Bryan Crutchfield is Vice President and General Manager, North America for Materializea world leader in 3D printing.
Until recently, 3D printing companies focused their efforts on showing manufacturers the benefits of the technology, such as efficient prototyping, flexibility in design, and the ability to take advantage of distributed manufacturing. Recent global challenges, including the Covid-19 pandemic, Suez Canal blockade of a container ship And shortage of semiconductor chipsencouraged manufacturers to take advantage of these advantages as global supply chains were compromised and manufacturers looked to other sources for parts.
These challenges increased awareness of 3D printing and today most manufacturers understand the benefits the technology offers. In an investigation recently launched my company, respondents from manufacturing operations in the United States, Japan and Germany named 3D printing as one of the top three trends in manufacturing, along with digitization and artificial intelligence/robotics. The research also indicated that the manufacturing industry is reaching an inflection point for industrial 3D printing: nearly 50% of companies are using 3D printing for end products, while for many years it was mainly used for prototyping. This shift supports the idea that manufacturers have seen the benefits of integrating 3D printing into their operations and, perhaps more importantly, understand what applications it is best suited for.
It is now clear that the 3D printing industry is facing a new challenge: we no longer need to demonstrate the value of 3D printing to manufacturers. Instead, my company’s research results show that the biggest challenge for industrial 3D printing is uncertainty How to get the technology on board. To address this, industry leaders must provide guidance to help manufacturers bring 3D printing manufacturing online in a way that is efficient, productive and integrated with existing production methods.
While integration has its benefits, it also comes with its fair share of challenges. This is evident as many surveyed manufacturers are still using the technology to create prototypes and one-off adaptable parts, as opposed to larger volume end-use parts. According to McKinsey & Company, “While companies have dabbled in using additive manufacturing for the direct manufacture of end products, widespread adoption of the approach remains limited.” While this is a valuable use of 3D printing in the design and testing phase, it does not fully exploit the technology’s full potential in manufacturing applications.
One barrier is expertise: Most manufacturers don’t employ staff with the knowledge needed to seamlessly add 3D printing to the shop floor, and hiring new employees for this purpose can be prohibitively expensive. However, with the right training and strong relationships, consultants and outside experts can help overcome this challenge. Third-party experts can also help companies find and integrate the 3D printing software that best fits the manufacturer’s existing operations and goals. With today’s software, companies can more easily manage the entire 3D printing workflow, from order intake to delivery, all associated with their larger production environment.
When looking for partners to support training or consulting, leaders should look for consultants who have experience and expertise in a range of 3D printing disciplines. Consultants with expertise in design, engineering, software, materials, and hardware can provide a more complete picture of how 3D printing can support business goals, helping leaders find the right mix of technology and application that best fits their needs.
As operations become larger and more complex, seeking software platforms that address and optimize each stage of the 3D printing manufacturing process can also contribute to the long-term success of operations. These platforms enable companies to fine-tune every step in the printing process to ensure quality production that is both repeatable and reliable. Opting for cloud-based software can also support training efforts, as it allows software companies to collaborate directly with employees through remote control of operations.
As companies take control of the printing process, leaders should encourage employees to participate in training specific to the software and technologies they will use in implementation. For product design and development teams, courses in design for additive, rather than subtractive, manufacturing can also be helpful to ensure they can take advantage of the design benefits of 3D printing.
Finally, many manufacturers are hesitant to adopt 3D printing because of the high start-up costs, such as the price of printers, materials and software. However, in many cases, outsourcing printing is an option, allowing manufacturers to take advantage of 3D printing without having to make an expensive upfront investment.
As a forward-thinking company, look for tools that improve your operations and better position your organization for lasting success. While manufacturers distance themselves from questions Why 3D printing is beneficial and directional How they can best implement the technology in a meaningful way, I see an opportunity for both manufacturers and 3D printing companies to work together to realize the full potential of the technology.