume, short-run products. If you need tens of thousands (or millions) of the same thing, move on. The sweet spot is where you only need a few or you need the latitude to change the design often.

Fitting examples include medical equipment, aircraft, custom/restored cars, racecars and medical/dental products. Yet, there is an application where all manufactures have low-volume needs, even with high-volume products, manufacturing aids and tools.

Oreck CMM fixture

Oreck Corporation manufactures CMM fixtures with FDM technology. Stratasys, Inc.

For instance, Oreck Corporation, famous for its line of vacuums, hasn't stopped injection molding cases, covers, and handles. 3D printing couldn't keep up with its production demands. But it has incorporated 3D printed parts into its assembly lines and quality control processes when fixtures are needed.

Jigs and fixtures are the first that come to mind. How many of these do you have now? How many could benefit from a no-setup, fast-turn manufacturing process?

Now expand that to gauges, work holders, bins, trays, and all the components that go into the manufacturing process. If you can still dismiss production 3D printing, I’d be somewhat surprised.

Thogus safety guard

3D printed safety guard (yellow) is one of many used by Thogus, a custom molder. Stratasys, Inc.

Change Required

Production 3D printing will be simple, but it won’t be easy. Versus what you know and do today, everything changes:
  • How you design
  • How you measure
  • How you schedule and inventory
  • How you define quality

There is a lot to learn and many unknowns as you shift your 3D printer from prototype machine to production system. But it will be worth it. Sit back and imagine a tomorrow where you are manufacturing with 3D printers. Overwhelming, isn’t it?

Engineering.com — Here to Help

We will be devoting much of our coverage to production 3D printing. We will present practical and useable information that serves as your guide.

On tap are tips and tricks from those that have already succeeded and in-depth coverage of design, quality, performance, management and finance. We will also fold in a heavy dose of what you need to know to convince the gatekeepers that the time is now.

Tell Us Your Story

It is interesting when a corporate giant has a 3D printing story to tell, but these are easily dismissed by all of you that work for small- and medium-sized businesses (SMB).

So, for all you SMBs out there, contact me and let me know your production 3D printing story. Let me know of your successful and not-so-successful endeavors. And from all those who have yet to attempt it, drop me a line and let me know what details you need in order to give it a try.

The Lingo

At Engineering.com, we will be writing about “production 3D printing” and “3D printing for manufacturing.

But recognize that there are many terms for this application. The oldest (most dated) being “rapid manufacturing.” For many, that was replaced with “direct manufacturing” or “direct digital manufacturing.

Engineering.com has chosen to follow the lead of all the other processes that have come before 3D printing. We won’t use nifty names for specific applications. Instead, we will append a term to 3D printing to identify the application. So, in the style of prototype injection molding or production machining, we will present prototype 3D printing and production 3D printing in our pages.

(For more on terminology, see 3D Printing: Speaking the Language.)

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