Is 3D Printing Right for My Industry?
Kagan Pittman posted on March 29, 2017 |
Pick the right process for the right part, says Xometry expert.
A collection of 3D printed parts of different plastics and colors. (Image courtesy Xometry.)
A collection of 3D printed parts of different plastics and colors. (Image courtesy Xometry.)

Product developers know the drill. Prototypes and mock ups bring designs to life. Historically, they are often developed in a machine shop, stamped “not for production” and put through the ringer for testing.

In today’s world, however, industrial level 3D printing, known as additive manufacturing, and advanced CNC machining allow manufacturers to develop prototypes significantly faster and iterate on demand.

This is rapid prototyping.

Rapid prototyping using CNC machining and additive manufacturing techniques is ideal for contract manufacturers across the industries of aerospace, defense, automotive and consumer goods for a diversity of applications.

Xometry offers manufacturers a rapid prototyping solution, using their Manufacturing Partner Network and Instant Quoting Platform to quickly produce parts through CNC machining and additive manufacturing techniques including:

Consumer Goods & Automotive

In this industry, plastics are widely embraced and “3D Printed” is becoming a marketing term – meaning companies like Xometry can help customers from prototyping through to production.

“More consumers are designing for processes like SLS or FDM for end products and they have customer acceptance, which is huge,” explained Greg Paulsen, director, project engineering group at Xometry.

“If you have customer acceptance for how a 3D printed part feels, without that finish, then we can easily scale up production using 3D printing technologies. In comparison, aerospace and defense are much more about specifications and practical use, where consumer goods have way more flexibility.”

Commodity resins and polyurethanes are well suited for injection molding processes for parts with a quality finish.

Flexibility in the consumer goods market can be made even more flexible through what Paulsen calls iterative prototyping. Using Xometry’s Instant Quoting Platform, customer’s can start comparing multiple prototype iterations made with different materials and processes in the modeling phase.

“With our SolidWorks add-in, a designer can prototype their budget by looking at their items and comparing materials and processes within the platform, with the cost available up front,” Paulsen explained. “Very quickly, a designer can see what the trade off is if they want to have a slot feature on the side, and they can determine whether its worth it as the price updates in front of them.”

The automotive industry, on the other hand, is conservative toward additive manufacturing for mass production of vehicle parts, whether it’s the frame or smaller parts within the vehicle.

Instead, 3D printing has found a strong niche in producing jigs and fixtures to increase the efficiency and productivity of robotic automation and human workers.

“FDM and SLS are favorites among our customers because of their flexibility of design,” said Paulsen.

“With 3D printing, it’s not just plastic parts; you can make inserts, Helicoils, and you can tap the parts and install peripherals to help you with your job. 3D printed parts and tools are also the center of major assemblies with magnetic components.”

Industrial robots are highly versatile with their diverse number of possible end effectors. Custom grippers can be 3D printed to meet the application at hand.

“I’ve seen end-of-arm-tooling for grabbing parts in certain ways, with a blow out bulb feature to avoid a feature that would otherwise be crushed by the robot, so you could see little protection zones,” Paulsen explained. “I see 3D printing also used for molding machines, directly on the automotive floor. Sometimes 3D printing is used for sorting and transferring tools from the molding machine, where parts get picked up by a robot with a 3D printed hand fixture, and go to a conveyor system where a splitting device and sorting tools may also be 3D printed.”

3D printing even steps into the quality assurance phases of the automotive industry.

“We actually work with hydraulic tubing and we’ve seen a lot of custom fixturing in that realm, where instead of working with traditional metrology, they’re working with a go-no-go gauge that’s 3D printed,” Paulsen said.

“We can print parts that are three feet long, so you can take a large assembly and set in this gauge, which is made almost like a perfect cradle for the assembly and if the gauge is qualified, they can take the assembly, set it in and validate their design.”


Aerospace & Defence

Within the aerospace industry, additive manufacturing techniques are slowly gaining popularity. Companies like Airbus and GE Aviation currently use 3D printing to develop parts like fuel nozzles, jet engine brackets and other small parts.

3D printing in the aerospace industry is also useful for prototyping for fit checking and proofs of concept.

“When we’re dealing with aerospace and 3D printing, we’re typically working on the prototyping side,” said Paulsen.

“When we’re dealing with aerospace and CNC machining, we will do the gamut from prototype, to spec manufacturing. Typically, we use DMLS on the prototyping side, not the one-off side with steels or aluminums. Aluminum is often going to be a precast, so we would lean a customer toward a metal casting approach, where they’ll use aluminum 3D printing as a surrogate to help build and validate the part in parallel while they’re setting up the casting operation.”

In the aerospace industry, 3D printed surrogates are most practical in place of high value, long wait time, high complexity parts.

The aerospace industry rarely demands large quantities, so much as high quality custom parts. Paulsen’s team is used to seeing orders ranging from one to 12 parts at a time, only occasionally going beyond 20.

“We typically see a variation in quantity for purpose-built designs, for things like mock-ups or laboratory research equipment, but the frequency of our work is much higher,” Paulsen said.

The defense industry however, brings a completely new set of requirements for Xometry and its partners. Common aerospace materials like titanium, aluminum and steels still apply, but polymers and polyurethane castings are also in demand.

In the defense industry, customers look for more ruggedized materials with specific requirements, like fade resistance, durability and water tightness, making polyurethane castings stand out over 3D printed alternatives.

Historically, polymers had a bad rap for defense applications due to failure to meet specification requirements ranging from durability, flame retardancy, color matching and beyond. However, the plastics industry back then wasn’t what it is today. Modern plastics and polymers can be customized down to the chemical level to meet application requirements.

A collection of 3D printed parts. (Image courtesy Xometry.)
A collection of 3D printed parts. (Image courtesy Xometry.)

“Our 3D printed materials and nylons can be highly durable, chemical resistant, abrasion resistant and meet fire resistance and color fastness requirements for military applications,” said Paulsen.

“Polymers are also becoming more popular in the defense market because of their durability. When you drop something metal, like aluminum, you get a permanent dent, but when you drop plastic, it can be designed to bounce back.”

Plastics developed for additive manufacturing can also be ideal for housing sensitive electronics that may need to withstand extreme environments with contaminants like dust and water.


Flexibility, Partnerships and Transparency

3D printing, additive manufacturing and the processes available for rapid prototyping have presented manufacturing industries with a new level of flexibility and choice on how to minimize costs and time to production.

Xometry turns to its manufacturing partner network to expand its level of expertise and resources to meet these needs, and promises transparency through its instant quoting platform.

“Manufacturing has never had so many options and even better with services like those at Xometry and elsewhere, its never been so accessible, either,” Paulsen said.

“People are becoming experts on what you throw at them, and I never underestimate the talent or ability to learn from our customers – its amazing what I learn from them. By having more 3D printing in the world, it has made access to CAD a necessity, so we have more CAD designing happening all the time.”

For more information on Xometry’s Instant Quoting Platform, Manufacturing Partner Network or processes, visit their website.

Xometry has sponsored this post. All opinions are mine. --Kagan Pittman

Recommended For You