3D Printing – So What? | 3DPRINTUK Blog

Anyone remotely interested in marketing will have often heard about the so-called “so what” test. However grand the claim made about a new product or service, however hyperbolic the statements around it are, if it doesn’t pass the customer “so what” test, it will most likely fall flat or, at best, not achieve hoped-for attention. A product or service must fulfill customers’ needs (or stimulate a hitherto unknown appetite) and answer the question “so what?” with nailed-down and demonstrable benefits.

Now let’s take a leap. As a company, 3DPRINTUK is embedded in the additive manufacturing (AM) / 3D printing world. We consider ourselves a mover and a shaker in the space, constantly investing in new technology and motivating successful customer outcomes through a combination of state-of-the-art systems and high levels of experience and expertise. As such, we can advise you on technology and material choice issues, the orientation of parts in a build area to maximise return, design for AM, etc… etc… We live and breathe 3D printing daily. Our customers see the value in using 3D printing as part of their business strategy, so we exist in a “convinced” world of 3D printing evangelists.

We have to look at 3D printing from the perspective of someone not experienced in its use, unaware of the benefits it can bestow on product development and product manufacturing projects. What would we say if someone came up to us and said, “3D printing — So What?”

DID YOU SAY, “SO WHAT”? REALLY?

3D printing, additive manufacturing (and for those long enough in the tooth) rapid prototyping have been around in one form or another for 30-plus years. Its ability to, in some way or another, be disruptive for such a long time is reflected in the terminology used to describe it. For the first 20 years, it disrupted the area of prototyping (hence rapid prototyping). More recently, it has disrupted — and as the technologies evolve, it continues to disrupt — in the production area (therefore additive manufacturing).

Somewhere along the line, today’s manufacturers will have some knowledge or experience using 3D printing as a prototyping or production tool. But it is often the case that without a long association with the technology, the full benefit of 3D printing can be missed.

3DPRINTING FOR PROTOTYPING

In the prototyping arena, the key is the ability to hold in your hand a few hours after pushing “the button” a 3D, an almost replica of the 3D CAD design you have on screen. 3D printing software can slice the data in the 3D CAD model, the layers that print. Such early (or rapid) prototypes allow early verification of design intent. They can be looked at before the product development process begins in earnest by tooling managers, for example, so that issues that could delay product development are identified early in the process.

In essence, rapid prototyping allows for concurrent engineering; all product development team members can work together and influence design outcomes early in the product development process. It replaces sequential or “over the wall” engineering, thereby compressing time-to-market and facilitating the development of products that are right the first time, speedily, and cost-effectively.

In essence, rapid prototyping allows for concurrent engineering, with all members of a product development team being able to work together and influence design outcomes early in the product development process. It replaces sequential or “over the wall” engineering, thereby compressing time-to-market and facilitating the development of products that are right the first time, speedily, and cost-effectively.

3D printed automotive parts
Porsche air control box printed in MJF Nylon 12. Courtesy of Wiesner Design.
3D PRINTING FOR PRODUCTION

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 various 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, the added-value benefits are, in some instances, just as — if not more — significant.

Industry, in general, is driven by the need to innovate to satisfy customer demand. As such, a technology that can stimulate innovation and break down the barriers restraining design engineers as they grapple with just what traditional manufacturing processes can achieve is extremely important. And it is here that 3D printing provides a hugely attractive alternative. It can manufacture part complexity and geometric complexity either impossible or massively uneconomic via conventional plastic and metal manufacturing technologies.

In addition, complex parts that, via traditional manufacturing processes, would need to be assembled for end-use applications can be produced in one via 3D printing, reducing the need for expensive and time-consuming multiple tools and 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 for the markets that they serve, and it also democratises 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 the design is signed off but also allows for simple and cost-effective design changes and opens up the possibility of absolute mass customisation.

THE BARRIERS

So far, so good, then. There are many 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 a move? Why does not every manufacturing facility worldwide have 3D printers working 24/7, 365 days a year?

While there are obvious benefits, there are also apparent barriers to adoption, some real, some perceived.

The apparent inertia that exists when moving from tried and tested manufacturing technologies to new alternatives must be put at the top of the list. An “if it’s not broken, why to 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 apparent. This is why so much time and effort is spent by 3D printing platform developers educating their potential customer base about the easy wins and benefits of using 3D printing machines.

A step on from this is the fact that 3D printing is seen as so different in its conception, and the perception is that it requires a huge learning curve to use, and adoption is slowed as companies perceive there to be a knowledge gap that will be difficulty to bridge.

In addition, companies are also put off by the often extremely 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 on a technology that they do not feel comfortable with.

Material issues are also often cited, with the general view being that the palette of plastic and metal material available on 3D printing machines is very 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 particular materials, so to benefit from the range available, investment in multiple 3D printing solutions would be necessary, adding to the necessary capital expenditure for in-house use.

3DPRINTUK Factory
State-of-the-art 3D printing systems by HP and EOS at 3DPRINTUK’s customer-built factory.
OVERCOMING BARRIERS

The obvious route to adoption that overcomes a number of these objections and barriers to uptake is to use the agency of a 3D printing bureau. In so doing, it is possible to use 3D printing without the need to invest in the kit, with little necessary understanding of how the technology works (just a basic understanding of how to design for the process), and leaning on the knowledge base of your chosen supplier.

So there we are, job done. How to embrace 3D printing to maximize business opportunities while minimizing the risk.

One thing that unites the entire manufacturing world is the drive to produce innovative, attractive, valuable products in a timely and cost-effective manner. The fact that 3D printing can assist in these endeavors is a given, but how its use is stimulated and curated is essential to ensure success in adoption. 3DPRINTUK exists to service the needs of modern manufacturers and accelerate the adoption of this technology that, by disrupting the traditional manufacturing paradigm, produces innovative and accurate parts cost-effectively and in an agile and timely fashion.

Written by Nick Allen, Managing Director, 3DPRINTUK

Read more from 3DPRINTUK here.

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