Posts Tagged ‘3D printing’

In our prior post we suggested how additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, will be a major consideration in the customized world of the factory of the future.  We’ll wrap up the line of thought today with a few observations on why, and the economic impact, with some help from editors at The Economist (7-1-17).

Manufacturers often start production either by building small runs of prototypes, or sometimes by making small numbers of high-value items for special applications or markets, before tooling up to larger production runs on more mass-market items.

One British company called Domin Fluid Power is using 3D printing to change the equation.  When this design service company decided to start making its own products, they picked high-performance hydraulic pumps and servo-valves, devices that control fluids in a variety of applications from aviation and aerospace to factory plant floors.  The question they faced was which market to go after.  The answers are revealing.

While aerospace offers good profits from high margins, it’s a low-volume business, fraught with time delays, layers of prototyping and costly risks.  The industrial and general equipment markets are generally broader and arguably easier to enter, and they can help companies get up to volume production quickly; however, they’re price sensitive, with inherently lower profits and margins.

Domin had acquired a 3D metal printer from a German firm, and realized that economies of scale were different with 3D.  Changing designs meant only software modifications, not wholesale shop floor retooling.  Operationally then, unit costs were roughly the same whether they made five of an item, or 500 or 5,000.

And importantly, manufacturing with 3D requires less material.  Unlike traditional methods that require removing excess materials, as well as burnishing, abrading, cutting and drilling… 3D products can emerge fully formed with little or no waste.  Over time – and production volumes – that adds up to significant savings, and a reduced cost of goods.

An analysis done by Domin revealed that, as always, reduced product weights held value to varying degrees across applications.  For instance, saving a couple pounds of weight when building a Formula One racecar might be worth over $100,000 relative to the value of a win in a world of tight tolerances.  (“A kilo saved is a trophy won.”)  In spacecraft, they calculated the value at about $25,000, in aircraft, from $1,200 to $13,000, in automotive from $20 to $600, and finally, in factory equipment, from zero to perhaps $6 per two pounds of weigh saved.

All this makes for lighter, less expensive (i.e., less material) and often more valuable end products.  And with 3D printing, the costs per unit were essentially the same across any size product run.  In Domin’s case, the analysis led them to decide to enter the low-end of the market first with a competitively priced servo-valve.  But since essentially the same valve could be used in mobile hydraulics in tractors and trucks, they can move up the profit scale at little added cost.  And in fact, they’ve found aerospace applications for which they hope to qualify, and with some modification, they say they can crack the racecar market too, thus opening the way to automotive.

3D printing opened all these markets to them, and is making them competitive on the low-end and capable at the high end, all while managing production at lower costs very effectively.

The benefits of 3D will spread throughout industry, as Domin illustrates.  And weight reduction and cost reduction will always have the manufacturing marketplace advantage.


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We return again to the growing importance of additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3-D printing, as its impact upon our country’s industrial base continues to expand.

3-D printing will prove to be one of those “manufacturing revolutions” that, like others before, take time to be transformed – and transformational.  As The Economist notes in a recent (7-1-17) article on the matter, way back in 1733 a fellow by the name of John Kay, a British weaver, invented the “flying shuttle” which allowed for the production of wider pieces of cloth than previously possible.  Because it could be mechanized, it was one of those innovations that displaced workers and gradually paved the way for the Industrial Revolution.  In the early 1900s Ransom Olds came up with the idea of an assembly line to speed up production of the Olds Curved Dash – a decade ahead of Henry Ford.

Fast forward to the 1980s and Taiichi Ohno’s Toyota Production System had a similarly profound effect on modern automotive production, with its “curious methods,” (to quote The Economist), like just-in-time parts delivery and continuous material flow procedures that presaged today’s lean thinking.

In 1983, a fellow named Chuck Hull invented something called stereo lithography.  He’s the founder of 3D Systems, a producer of 3D printers.  We’ve written of these machines’ capabilities before.  They allow a product to be designed CAD-like on a computer screen, and then “printed” as solid objects by building up successive layers of material.  Hull’s invention is just one of many approaches to additive manufacturing.

3D print technology has become popular for producing one-off prototypes since users can tweak their software to create new prototypes, rather than fuss with expensive tooling on the shop floor.  3D printing has proven great at making lightweight, complex shapes in high-value products like planes and autos.  It’s worth noting that GE has spent $1.5 billion on the technology to make jet parts.

To date, 3D printing has been ideal for low-volume production, but less for high-volume, where the technology has been deemed too slow to compete at higher volumes.  Except that’s going to change too.

Recently, shoe manufacturer Adidas has started to use a form of 3D printing called “digital light synthesis” to produce shoe soles, pulling them fully formed from a vat of liquid polymer, note the authors.  Adidas plans to use the technology in two highly-automated new factories to bring a million pairs of shoes to market annually.  So much for low-volume production.

Metal printing is also being affected.   A new technique called “bound-metal deposition” can build metal objects at a rate of 500 cubic inches per hour, compared to the 1 or 2 cubic inches using a typical laser-based metal printer today.

The rise of this technology is only a matter of time.  With increasing wage pressures even in China, the demand from factories is already there.  3D printing is spreading to production lines around the world.  As global supply chains shorten, additive printing a la 3D will be used to customize and tailor a range of products to local tastes and customer demands.  And Mr. Hull and others like him are likely to get a lot better known in the not too distant future.


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3d printerA recent article in the Jul/Aug edition of APICS Magazine points out where innovative businesses can score gains when it comes to the newest 3D printing technologies, often known as “additive manufacturing.”  We’ll reprise their thinking briefly here, based on an article by Julie Kim and David Robb entitled “New Dimensions.”

3D printers use an “additive manufacturing process” to build objects layer upon layer.  It’s appropriate when one or more of the following hold true:

  • Customization is a key business strategy.
  • Production volume requirements are low.
  • Demand is constantly changing and difficult to predict.
  • Remoteness leads to high transport costs and long lead times.
  • The cost of traditional manufacturing makes for a significant barrier to entry.

Most of us only started hearing of 3D printing in the past couple of years.  The idea that an object could be literally printed into existence seemed pretty exotic initially, but it’s fast becoming reality today.  In their article, the authors point out “five key conditions that comprise an appropriate environment for implementing 3D printing technology as a manufacturing method.”  These are:

  1. High level of customization.  3D printers have the ability to print highly complex geometric shapes with little to no impact on the cost of manufacturing a product.  That’s mostly a function of raw material used.  Production is efficient and economical with minimal machine configuration and the ability to switch between products rapidly.
  2. Low-volume production.  Traditional manufacturing methods favor cost-efficient mass production.  Today’s 3D printers produce slowly, building an object layer by layer, thus rendering themselves to small production volumes but with high levels of customization.
  3. Unpredictable demand.  3D printers require minimal reconfiguration and setup effort.  They can switch between designs with little delay, and thus are highly useful in unpredictable environments, with minimal custom tooling or manual reconfiguration.  Again, all this favors low-volume production environments.
  4. Remote distance to market.  “3D printing enables simplification of the supply chain and can eliminate a large portion of the transportation and waiting time involved with offshoring,” note the article’s authors.
  5. High barriers to entry.  Taking an idea and turning it into a physical product involves substantial investment, often at high cost.  3D printing offers an affordable alternative, both for prototypes and for a continuous (limited) run of finished goods.

3D printing allows for operational efficiency at some levels: while holding inventory can be costly, 3D printing has essentially the same cost per unit, regardless of how many units are produced.  Thus, “pull” production systems tend to be more appropriate here, with the benefit of limited runs and avoiding of overloaded inventories.

3D printing is still a relatively new technology, the authors point out, yet to fulfill its full potential.  But its promise of simpler entry to markets and the growing availability (and plunging costs) of 3D printers will provide benefits to many over time.

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