Words: Geoffrey Doyle, Director of Business Development, Digital Manufacturing, Jabil

As someone who’s spent time at 3D printing service bureaux, I know taking an idea all the way to final 3D printed part often entails a lot of trial-and-error. It’s crucial to perfect the process, especially when it comes to navigating the 3DP path to mainstream manufacturing as there’s little time for trialling and limited room for error. 

3D printing already is a great asset for shortening New Product Introduction (NPI) cycles and accelerating time-to-market for a range of products. The aerospace, dental and medical markets have benefited from early adoption while most other sectors are just beginning to consider 3D printing for tooling or making products in small quantities.

                                                      The 'poster' boy for part consolidation: GE's 3D printed fuel nozzle

Here are five steps for getting started:

Step 1: Identify the Right Project; Avoid the “Paperweights” or “Rabbit Hole”

The first step requires the alignment of executive, engineering, operations and supply chain teams around a business problem you are trying to solve as their collective input will determine the success—or failure—of any 3D printing project. Without consensus, you’ll end up with a fancy paperweight for the CEO’s desk or a trip down the product “rabbit hole,” followed by a steeper uphill climb for the next 3D printing project.

Equally important is avoiding the “complexity is free” trap. While 3D printing facilitates design freedom, it’s not always going to be the best solution for producing incredibly intricate, complicated product designs. Start by identifying the right project, the ideal part and the best business case for introducing 3D printing.

Jabil recently helped an industrial customer produce “under the hood” air ducts for trucks using advanced 3D printing technology. The organisation only needed a low volume; the material and aesthetics could be supported easily, and the economics made sense. Ultimately, the success of this project was an excellent entry point for 3D printing, and it’s creating interest and analysis of follow-on opportunities.

Step 2: Build the Business Case; Understand “True Cost” Impact

Building a business case entails an analysis of the economics—not just the price per part, but the all-inclusive cost to integrate 3D printing into the manufacturing process. Real costs include floor space, utilities, depreciation, maintenance, inspection, packaging, shipping, etc. The list goes on and is often overlooked by team members outside the manufacturing realm.

Apples-to-apples cost comparisons between 3D printing and traditional manufacturing methods require careful analysis to determine all variables, such as the value of shorter delivery times or reduced inventory. Some variables will resonate more with R&D, others with supply chain, so it’s important to consider all sides with quality, cost and risk as the primary decision drivers.

Step 3: Bring Business and Supply Chain Teams on the 3DP Journey

Most global manufacturing solutions providers have teams of business operations and supply chain experts that are motivated to reduce risk at each stage of the production and manufacturing lifecycle. Supply chain risk often is associated with quality and cost, but it goes much deeper. A bolt that costs a penny can still pose as much risk to a company’s product as a component worth hundreds or thousands of dollars—if it’s single sourced and not readily available.

As sourcing poses a significant risk, it’s worth considering multiple 3D printing technologies or solutions to lessen exposure. Another way to mitigate risk is to work with trusted manufacturing partners that have accumulated early track records of 3D printing success.

Business and supply teams, however, must be brought along on the journey so they too can identify opportunities to de-risk their investment and create avenues for aggregating demand. Positioning these key players to win more bread-and-butter business will turn them into 3D printing champions, which ultimately will pave the way for greater adoption.

Step 4: Apply the Rigors of Manufacturing, Every Day, Every Phase

World-class brands expect best-of-class products from their manufacturing partners. Quality is paramount, regardless if you’re using traditional manufacturing methods or additive manufacturing. Extensive qualification and validation of materials, processes and machines (MPM), as well as complete supply chain integration, are the price of entry for any manufacturer adding 3D printing technology to its solution mix.

A vigilant focus and application of manufacturing rigour is required to ensure consistent parts quality and mechanical integrity over time–no different than traditional manufacturing. It’s worth noting that supplier qualifications can be extensive, and encompass stringent standards and auditing requirements. For instance, Jabil recently worked with a large manufacturer of medical implants with stringent requirements, including clean rooms for packaging inspection, quality assurance/quality control, MPM qualifications and lockdown, as well as complete audit trail, post-processing, packaging sterilisation and recycling.

Sophisticated process engineering ensures process repeatability and full machine utilisation, which is crucial in providing Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM), both regarding the particular process and design flare/cost out. Initially, companies should exercise caution in implementing DfAM as there’s a careful balance between designing in additional value without making the design so complicated that it impacts the economic model.

              An ‘under the hood’ air duct part printed on HP's MJF platform in PA12 material with vapor polishing post processing.

Step 5: Educate, Evangelise and Engage Constituents

To drive 3D printing momentum, it’s vital to showcase milestones and share early success stories so customers can begin to envision what’s possible for them. Moreover, open communications with key members across the 3D printing ecosystem is crucial for propelling the 3D printing industry forward as a whole.

Remember, your overarching goal should be to communicate progress and ignite imaginations on what’s feasible today and possible tomorrow. Reaching the right audience at the right time is essential, which is why engaging design engineers early in the product development process is crucial. To that end, companies must ensure design engineers understand the value and can identify all the ways to bring in 3D printing. A few are listed below:

· product enhancements – better performance, such as high heat transfer from an engine

· cost-out opportunities with parts consolidation by combining multiple parts into one –the poster child is GE’s 3D printed fuel nozzle, which combines around 20 parts into one

· light-weighting by applying additive design methods to reduce part weights– topological optimisation to reduce the weight of a satellite going into space

· reduced costs, such as materials and eliminating tooling costs – designing with structures and prototyping on the same manufacturing methodology

· accelerated schedules resulting in faster time-to-market – classic prototyping, also accelerating automation process development and supplying traditional volume manufacturing fixtures and fillings.

· new business models encompassing personalisation/customisation, low volume/high mix, the unit cost of one, distributed manufacturing/local to local, physical twins

For most companies, the 3D printing journey has just begun. Following a pragmatic approach and best practices will help early adopters bridge the gap in bringing 3D printing into mainstream manufacturing. To borrow some wisdom from Bill Gates, we’ll likely overestimate what can be done in one year and underestimate what can be accomplished in 10 years. While the pace of adoption remains uncertain, 3D printing will most definitely make an indelible mark on the future of manufacturing.

Source:TCT Magazine