Every week, articles are published proclaiming 3D Printing is going to radically change the way that the world works, with some going so far as to predict that we’re on the brink of a global manufacturing revolution.
While those of us who work in manufacturing might say that’s going a bit far, I think many of us are rightfully excited about the potential to harness this thirty-year-old technology in new and exciting ways to continue to drive efficiencies, accelerate prototyping timelines and bring customized end products to the market.
The challenge, of course, is the same as exists with the adoption of any new technology -- figuring out when it’s right for your business, how it can best be implemented and what barriers to adoption exist (ideally before you hit them). 3D Printing continues to be an expensive technology when it comes to industrial-grade equipment, making it a sizeable investment for companies who are interested in exploring it.
Like any new initiative, having a clear plan and asking the right questions at the outset can help pave a smoother path forward. Based on my experience in helping companies of all sizes, there are three key things to keep in mind as you evaluate whether 3D Printing is right for your business.
There Is No One Size Fits All Technology
ASTM outlines seven different families of 3D Printing technology based on the materials being used and the way the materials are combined together. This ranges from metals to plastics to ceramics, and each technology has a very specific application use case. There are other factors to consider including cost (with some machines reaching upwards of $1 million), build speed, build volume, repeatability, ease of use, safety and overall part quality. In order to make a smart investment in the technology, you need to have a clear understanding of the types of parts you want to make to ensure you're selecting the right technology-- and that includes not just what you want to do today, but also where you see opportunity six months, a year and even two years from now.
Designing for 3D Printing is Critical
If your idea of a great application for 3D Printing is to create a nail or a standard bolt for your business, you probably don’t need to invest in the technology. The biggest advantage that 3D Printing has over other manufacturing technologies is the fact that you can create complexity in your parts without adding cost. This means that in order to use 3D Printing effectively, you need to be comfortable redesigning your parts to take advantage of this -- maybe by combining assemblies into one part or reducing weight by adding lattice structures or using organic shapes. This is often one of the biggest areas in which companies struggle in trying to achieve their return on investment for 3D Printing, because it requires going back to the drawing board, literally.
A Printer isn’t Your Only Cost
Once you invest $10k, $100k or $1 million dollars into a machine, you quickly will realize that much more is needed to create a safe, effective 3D Printing capability. Additional cost items includes materials (which can be much more expensive than traditional technologies), post-processing equipment, safety equipment and training. This can be especially true for metal 3D Printing technologies, as once the part is built in the machine it still may require heat treatment, removal from a build plate, surface treatments and polishing before it’s finished.
The bottom line is that companies -- large and mid-size alike -- are just starting to incorporate this technology into their business processes. As a result, there’s still a lot to learn...and a lot of opportunities for companies who do it right to create competitive advantages.
There’s also a lot to learn about where we truly are on the adoption curve, beyond the media “hype” -- having these insights will enable a smart conversation in the industry about where things are and how they might move forward. If you’re interested in the technology or are a current user and want to contribute to a research study to identify how much progress has been made around the world, you’re invited to complete a quick survey at **http://goo.gl/forms/XAPOVOQITr. ** These findings will be shared through an online workshop with those who participated to offer additional insights into the future of this exciting technology.
Dr. Mike Vasquez is a 3D Printing expert specializing in pushing the boundaries of advanced 3D printing technology. He is the Founder of 3Degrees, a Chicago-based consulting company focused on helping organizations maximize their investment in the technology. He has worked side-by-side with some of the top machine manufacturers, material producers and end users in the industry, consulting with them to identify novel applications, test new materials, and develop frameworks to maximize R&D efficiency and boost ROI. He completed his PhD in Additive Manufacturing at Loughborough University and received both his Bachelors and Masters from MIT in Materials Science and Engineering. Recently he published a best practice guide titled How to Make 3D Printing Work for You and Your Business. You can find out more at www.3degreescompany.com