Since the latter half of the 20th Century, additive manufacturing has grown exponentially in its technological capabilities. This has garnered innovative developments in product design and manufacturing within markets including aerospace, automotive, consumer goods, dental, energy, healthcare, and more. Data collected throughout 2017 and 2018 for the Wohlers Report 2019 indicates that revenue for additive manufacturing will climb from $15.8 billion in 2020 to $23.9 billion in 2022, and $35.6 billion in 2024. Why is this technology gaining good traction across industries and will it drive manufacturers away from traditional methods of product design and manufacturing?

In this article, we will provide insights into the benefits of using additive manufacturing and the challenges that businesses face when considering the change from conventional manufacturing (CM) to additive manufacturing (AM).

Pros and Cons of Additive Manufacturing

One of the key aspects of additive manufacturing is the ability to capture complex geometries in 3D models to produce unique parts. The design and redesign enabled by 3D printing technology allows the development of parts that simply can not be produced by CM methods including subtractive and formative manufacturing. When it comes to part complexity and customization, AM may be of a greater benefit to manufacturers. Computer software can be used to create intricate part designs that can be quickly printed without the need to create new molds – as required in CM – that can incur high costs and irrevocably increase product lead-times.

Low-volume manufacturing is the bridge between one-off prototyping and full-volume production. This is a term used to describe low-volume production (50-100,000 units) before actual serial production begins. AM began at low-volume for rapid prototyping and began to be adopted most notably for functional assembly manufacturing according to Wohler’s report.

Besides industries such as automotive, aerospace, and rapid tooling industries that are already using AM for direct-part manufacturing, AM can be a viable option to many other business. When considering the lead-times and costs concerned with AM and CM methods such as injection molding, AM has been shown to be beneficial for the cost-reduction of part manufacturing, and is usually more cost-competitive for smaller quantities.

Another benefit of AM over CM is the potential to save on costs associated with tooling. Deloitte has cited research where tooling costs associated with AM equipment are about 30% that of tooling for injection molding. Tooling expenses account for 5 and 90% of the total production cost for AM and injection molding respectfully. The layer-by-layer printing capability of AM allows for greater adaptability for a broad range of products compared to subtractive manufacturing tooling that must be made for each individual product. AM can also eliminate the labor and cost required for part assembly, as a product can be fully assembled during one print session.

Overall, AM may well be very attractive to manufacturers providing the process is applied to the production of parts that have high value, high complexity, low volume, and/or high labor costs. AM can reduce or eliminate assembly time for parts with high labor costs, and automate the production process so labor is reduced.

Challenges to Additive Manufacturing’s Wider Adoption

Despite the benefits of AM, there are various factors that hold back its full adoption as a standard manufacturing process, especially for mass production. As previously mentioned, although the technique is highly efficient at product design and redesign, the time taken to actually print the part required can be second best compared to what injection molding can achieve. For mass production, AM simply would not hit the mark.

As AM has the ability to produce complex geometries that CM methods cannot, it does not need to follow the traditional design for manufacturing and assembly (DFM/DFA) principles. Instead, AM follows its own manufacturing design regulations, which fall under the term Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM). Despite this, the debate still remains as to whether it really follows manufacturing for design. At present, DfAM principles still need to be worked on and standardized. Though progress is being made in this area, more is needed to promote AM at a larger scale. In particular, the absence of standardized best practices has continued to slow the development of quality control (QC) and quality assurance (QA) strategies to advance industrial certification of AM manufacturing.

Integrating Additive Manufacturing and Conventional Manufacturing

The process of AM is still being refined and explored to be able to fit it to suitable applications. As it is a growing technology, it still requires time to develop. Rather than seeing AM as a new way of creating products that completely superseeds CM, there is another perspective. A fusion of thought across and between industries is pushing forward the genesis of a hybrid manufacturing process where AM and CM are integrated together. This approach was described as the “best of both worlds” by 3D Systems and combines the relative speed and design complexity of AM with the materials and precision of CM methods.

An example of this can be gleaned through the use of the elastomer, urethane. In its cast form, its physical properties, texture, color and feel of injection molded parts can be replicated at low volumes which is ideal for pre-production. This same method is applicable for a number of resins used for 3D printing. It can be applied for industrial applications including rotating machinery or construction of conveyor systems.

Usually, CNC machining would be used to create master patterns needed to cast urethane. However, when AM techniques are applied to this process, it is made more efficient in terms of speed and cost-effectiveness. One example provided by 3D Systems in its eBook “The Benefits of Traditional and Additive Manufacturing from a Single Source” shows how various AM and CM methods have been combined to create a full car prototype in just eight weeks.

The combined force of both AM and CM has only recently been realized and as efforts continue to integrate these once segregated systems, a new hybrid system will emerge. At present both AM and CM are developing together, with both offering specific capabilities to manufacturers.

To find out more about how additive manufacturing could be complementary to your traditional manufacturing methods, contact us today.