3D printing – what’s the added value for your business?

The questions you need to ask to take full advantage of 3D printing
Manufacturing & Process
26 November 2018

3D printing – also known as additive manufacturing – is rapidly gaining traction. One reason is that the technology is now mature enough to be used for series production. As a result, 3D printing is on the agenda of an increasing number of companies.

Companies are rightly interested in the technical and economic benefits of 3D printing, but often find it difficult to implement them efficiently. This is hardly surprising. In order to take full advantage of 3D printing, a new way of thinking is needed.

Which technology is preferred?

To be able to decide which of the available 3D printing systems is the most suitable for your company, you first need to acquire the necessary knowledge of the different technologies currently employed. This can be accomplished through a review of the scientific literature and/or with the help of external experts.
Once you have acquired the basic knowledge, you can proceed to the next step. From the outset, you must critically examine and evaluate all elements of the production process: products, tools, et cetera. It is possible of course to replace only a few parts of the production process with an alternative based on 3D printing, for example milling, drilling, or turning. However, this approach does not always lead to satisfactory results.

Reinventing parts

Once the parts that can be manufactured entirely or partly utilizing 3D printing have been identified, they must be redesigned. The main challenge is to review all aspects of the design and find ways to improve the part based on the unique features of 3D printing. Consider, for example, weight reduction or the integration of sensors.

Seven relevant questions to get the most out of 3D printing

1-Is it possible to combine separate parts into a single, more complex part?

This could possibly simplify the subsequent construction phase.

2-Can the part be made lighter without compromising strength? 

Depending upon the application, this can deliver significant added value.

3-Is it possible to integrate additional functions?

Think of heat dissipation, sensors, etc.

4-Can certain steps in the production process be omitted?

5-Does it make sense to take advantage of the special possibilities of 3D printing to develop new designs for the parts?

6-Looking ahead, are we not better off producing certain parts ourselves that are currently purchased elsewhere?

7-Can added value be created by customising the products for individual customers?

This is usually unaffordable with traditional production techniques, but with 3D printing the additional cost is often negligible.

Systematic approach

Once the potential for 3D printing applications has been sufficiently well-defined within the company, a roadmap should be drawn up to prepare for implementation. This roadmap must include the entire process, from idea to production. In addition, the composition of the team, as well as any necessary training and technological developments, must be established. It is often worthwhile hiring or recruiting experienced professionals to help steer this process in the right direction.

The right production strategy

An important element of the roadmap is the production strategy. And this starts right from the prototype phase. Parts already need to be produced by then, so that any shortcomings can be resolved and the design can be further optimised where possible. Because production volumes are still limited during the prototype phase, it may be interesting to outsource this task to an external service provider. This limits the initial investment and allows you to use the knowledge and experience of the service provider to reduce development time.

On to series production

Series production can also be outsourced to an external party. Many companies have been able to build a successful partnership with an external service provider, while others are equally successful with their own production facilities.
A typical strategy is to fully outsource production to an external party in the prototype phase, and then learn how to use the machines at a later stage by renting machine time from this external party. Ultimately, series production of most common materials can be done in-house, while the production of less common materials such as titanium can be left to an external party in the longer term.

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