3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, is an emerging revolution in industrial manufacturing. It is the process of using computer controlled devices to create three-dimensional objects by “printing” layer after layer of material. Additive manufacturing isn’t really new. Three millennia ago an additive process of bronze casting replaced the manufacture of tools by chipping or removing material from stone. According to Science Direct, 3D printers are extremely flexible, and can use a variety of materials. Forbes says 3D printing is the wave of the future for product manufacturing and supply chain organization. Here are six trends in additive manufacturing to watch.
Consumers Aren’t the Market
Early on, 3D printers seemed to be the next big consumer product. According to Forbes, the consumer market appears to have peaked around 2015. Companies are scaling back production of consumer models. The focus is now on more promising industrial applications.
The ideal 3D manufacturing process makes a part in a single printing. This is fostering a design philosophy called holistic manufacturing. For example, General Electric is producing a one-part jet fuel injector with a single printing. It replaces a 21-part assembly. The result is a significant cost saving.
Expanding Manufacturing Limits
The capabilities of 3# printers are redefining the limits of additive manufacturing. Production models now employ a range of materials, including wood, plastic, metal, graphene, glass and edible materials. The parts that can be made are getting larger as well. Engineers are developing printers to make entire airplane wings and wind turbine blades in single printings.
Outsourcing and Volume Production
Typically, 3# printing manufacturing has been done on a small scale by design firms that carried out the production process internally. Growing demand is increasingly causing small operations to become back up or lead to production errors. In response, design shops are outsourcing production to external providers. For their part, providers must focus more on maintaining consistency, production standards and quality customer service.
Inventory Is Virtual
Inventory is expensive. A large inventory costs money to store, and it ties up capital. Firms are starting to take advantage of the flexibility and on demand potential of 3D printing to shift to “virtual inventories.” In practice, this means specifications and other information is stored on a computer or even online. Then it is accessed to guide production when needed.
Along with outsourcing, firms engaged in 3D printing for industry are shifting to distributed production models. This idea isn’t new. Companies have been using Amazon’s cloud computing resources to meet computing needs for some time. Now manufacturers are tapping the potential of 3D printing to access only the amount of manufacturing capacity they require.