One thing unites the entire manufacturing world, and that is the drive to produce innovative, attractive, useful products in a timely and cost-effective manner. The fact that 3D printing can assist in these endeavors is a given, but the way that that use is stimulated and curated is important to ensure success in adoption.
By Georges Benz, President & Co-Founder, Jellypipe
Facts and reality have often been a grey area in the world of 3D printing. Let’s not forget that this technology in various guises has been around for well over 30 years. That long and it is still described as a disruptive technology? Surely if it was that disruptive it would have disrupted by now!
Well, a superficial view of the 3D printing world would maybe lead you to this conclusion, but all is not what it may seem. You see, 3D printing has re-invented itself over the years, and the reason that it is still seen as disruptive is that the technology today is disrupting in different areas than it was when it first began to gain traction in industrial settings.
In the mid-late 1980s, the talk was of “rapid prototyping.” This was essentially 3D printing, but as the preferred name of the day suggested, its key role was to speed up the production of prototypes. This was and still is important. The ability to be able to produce physical 3D-accurate representations of 3D CAD designs in a matter of hours allowed for so-called “concurrent engineering,” different departments in product development all working together, replacing over-the-wall engineering, and reducing design to market times by upwards of 80%. Disruptive!
More recently, however, 3D printing became more versatile, less material restricted (now incorporating plastics and metals), and more reliable and accurate. With this came a focus on how 3D printing could perhaps complement or even replace traditional manufacturing processes.
In other words, 3D printing began to be assessed as a true production technology. Extremely disruptive, and precisely where we are today, as manufacturing companies begin to focus on 3D printing as the technology that can help them become more profitable, more responsive, and more agile in today’s ever more competitive marketplaces.
The advantages of 3D printing
The inherent advantages of 3D printing for production are pretty well known today, and the technology is in a position where it can now rival traditional manufacturing processes in terms of costs and lead times in a variety of industry applications.
But it is not all about cost and time savings.
While in a growing number of cases manufacturers can justify the move to 3D printing by showing clear economic advantages, it is the added-value advantages that are in some instances just as, if not more, important.
Industry in general is driven by the need to innovate to satisfy customer demand. As such, a technology that can stimulate innovation, break down the barriers that are restraining design engineers as they grapple with just what traditional manufacturing processes can achieve is extremely important. And it is here that 3D printing is providing a hugely attractive alternative, as it is able to manufacture part complexity and geometric complexity either impossible or massively uneconomic through conventional plastic and metal manufacturing technologies.
In addition, complex parts–that with traditional manufacturing processes would need to be assembled for end-use applications–can be produced in one process with 3D printing, reducing the need for expensive and time-consuming multiple tools, and also the cost and time of post-production assembly.
Of increasing importance today in light of the COVID-19 pandemic is the fact that 3D printing can negate the need for international and increasingly fragile supply chains. 3D printing allows manufacturers to produce locally to the markets that they serve, and it also democratizes manufacturing as it overcomes the infrastructural and capital equipment led restrictions on the ability to manufacture.
3D printing is also a technology that does not require tooling and is not encumbered by the cost and time issues related to tooling. This not only means that manufacturing can begin the day a design is signed off but also allows for simple and cost-effective design changes and opens up the possibility of real mass customization.
There are a host of positive reasons why 3D printing should be considered and used as an alternative to traditional manufacturing processes. So why is it the case that relatively few manufacturers have made the move? Why is it that not every manufacturing facility across the world has 3D printers working 24/7, 365 days a year?
Well, while there are obvious benefits, there are also obvious barriers to adoption, some real, some perceived.
One thing that should be put at the top of the list is just the obvious inertia that exists when moving from tried and tested manufacturing technologies to new alternatives. An “if it’s not broken why try to fix it” mentality exists. In addition, when a manufacturing facility is set up and has been set up in a certain way for decades, the resistance to knocking this down and rebuilding is obvious. This is why so much time and effort are spent by 3D printing platform developers educating their potential customer base as to the easy wins and benefits through the use of 3D printing machines.
A step on from this is the fact that 3D printing is seen as so different in its conception and requiring a huge learning curve to use, that adoption is slowed as companies perceive there to be a knowledge gap that will be difficult to bridge.
In addition, companies are put off by the often high-cost of top-end 3D printing machines. For many, upgrading and repairing existing traditional manufacturing infrastructure is still seen as preferable to expending multiple hundreds and thousands of dollars or Euros on a technology that they do not feel comfortable with.
Material issues are also often cited, with the general view that the palette of plastic and metal material available on 3D printing machines is narrow. Today, this is perhaps not a real objection, as material development is one of the key areas of activity in the 3D printing sector. The key drawback here is that often specific technologies need to be used with specific materials, so to benefit from the range available, investment in multiple 3D printing solutions would be necessary, adding to the capital expenditure for in-house use.
The obvious route to adoption that overcomes a number of these barriers is to use the agency of a 3D printing service provider. In so doing, it is possible to use 3D printing without the need to invest in the kit, with little necessary understanding of the technology, and leaning on the knowledge base of your chosen supplier.
So, there we are, job done. How to use 3D printing without any of the downsides!
Well, if only life was that easy. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Service providers offer a solution. For example, the Jellypipe 3D printing ecosystem is driven by 3D printing service suppliers. They are the beating heart of the platform, which is designed to promote and facilitate the best use of 3D printing among manufacturers. The key is that we are talking about service providers “plural,” which means that when using the ecosystem, users send in jobs that are reviewed and quoted upon by multiple service providers and ranked in terms of speed of delivery or lowest cost.
This is an important part of the way the system works, as it means that users, who might otherwise be restricted to technology and material, now have access to a huge palette of materials offered by a range of service providers on a range of different 3D printing platforms. This approach means users will have access to the best material available and printed on the best 3D printing technology available for each specific application. No compromises.
The Jellypipe ecosystem means that users do not work directly with the 3D printing service suppliers, but through “3D solutions providers” that have broad manufacturing expertise and own virtual “shops” on the platform. These solutions providers have the knowledge to advise on such issues as design for 3D printing, material issues, technology issues, and to act as an impartial adviser between you and the community of 3D service providers that would obviously be inclined to give partial advice in deference to their particular area of expertise.