Sourcing and Procurement

3D Printing – A Giant Leap for Industrial Manufacturing

3D printing or additive manufacturing has evolved rapidly beyond prototyping over the years and has gained relevance as a viable alternative production tool to transform supply chains. It’s quick, it’s smart, and it’s economical with minimal errors. Using 3D printing in mainline manufacturing can significantly reduce delinquencies, cut down the processing time, and also optimize costs.

Integrating 3D printing in the manufacturing process also makes sense if we talk about the make-on-demand trend triggered by technology advancement and varying business needs. 3D printing helps in producing near net shapes, thereby reducing the steps in post-processing, such as machining, which leads to shorter throughput time. Furthermore, 3D printing also allows manufacturers to respond to unique customer demands quickly, by continuously improving and implementing design changes with agility.

The 3D printing market, valued at $11.6 billion in 2019, is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 14-15% to reach $35 Billion by 2027. The market is growing rapidly, thanks to an increased pace of adoption for additive manufacturing technologies across industry verticals such as healthcare, automotive, aerospace, and defense sectors, for quicker time-to-market.

It is safe to say that 3D printing has emerged as the much-needed technology to deal with the challenges of managing inventory level, obsolescence of stocks, and the vast number of suppliers.

A new alternative

There are a number of ways the industrial manufacturing space is leveraging 3D printing, such as for parts consolidation, reducing post-processing steps (machining workflow), optimizing the weight of the parts, and improving functional capabilities. The accrued advantage of shorter lead times and increased affordability is further driving companies to integrate 3D printing technology into manufacturing processes.

Typically, manufacturers use parts that are an assembly of multiple other parts, sourced from different suppliers. The assembled parts often pose different levels of complexities that can lead to production downtime. Below are some predominant challenges faced by manufacturers in a regular manufacturing scenario:

  • Large number of suppliers across different regions
    Manufacturing companies build a network of large suppliers and intermediaries from across the globe. It often causes complications in the procurement process and leads to longer lead times in obtaining critical components. Any production downtime due to difficulty in sourcing necessary parts can impact smooth functioning of the cycle. To offset this risk, companies end up having surplus inventories, which in turn incur high inventory-holding costs.
  • Keeping older and obsolete equipment operational
    Maintaining and sustaining operational readiness of aging equipment is critical for manufacturing operations. Large part variants with unique end-use and features make it difficult to track each part, which increases the risk of stock-out.

Additive manufacturing can effectively address these challenges. 3D printing techniques can not only transform the entire manufacturing process, but also open multiple new possibilities. Unlike traditional manufacturing processes that involve cutting and joining of components, 3D Printing works by gradually adding layers of raw materials, creating parts with new geometries such as a honeycomb structure, to achieve different physical properties of strength and weight. In other words, 3D Printing offers the lucrative benefit of producing light, yet stronger parts, using significantly less components.

Manufacturing giants including Airbus, GE, and Lockheed Martin among others have gone a step further, and are using 3D Printing as an essential tool for mainline production strategy. Automakers such as BMW and Ford have also increasingly embedded 3D Printing as part of their production process to manufacture tools, production fixtures, and end-use car parts at their factories and service centers. Volkswagen and Jaguar Land Rover have set out to deploy 3D printing to manufacture light weighted vehicles, speed parts, and to reduce the overall cost of production.

The technology is gaining steam in the racetracks as well. Teams like Triple Eight Race Engineering is using 3D printing to produce strong, light, and durable parts for the race cars that are already being used on the tracks. For instance, Formula One teams such as the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team extensively use 3D technology to create upright covers, garage equipment, exhaust components to enhance their performance on the track.

The health sector is also gradually realizing the use of 3D printing to impact faster reaction times and optimal availability of medical equipments. The sector is using 3D printing for multiple uses, ranging from printing of biometric wearables to creating customized heart valves. Earlier this year, a young entrepreneur exhibited a 3D-printed prosthetic arm for kids, customized to match a patient’s skin tone. Similarly, dental companies are also utilizing the technology to produce custom orthotics and braces.

The use of machine learning has further augmented the 3D printing solution, which is allowing manufacturers across these sectors to have better control over the processes, leading to improved Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE). Although the amalgamation of the two technologies is experiencing a few teething problems like computational cost, standards for qualification, and challenges with data acquisition techniques; areas such as biomedical, tissue engineering and construction are already leveraging from the use of ML in 3D printing.

A long way to go…

Despite its benefits and the increased pace of adoption, a few barriers are pulling back the sector’s growth. A few of them are:

Material Challenges
The availability of relevant material for 3D printing is a significant limitation for the industry. Materials used in conventional manufacturing processes have undergone years of development in terms of product properties and workability. However, with 3D printing, development of material and its qualification parameters are still at a nascent stage.

Operating Loads
In general, majority of the parts used in equipment manufacturing is precision engineered to withhold high operating loads. Parts manufactured using 3D printing may not meet the necessary quality specifications and standards.

Mass Production
Conventional production lines are highly synchronized and have lower product handling times than with 3D printing. Although, with the increased affordability and improved capability of 3D printers, the scenario is expected to change for some industry verticals. It would be interesting to see if the technology finds replacing traditional large-scale production of standard parts challenging.

Limited material availability and slower speed of printing may restrict the usage of the technology, particularly for mass production. However, if these challenges are addressed, 3D printing has the potential to streamline supply chains and challenge the practice of engaging a large number of suppliers, while eliminating the practice of maintaining large inventories.

The technology is also expected to reduce the burden of sourcing and acquiring hard-to-find parts by simply printing them in-house. Also, the ability to make mass customization coupled with the ability to improve efficiency by reducing the assembly work and the production steps, is expected to propel the adoption of 3D printing technology in the near future. The possibilities are immense.

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