Manufacturing is constantly changing and evolving due to advances in technology, including 3D printing. The question then is, how radical will future changes be, and will 3D printing replace manufacturing as we know it?
One view that 3D printing will displace manufacturing and other traditional processes entirely within a few decades. In advance of this will be 3D printing’s dominance over prototyping and short-run production. However, an alternative viewpoint is that rather than replace current manufacturing methods, 3D will be most effective at supplementing and complementing them.
Despite it being an advancing and developing technology, 3D printing still has its limitations. Therefore, machining is likely to have a part to play in product development for the foreseeable future.
What is Additive Manufacturing?
Additive manufacturing describes the technologies that build 3D objects. This is because the process works by adding layers of material. These built-up layers of material can be made of various materials, including polymers, plastics and even metal. Additive manufacturing includes 3D printing, rapid prototyping, additive fabrication and digital and layered manufacturing. It is potentially limitless and is continually evolving. Early additive manufacturing was focused on rapid prototyping, using 3D printing as a visualisation tool for product design.
Now, however, people use the method more widely for manufacturing end-use products, including:
- Aircraft and automobile parts
- Medical implants and dental restorations
- Industrial tooling and production parts.
Increasingly, additive manufacturing using 3D printing will be able to offer consumers personalisation, when applied to mass customisation in manufacturing.
How might this impact on current, and more traditional, manufacturing methods?
3D and the Future of Factories
Factories were a leading innovation of the Industrial Revolution, helping to drive specialised processes, becoming hugely significant centres of productivity. But how adaptable are factories?
You can install new machinery and embrace robotics to streamline production lines and enhance your product range. But this is not necessarily a rapid or agile process. In other words, factories are not easily reprogrammable. If a factory wishes to make different products it must retool using different machines. 3D printing could, however, transform manufacturing. It is now much more advanced. Where once the polymers it produced were mainly restricted to prototypes, it can now make high-value parts.
This increasing digitalisation of production makes different parts of the process much less interdependent, unlike the traditional production-line model in a factory. And 3D printers are flexible in their programming, making them potentially highly cost-effective. This also fits in with the increasing demand for mass customisation of goods.
When it comes to manufacturing, 3D printing offers these benefits:
- Accelerating the speed to market of new products by reducing prototyping costs
- Supporting greater product customisation, drawing on the benefits of 3D tooling
- Driving innovation in product lines or even entire industries
- Improving consumer choice
- Providing higher value products at lower price points
- Helping create efficiencies in supply chains by increasing local production of components at reduced costs.
Ultimately, this may mean that some industries disappear, while others emerge. But it is also likely to mean the transformation of many existing industries, helping them continue to thrive in the 21st century.
Transforming Supply Chains
How manufacturing has evolved has shaped how supply chains work. Currently, global supply chains work to supply different components as part of the manufacturing process. It is a refined, highly efficient process, but it depends on various component parts being manufactured off-site before being brought into manufacturing production lines. 3D printing provides the opportunity for a radical shift in this model.
Already, increasing numbers of manufacturers are adapting 3D printing to go beyond prototyping functions, to augment manufacturing lines and enhance production processes. This means they can make certain components on-site, removing the need for them to come through global supply chains.
The Use of 3D Printing in Mass Production
An example of how 3D printing has evolved in manufacturing terms can be seen in the aerospace industry. Boeing now prints hundreds of parts for its aircraft and Airbus is following suit.
Originally, 3D printing was seen as ideal for interior aircraft parts, but there are now more and more metal parts manufactured this way. Some of these will form key structural parts and brackets that physically hold aircraft together. 3D printed parts are also in use for engines and therefore occupying a central place in modern aircraft manufacturing. One of the things driving this is the miniaturisation of jet engines.
This wider adoption of 3D mass production by the aerospace industry, also means that there will be support for refining processes. In addition, resolving any production issues associated with 3D printing. Therefore, adoption is helping to drive evolution.
The Cost Effectiveness of 3D Printing
There are various ways 3D printing can increase value for manufacturers, including:
- Cost effectiveness – especially with the involvement of complex shapes or low production volumes
- Shorter lead times – downtime can occur when manufacturers are waiting for parts, but 3D printing can cut waiting time down, if parts are produced on-site
- Lower inventory costs – 3D printing allows for manufacturing on demand
- Less reliance on suppliers – by using 3D printing for certain parts, manufacturers may reduce their reliance on sole-sourced suppliers
- Eliminating high import or export costs – by cutting out the global supply chain, 3D printing eliminates costs associated with moving goods internationally
- Bypassing location issues – more remote factories can avoid issues to do with the transportation of parts and delivery times
- Improving functionality – you can much more easily redesign parts using 3D printing to improve and refine processes.
Why Traditional Manufacturing Will Not Disappear
Although 3D printing offers enormous benefits to manufacturers, it can do so most effectively when working alongside more traditional manufacturing, rather than replacing it outright. 3D printing will not become the sole means of production, simply because there are fundamental goods that require more traditional manufacturing methods. There are too many items made in extremely high volumes to be replaced by additive manufacturing. Also, 3D printing technologies depend on building up parts layer by layer, and not all materials are suitable for this method. For example, organic materials such as wood will break or tear more easily if layered in this way when undergoing particular kinds of stress.
3D is undoubtedly an innovative manufacturing solution, which will transform certain sectors, industries and businesses. But it is not the sole solution. Older methods will still be effective, especially when working alongside this new technology.