By Rich Wetzel
Innovation in manufacturing is a relatively new concept considering that traditional manufacturing methods have fundamentally remained the same for hundreds of years. Operational improvements have made them more efficient, but at the core, the processes have remained the same. Manufacturers started to realize the value of incorporating digital tools into their operations starting in the early 1980’s, but it’s grown a lot more with the rise of advanced software programs and Additive Manufacturing. Often called 3D printing, it’s the process of making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by depositing many thin layers of a material in succession. A lot of buzz has been surrounding the 3D printing industry for about a decade now, mostly due to the expiration of key patents that allowed new consumer and business facing companies to form. During this time, early adopters learned that the technology could be used to create faster prototypes, add complexity and efficiency to their designs, bring production closer to home, and in some cases, produce end use parts. As a result, it sparked an increase in demand for more information and education around 3D printing.
Digital manufacturing refers to a set of design and manufacturing tools that starts with Computer-Aided-Design (CAD), and usually ends with 3D printing as an enabling technology for cost effective manufacturing solutions, typically for the product development stage, manufacturing tooling, or end use parts. Although 3D printing has been around since the early 1980's, it's only within the last decade that we've seen a significant increase in demand for 3D printing research and innovation. 3D printing, in conjunction with CAD, is changing the way we think about designing parts, and many industries are starting to take advantage and identifying new applications. This includes companies like GE who 3D printed over 25,000 CFM LEAP engine fuel nozzles in 2016, and recently opened a new state-of-the art 3D printing facility outside of Pittsburgh. Other industries taking advantage of the technology include automotive, aerospace, medical, energy, industrial goods, textile, restoration, and many more.
A common question among new users is, “How much does is it cost to have something 3D printed?” Unfortunately, the best answer is that it depends. Standard costs associated with 3D printing include design time on the computer, materials, printing time, post-processing, inspection, and labor. With over seven different processes of 3D printing, parts can be produced in virtually any material, such as different grades of plastic, nylon, various metals, and sand. Most machines are restricted to materials designed specifically for that machine, but new processes have been developed that use multiple materials at the same time. 3D printed parts can then be post-processed to include additional features and finishes. 3D printing isn’t going to replace traditional manufacturing, at least not in the foreseeable future. We don’t 3D print nuts and bolts because it’s slower and not cost effective. Think of it as another tool in the toolbox for manufacturers. A common practice called hybrid manufacturing involves 3D printing metal parts and then using traditional manufacturing to remove supports and fixtures.
One of the biggest challenges faced by early adopters is being restricted to only using overly priced proprietary materials controlled by the 3D printer manufacturers. Active users are pushing against this practice, and thanks to companies like JuggerBot 3D, open source options will play an important role in making 3D printing more accessible and affordable in the future. Another challenge is providing education for the new and existing workforce. However, with the valuable work done by the Youngstown Business Incubator, America Makes -The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, and Youngstown State University, small-medium size manufacturers now have access to training workshops, networking events and subsidy programs that can be used to gain low cost access to the technology and to help develop an implementation strategy.
Youngstown and the northeast Ohio region are considered one of the best, if not the best, for 3D printing startups, education, research, and investment. YBI is rated as the best university affiliated technology business incubator in the country. America Makes is highest funded 3D printing research lab in the country. YSU has a world class 3D printing lab operated by some of the top experts in the industry. Together, this creates an ecosystem that has the potential to add important contributions to the growth of this industry and generate a pipeline of experienced students that would add value to any organization.
In order for manufacturers to remain competitive, they should be working towards identifying areas where 3D printing can improve their bottom line. If they fail to see value or are resistant to change, it’ll only be a matter of time before they’re pushed out of the market or their customers start requesting more use of the technology. According to Wohlers Report 2016, the 3D printing industry grew 25.9% (CAGR – Corporate Annual Growth Rate) to $5.165 billion in 2015. The CAGR for the previous three years was 33.8%. Over the past 27 years, the CAGR for the industry is an impressive 26.2%. Not only will this industry continue to impact the way parts are designed and manufactured, it will also play a leading role in allowing consumers to incorporate personalized features in their products.
These recent innovations in manufacturing will be pivotal in the development of a highly skilled workforce that will understand how to optimize parts for functionality and efficiency, and realizing that multiple technologies can be used together to source the most cost effective solution. This starts by getting students familiar with desktop 3D printers and other fabrication and design tools at an early age.
We’re at the forefront of a manufacturing revolution, and it’s time for the old school to start taking a look at new tools.