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3D Printing, Technology

5 Reasons To Take Additive Manufacturing Seriously

January 29, 2016

Few foresaw the impact digital technology and the Internet would have on all of us. Is 3-D printing the next major paradigm shift?

Most CNC manufacturing companies focus on improving efficiencies, reducing cost-per-part and expanding capabilities to better serve existing and new customers. High-volume operations, particularly, strive to improve productivity and product consistency. These are all important and appropriate goals.

For these same reasons additive manufacturing (or 3-D printing) seems an unlikely complement to traditional CNC subtractive machining. After all the process is much too slow, has too many steps and requires an investment in additional equipment and raw materials.

As a result, if a CNC shop uses 3-D printers at all, it's for prototyping and R&D but little else. Many simply don't believe that additive manufacturing-based production is viable or will impact their business anytime soon. Depending on the industries they serve, they may want to rethink the situation. Here are five reasons why:

  • Twenty or so years ago the digital age was emerging and the Internet was still something of a novelty for many of us. In a very short time, however, technologies such as Wi-Fi, advanced personal computers, smart phones and cloud computing have altered virtually all aspects of life, including manufacturing. Machine tools are more sophisticated and capable, control systems use data to automatically perform tool offsets and other functions, and unattended operation is a reality. Few could foresee how quickly these changes would occur - and it cost companies that resisted change dearly. Similarly, additive technology is quickly coming of age and the future will be here sooner than we expect.
  • Companies that have already embraced the 3-D printing process include major players in aerospace, medical, dental, electronics and more. The US Department of Defense is even working with the private sector to print jet fighter components, and some of the military drones currently in use in war zones have entire bodies produced by additive manufacturing. True, these are far from high volume production parts, but many CNC job shops depend on small batch runs for these same customers.
  • CNC machine shops have long sought opportunities to reduce the number of machining setups to “one-and-done.” However additive manufacturing takes this concept to another level when it combines various materials to produce a finished assembly in one pass. According to the Harvard Business Review GE Aviation, for example, says it now uses 3-D printing to make thousands of jet engine fuel nozzles each year. The nozzles are comprised of 20 separate parts that were previously manufactured individually and then assembled. With additive manufacturing, the same nozzles are created in one piece.
  • From the time Eli Whitney pioneered interchangeable parts and Henry Ford made Model T cars affordable through standardization (Ford famously said people could have any color car they wanted as long as it was black), companies have kept costs down by limiting product variations. Additive manufacturing, however, offers much greater flexibility because each part is made individually and on demand. Think what this capability can mean for reducing inventories, work-in-process and just-in-time delivery.
  • Additive manufacturing makes possible embedding conductive materials, sensors and other components into the printed product, saving assembly time and providing a more secure structure.

So what does this mean for CNC machine shops and other metalworking manufacturers? Simply this: It’s an opportunity to rethink how they define themselves. If a company sees itself strictly as a machine shop, it may be missing the bigger picture. The key is to look at what your customers want and how you can best fulfill that need.

As your customers look to new technologies like 3-D printing to reduce their costs and improve their products, the more willing you are to add such technology to your traditional capabilities, the more likely you are to maintain your customers and competitiveness.

CNC machining is still essential for most industries and most likely will be for decades to come. However, those that stay on top of additive manufacturing technology will be in a better position to adjust to what could be rapid changes in the way parts are made.