By Mike Imlay
Why Your Company Can No Longer Ignore 3D Printing
Over the last decade, additive manufacturing (or 3D printing) has made significant strides—to the point that it’s no longer a question of if but when even small manufacturers will tap into its potential for rapidly creating product prototypes, factory tooling and even low-volume production parts.
Is there a 3D printer in your future? It’s really no longer a question of if, but when. That’s because now, after more than three decades, the technology known officially as “additive manufacturing” is finally maturing and mainstreaming—and transforming modern manufacturing in the process.
According to Wohlers Associates, a Colorado-based manufacturing consulting firm, 3D printing company revenues have seen a 16% compound annual growth rate over the past decade. That is partly because the last 10 years have also seen 3D printing companies making major technological strides while substantially lowering costs. Among the more noteworthy developments:
Changing the Aftermarket
In fact, additive manufacturing is already a game-changer for many specialty-equipment manufacturers, said Deon Colchester, president of Syncronetics. Based in Huntington Beach, California, the company engineers a broad range of consumer goods, including vehicle and off-roading products. Colchester began utilizing 3D printing for product prototyping about 10 years ago and has since discovered that it has much broader implications for his business.
“They talk about 3D printing being the new industrial revolution, and it’s really true,” explained Colchester. “I’ve done design and development for a long time, and one of the key issues is that you really don’t know what your problems are going to be when you start working. Additive manufacturing so shortened our development time and our costs. I got hooked on the advantages of using this process.
“Anything that’s a strange shape or difficult to design in other ways is a candidate for additive manufacturing. We do a wide range of things related to composites. We also do very small components, precision components. Anybody who’s doing supply chain needs to look at 3D printing, because it’s not only rapid prototyping. It’s production, it’s tooling, it’s dies and fixtures, and it’s quality assurance.”
Colchester said that the process can also be used to make models for marketing aids and has very wide applications.
“We can talk about supply-chain disruption,” he said. “In the old days, if you wanted to sell something through a company in another state, you would ship it over. That’s changing. You might [instead] just have a partner in another state where you exchange the intellectual property, and he sources the components and delivers them in his neighborhood. The whole supply-chain paradigm is changing.”
To that end, Colchester knows of several companies that are already licensing others to “print” their products for customers, bringing a whole new meaning to “supply on demand.”
Colchester compared the phenomenon to computer technology in general: In the beginning, only large companies could afford massive mainframes, while it took time for powerful desktops to trickle down to smaller businesses. In 3D printing, what began as the exclusive advantage of defense contractors and major industrial manufacturers is now at last falling into everyone’s hands. He noted that entry-level 3D printing machines left much to be desired when Syncronetics first invested in the technology, especially in regard to engineering-grade materials.
“We now have an in-house printing capability that is much more reliable and much more stable,” he said. “There’s a very wide range of materials available, and 3D printing companies are focusing on making materials available in a wide range of textures and colors.”
Gaining True Versatility
This prototype crescent wrench came out of a 3D printer in full working order. Many manufacturers are discovering that they can now design and print specialized factory tooling perfectly suited to their workforce at lowered cost, revolutionizing their plant operations.
“We’re coming out with new materials all the time, including nylon, metals and engineering-grade plastics,” confirmed Steven Gibson, western manager of applications for Stratasys, one of the world’s principal makers of industrial-level 3D printers. “But we like to use the term ‘direct digital manufacturing’ more so than 3D printing or prototyping, because we’re taking the equipment now into manufacturing environments.”
Stratasys currently offers manufacturers two industry technologies: fusion deposition modeling and polyjet. The first basically melts plastics with heat diffusion for layer-by-layer application, while the second technology sets down thin deposits of a photo polymer with inkjet-like print heads and then cures that material with ultraviolet light.
Gibson noted that today’s digital manufacturing machines range from 5x5x5-in. build envelopes all the way up to 36x24x36 in., with prices in the marketplace running from under $5,000 for the smallest units to $500,000 for the largest. Although only a few companies such as Stratasys make 3D printers for the industrial arena, Gibson estimated that there are now 300 to 400 companies making them for small-business and home use.
For industry, there may yet come a day when digital assembly lines print out thousands of end-use consumer products, but Gibson said that the technology is best suited for now to rapid prototyping, smaller part sourcing and playing a supporting role in other areas of the manufacturing process to reduce time and costs.
“In the shorter-run arena, parts are becoming very economical to do,” he said. “So, yes, we’re doing end-use parts in some instances where they will actually get bolted into a vehicle. But go to any place that has assembly lines: Even in the automotive industry, jigs and fixtures are a big thing. Companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on fixtures to assemble products that they put out the door. We’re finding that the machinery lends itself very well to that and actually speeds up the time to get some of those tools, jigs, fixtures or inspection pieces. And they can do more as far as shapes and contours because of the flexibility of the [3D printing] machine, as opposed to the astronomical cost of cutting pieces from metal if they had the ability to do it out of metal.”
Gibson believes that digital manufacturing offers countless opportunities for companies to innovate, cut costs and free up manpower.
“Weeks of fabrication steps can be cut to days,” he observed, adding that some companies are even engineering fabrication tools for their employees that are lighter, more ergonomic and, in some cases, custom-fitted to workers’ hands to help lessen fatigue and repetitive motion. And while many of the lower-end consumer printers may not be suitable for creating test prototypes, they’re perfectly adept at churning out scale models in a wide range of materials and colors for marketing purposes.
“It’s going to be an immense help to a company even just to sell an idea,” Gibson pointed out. “A lot of times in business, we’re selling ideas and products today before we actually have tools or ways to produce them. To have a model in your hand and bring it in—it’s a much easier sale. People get excited.”
Colchester agreed and has even put his 3D printing equipment to use to keep his other legacy machinery running.
“One of the things we’ve started to get involved with is parts replacement,” he said. “All the heavy capital equipment items that may have a long life can have an enormous problem with obsolete parts. We get involved in reverse-engineering parts and printing them at reduced unit costs.”
Making Better Products
This is a turbocharger prototype printed at the SEMA Garage in a high-grade thermoplastic that is suitable for strenuous testing. Additive manufacturing significantly cuts research and development time at tremendous savings, helping to level the playing field for smaller aftermarket companies.
Meanwhile, in Phoenix, Arizona, aftermarket filter and intake-system manufacturer Airaid is another of the many SEMA-member companies that have successfully integrated additive manufacturing into their production operations. According to Keith Charvonia, the company’s industrial designer, Airaid uses its 3D printer on a daily basis for product development—printing hard parts for test fitting and performance evaluations—and also to create prototype tooling to prove out a concept before going to more costly permanent tooling.
“We have had a printer in house for about seven years and outsourced printing as needed before that,” he said. “We use our equipment to its maximum potential, finding workarounds in the software to decrease print time or material usage or to fit more parts into a print job for less downtime. We have also started printing molds into which we can pour urethane and make soft parts, further advancing our prototyping capabilities.”
Charvonia confirmed that the technology has helped Airaid cut manufacturing costs significantly.
“Having a part in hand removes any guesswork,” he explained. “We have drastically reduced development time, cost and errors by prototyping every part before we go to tooling. We are able to quickly and easily test different airflow scenarios on the flow bench and vehicle in multiple iterations. We recently upgraded to a stronger, high-temp ABS Plus material in our printer. We can run 3D-printed intakes on a test vehicle for hundreds or thousands of miles without concern. Since it’s just ABS plastic, it can be plastic-welded to other ABS parts, too.”
3D Printing With SEMA
SEMA members in search of 3D printing services need look no further than the SEMA Garage—Industry Innovations Center in Diamond Bar, California. For several years, SEMA has offered members access to a Stratasys Fortus 250MC printer with a 10x10x12-in. build envelope. Now the Garage is acquiring a new Stratasys Fortus 450MC model capable of building parts as large as 16x14x16 in.
“Working with nine standard engineering and high-performance thermoplastics, the new printer will let members build accurate, repeatable parts faster than ever before,” said Gary Pis, SEMA vehicle quality data manager. “It can also produce jigs, fixtures, factory tooling and production parts as well as functional prototypes suitable for stringent testing.”
Costing just $15 per cu. in., the Garage’s 3D printing services are exclusive to SEMA members. For more information, visit www.semagarage.com/services/printing, or contact the SEMA Garage by phone at 909-978-6744 or via e-mail at email@example.com.
As exciting as the technology is, however, Colchester cautioned that, like all capital equipment, digital manufacturing machinery requires a great deal of research before investment.
“You have to be careful,” he said. “There’s a lot of hype, and there’s a lot of equipment out there that’s in plastic wrap today because it was the wrong equipment for the job.”
A company’s first step in leveraging the technology may well be outsourcing work to a 3D supplier, most of which contract additive manufacturing services in addition to their equipment sales. Either way, Charvonia advised working closely with 3D printing consultants and resellers to learn tips and tricks for adapting the technology to a company’s specific needs.
“Their sales engineers will know the equipment inside and out and can make good recommendations for your processes,” he said.
In short, your company can’t afford to ignore the fact that additive manufacturing is already at work transforming the ways aftermarket companies are creating and moving their products to market. And, as far as Colchester is concerned, the sooner a company incorporates the technology into its operations, the better.
“Embrace 3D,” he concluded. “It’s very useful and can do your business a lot of good. It levels the playing field against the bigger competitors.”