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What if you could 3D print your products?

08 Sep 2017
Last few years, it became seemingly quiet in the world of 3D printing. But behind the scenes, business investment was growing fast: 270% over the last five years. The focus has shifted, though, from consumer printing to developing prototypes and complex parts in the automotive, aerospace and defence industry. But there is more! New technologies take us a step closer to mass production with 3D printing. This has several important advantages that you don’t want to ignore.

Focus on high-end products

Although it is still possible to print your own door latches and organisation tools, it is easier and cheaper to buy them in store or online. Therefore, the idea of 3D printers for consumers has been set aside. Developers and investors now focus on 3D printing for complex and high-end markets.

A nice example is GE, who uses 3D-printed parts in their CFM LEAP aircraft engines. Since standards in the aviation industry are set high, we can, therefore, conclude that 3D printing is well proven and meets high-quality standards today (for an interesting read on how GE discovered 3D-printing: here).

Increase of speed

Because of its lack of speed, 3D printing is not (yet!) suitable for mass production. However, recent innovations make 3D printing much faster. It’s still massively expensive, and therefore not yet commonly used, but the first investors are in sight.

An excellent example of 3D printing being used to its full advantage is the Adidas case. Adidas experiments with making shoe soles with 3D printing. Currently, it takes over 10 hours to print one shoe sole (Futurecraft 3D), making the shoe relatively expensive and not fit for mass consumption.

However, due to recent developments, Adidas can soon print that same shoe sole in 20 minutes (Futurecraft 4D). Total production of the shoe will then be increased to 500,000. Of course, producing half a million per year is not yet mass production, but it is a step closer in that direction (video).

Two significant advantages of 3D printing

The recent developments in 3D printing lead to two important opportunities in production: reshoring production and making more advanced product designs. Let’s get into more details to show you the advantages.

1. Reshoring production

Using 3D printing for mass production makes the development process less labour intensive. Moving production to low wage countries is therefore no longer essential to keep costs down. Products can now be developed and produced closer to your markets which has three distinct advantages.

For Adidas, the design to shop process can take up to 18 months.The total time to market can be reduced to 6 months when using 3D printing for prototyping and nearby manufacturing. This is a great competitive edge in consumer markets where product life cycles become shorter.

Furthermore, this also allows you to lower your inventory significantly:

  • Less material will be in transit since you produce close to your market

  • Safety stock could be reduced since you’re able to replenish faster (and more reliable)

  • Obsoletes will be minimised since you’re able to respond to market changes quicker

Finally, this should also reduce your transportation cost and your carbon footprint.

2. More advanced designing

When developing new products, designers currently take the limitations of contemporary production processes into account. With 3D printing, new possibilities arise. More enhanced and individualised products can, therefore, be designed, giving engineers the opportunity to make more sophisticated designs.

This allowed GE to produce a new type of Fuel Nozzle for the CFM LEAP engines. Traditional methods would require welding of 20 different pieces, which made the design too complex for production. 3D printing makes it now possible.

Besides more advanced designs, 3D printing will also allow you to save on material. Traditional ‘subtractive’ manufacturing (cutting or punching pieces from larger pieces) always results in waste. With 3D-printing, this is no longer the case, and it is also possible to create a void structure where it was previously impossible.

What’s in it for you?

The future of 3D printing looks bright. Developers are now even working on printing other materials like glass and carbon and combining these different materials. This will make it possible to print complete products instead of only parts.

So the next question is: what’s in it for your business?

There are several ways in which you can take advantage of the new 3D printing technology. For example:

  • Move (a part of) your production process closer to your markets (also called ‘reshoring’).

  • Make unique custom-made products (instead of only similar products) without losing speed.

  • Produce parts of products when there is a replacement request, instead of keeping a high stock level.

At M3, we see an increasing interest in 3D printing and expect that more businesses will take the leap shortly. How about you?

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