Four reasons why 3D printing is now a powerful competitor to conventional mass production. By Fernando Hernandez

3D printing has often been a bit of a buzzword in society, with many knowing little about it and its potential. However, in 2018, IDC cited that the European 3D printing market is worth around $5 billion. What’s more, Western Europe has been delivering the majority of 3D printing revenues and the industry is expected to continue growing in the coming years. With the rapid advancement of 3D printing within a short period of time, it’s now a realistic competitor to traditional mass production. Traditionally, injection moulding and CNC machines have long been the kings of mass production, but as technology progresses, established manufacturers and their supply chains will no longer be able to match 3D printing’s edge and agility. The technology has come a long way in terms of product spread, volume and sustainability, making it a real contender for everyday use in manufacturing industries.

1. Prototype: Time is money
In the creation stage of the product lifecycle, 3D printing can bring about drastic reductions in production costs and help companies develop ideas at a faster pace. The manufacturing process is often stifled with the expensive costs of design complexity and space for production in its initial stages.

A new design, for instance, using traditional manufacturing production requires significant time, space, resources, and labour, further delaying time to market. In using 3D printed prototypes, manufacturers can create faster and avoid the risks of setting up an assembly line only to end up with a flawed product and having to start again. The 3D printing process brings the manufacturer closer to the product, whereby a prototype can determine faulty and disruptive factors quicker, allowing teams to recreate an improved and more functional product much earlier on in its lifecycle.

While the speed of printers varies, 3D printed parts and prototypes can typically be produced within a few hours compared to the days or even weeks traditional parts may take. Most importantly, the changes made along the way don’t impact production costs, bringing greater design freedom. One-way 3D printing manufacturers do this is a plug-and-play approach, using smart filament systems which are powered by an AI algorithm making it ready to print with a high success ratio.

2. Range of products
3D printing was once limited to a small pool of materials and therefore limited design options, but with more advanced materials, more applications are available, ranging from motorcycle engines to construction mechanisms to designer dresses; they’ve increasingly become capable of complex designs and can create difficult shapes that aren’t possible through means of traditional manufacturing.

The range available allows large manufacturers to launch products specifically customised for consumers. The shaving supply and razor brand, Gillette, now produces custom 3D printed razor handles, for example. This ability extends to the mass-customisation of BMW’s MINI cars, where customers can add their names and symbols onto their car’s dashboard trims.

3. Broader range of materials
As mentioned earlier, 3D printing was previously confined to ABS/PLA plastics. Now there are over 500 materials including carbon fibre, nylon, Polycarbonates, metal (with other plastic as binder) and several kinds of PET plastics available to work with. Recently, metal printing has presented a unique opportunity for traditional manufacturing to use 3D printing, particularly with niche products, and is an area showcasing the most uptake. The automotive, aerospace and medical industries have so far been some of the key employers of 3D printing, as the vast array of high performance materials available now allow for faster development of pit equipment to experiment with. For this reason, engineers have a richer material portfolio to work with and through a greater range of properties are then able to understand how to make more robust and hazard resistance parts. It also helps these industries determine how they can make products with fewer parts, a particular benefit for the aerospace industry, where manufacturers can reduce plane engines from having hundreds or thousands of parts to fewer than 100. While full disruption hasn’t yet occurred with 3D printing and the aeronautic industry, it has the potential to create lighter, more cost effective, efficient and eco-friendly planes. A newly 3D printed boat that is fully functional and beat traditional manufacturing time is an indication of 3D printing’s bright future.

4. Environmental Impact
With consumers far more conscious of where their products come from, another key advantage of using 3D printing over traditional subtractive methods is that it is an effective environmentally friendly solution. The typical supply chain starts with more and turns into less, carving and shredding its way down into the desired product, meaning the majority of what you produce is waste. 3D printers can measure the exact material requirement and use only what is required in its production process. The impact cannot be understated when viewed across the entire cycle, as this process removes the need to transport and discard waste created in the assembly line, drastically reducing the carbon footprint per product created. If both companies embrace home 3D printers, the global impact of manufacturing could be positively altered to meet the global requirements to reduce carbon emissions.

Keys to the kingdom
While 3D printing isn’t likely to entirely replace traditional manufacturing, it is emerging as a resource-efficient, environmentally friendly and cost-effective supplement to production. The technology itself is set to be a highly useful tool to companies to create the products of the future. With 3D printing, organisations can drastically improve their production capabilities, particularly in the prototype phase with its specialised in-built tooling. Entire industries are already employing the technology to gain the advantages, now is the time to invest in and determine how 3D printing will transform each business and households.

Fernando Hernandez
Fernando Hernandez is EMEA MD of XYZprinting, a leading global provider of comprehensive 3D printing solutions. It is the number one global brand in desktop 3D printing products and services, and is now growing its industrial additive manufacturing business as well to support professional manufacturers. It is backed by the world’s leading electronic manufacturing conglomerate, New Kinpo Group, which earns more than $36 billion revenues annually and has more than 8500 engineers in R&D across four continents.