Companies are using direct digital manufacturing (DDM) in substantial and growing numbers. Counter to experts’ predictions, manufacturers have adopted DDM much sooner than anticipated.
DDM (also known as rapid manufacturing) is an approach to manufacturing that invites innovation in the way products are designed and produced. It is an alternative that accelerates production and reduces cost while creating new possibilities and paradigms. Yet in spite of all that it offers, experts have stated that DDM would not catch on for years or decades.
The pundits forecast resistance to DDM until it matched the qualities of processes like injection molding. While Stratasys and its competitors have improved accuracy, repeatability and speed, the improvements fall short of what the experts thought was mandatory. And yet, DDM use is expanding.
Why has it defied the predictions? The DDM applications, and therefore the requirements, are different than forecast. DDM users realize that there are situations where its advantages are essential and its apparent limitations are of no concern.
DDM users look for better alternatives rather than direct replacements of a successful manufacturing process. They are also looking not only to manufacture their products but to manufacture the items that make the products.
As an alternative, DDM will not replace an entrenched process like injection molding. So it should not be assessed with the same specifications or constraints. The experts’ predictions were based on deficiencies when DDM is compared to injection molding’s strengths. They assumed that the decision criteria would be the same. But what the experts failed to recognize is that there are many situations where injection molding is not the best choice and other options are needed.
Companies apply DDM when production volumes are low and the likelihood of design changes or customization is high. They also leverage DDMs ability to produce highly complex designs with no impact on product cost or delivery time. And of course, there is the major advantage of no cost or time for tooling. These traits are unequaled by traditional manufacturing methods. When these advantages are critical, the shortcomings are less important.
DDM users are also innovating the mundane. While the spectacular stories of mass custom medical devices or parts taking flight in military aircraft are headline news, they are just a small sliver of the DDM applications. The more common applications never leave the manufacturing plant because the DDM parts are used to produce the company’s products.
On the manufacturing floor, there are countless opportunities to benefit from DDM. Low volume, complex designs and frequent modifications are common traits of the jigs, fixtures and equipment that manufacture a company’s products. With the constant pressure to get products out the door while lowering expenses, more companies are using DDM. It has become an innovative solution to the everyday challenges in manufacturing.
DDM has defied prediction. It is used by more companies, in more ways, than many expected. And yet, it is only a fraction of what it will become. As new applications are discovered and new benefits revealed, more companies will adopt direct digital manufacturing, and as they do, it will change the way products are designed and produced.
Scott Crump is founder and CEO of Stratasys, Inc. in Minneapolis. Stratasys manufactures additive fabrication equipment used for prototyping and direct digital manufacturing.