All too frequently, bloggers and pundits make inaccurate claims about 3D printing (3DP) and Additive Manufacturing (AM) systems capabilities. You could easily make the case that over enthusiastic punditry is partly to blame for 3DSystems recent decision to shut down its Cube business. Reality never matched the hype.
Another over enthusiastic claim is that 3DP/AM will fundamentally alter manufacturing, and that these systems will become mass production machines, producing hundreds of thousands of parts and objects with the efficiency of traditional manufacturing equipment, like CNCs. The implication is that 3DP/AM will replace CNCs and other traditional manufacturing systems.
Why do so many bloggers and pundits think 3DP/AM equipment is suitable for mass production? I’ve written about the manufacturing industry for more than 25 years, so it’s not a surprise to me that many people simply don’t know what goes on in a manufacturing facility. And, it’s fair to say that many people have inaccurate assumptions about what is meant by mass production.
For example, when they think of mass production, what number comes to mind? One to three hundred parts an hour? OK, 3DP/AM can do this, depending on the part size, complexity, and 3D printing technology used.
How about one thousand parts an hour. Depending on the part size, part complexity, and the 3DP/AM technology, it could happen.
What about several hundred thousand parts a minute? Not yet. That’s still CNC, injection-molding territory.
As an engineer and a writer, I find these non-informative, click-bait blogs dangerous. Ignorance sets up impossible to fulfill expectations. If you don’t meet the expectations of the customer, what do they do? They leave. It has happened before in the 3DP/AM industry.
So, here’s how to set up 3DP/AM for failure:
- Insist on 3DP/AM doing what it is not designed to do.
For example, insist that 3DP/AM systems be able to “mass produce” items. If you are making very small, simple geometry parts, say ½ in. by ½ in. by ½ in., you can produce about 50 or so on a typical build table (19 in. by 19 in. by 19 in.) in an hour, maybe less, depending on the 3DP/AM technology you use.
Yet, CNC machines can mass produce several thousand parts in under a minute. It’s no comparison.
It’s only been in the last few years that this idea of using 3DP/AM for production developed. 3DP/AM systems are not fast. Initially, they were not built to be fast, just faster than the weeks it used to take to get a prototype. Even if HP succeeds in delivering its Multi-Jet fusion system with its supposedly faster build capabilities, it won’t be as fast as a CNC.
- Insist that 3DP/AM will supersede a Trillion dollar machine tool industry.
At reputable conferences devoted to 3DP/AM, such as The Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG) and RAPID, speakers often indicate that the global machine tool industry is about a $1 trillion dollar market. In 2014, China reported an export value of $11.63 billion in machine tool sales. China reported an import value of $17.78 billion in machine tools.
Japan reported imports of $5.16 billion, and Germany of $4.29 billion. Those figures are just a few of the countries buying and selling machine tools.
Various market research firms claim that the number of 3D printers sold globally in 2014 is around 158,000. Sales are expected to grow from $1.6 billion in 2014 to $4.8 billion by 2018. 3DP/AM has a bit of a way to go before it becomes a trillion dollar industry.
Given the constraints of sufficient and sufficiently varied suitable AM build materials, knowledge on using 3DP/AM systems, and mechanical component limitations, it doesn’t seem likely that 3DP/AM machines will replace traditional manufacturing equipment any time soon.
- Fail to educate yourself about 3DP/AM strengths and weaknesses.
3DP/AM vendors may eventually figure out a way to speed up part build. They may develop material with faster flow rates through a nozzle, or test the limits of mechanics to move axes faster with repeatable accuracy and minimal vibration, or fuse powder together with even more lasers without overheating the build chamber or vaporizing the powder. It can happen. But not this year. Probably not next year. Or the year after that even.
Continuing to insist that 3DP/AM will be a mass production tool, or that it will replace CNCs without a clearer understanding of the design challenges that must be conquered first is irresponsible.
Mass production, because of the thousands of quantity involved, usually requires a standard design. You can do a standard design for 3DP/AM. But why? For years, manufacturing has been looking for a tool that will produce custom one-off or small production runs inexpensively. It’s here—the 3D printer/Additive manufacturing machine.
The key strength of 3DP/AM is in this technology’s ability to produce custom, one-off designs that are impractical or impossible to do with traditional manufacturing equipment.
3DP/AM will be used in a manufacturing capacity, alongside traditional manufacturing equipment. It will fill the gap that has long existed between mass and custom production.