Sergey Nivens - Fotolia

3D printing a key piece of digital manufacturing puzzle

Barriers to production-class uses of 3D printing are falling, causing digital manufacturers to ramp up its use.

Digital manufacturing and 3D printing are being looked at as pieces of the same puzzle, as companies increase their use of digital data to drive plant automation and lay the groundwork for the factory of the future.

Although digital manufacturing practices and platforms are fairly obscure to all but a highly select audience, 3D printing has broken into the mainstream as technologies become more user-friendly and as prices on printers and materials come down. Despite the surge of consumer attention and increased traction in the enterprise, 3D printing (or additive manufacturing (AM) as it's called in some circles) is still primarily used as a cost-effective, faster alternative for prototyping or short-run production applications as opposed to being used for full-scale manufacturing.

Speed, repeatability and reliability have been the primary barriers to more widespread use of 3D printing as a manufacturing alternative, according to Tim Caffrey, senior consultant at Wohlers Associates, a market research firm focused on the additive manufacturing, 3D printing and rapid prototyping space. "Even though [3D printing] technology has been around for a long time, manufacturing applications are relatively new and only found in certain niches," he explained. In addition, Caffrey said the post-processing work that's associated with the technology is not yet fully automated, putting 3D printing out of reach for many production-class applications due to the associated high costs.

Advances increase use of 3D printing

However, thanks to the recent momentum, many of these barriers to production-class 3D printing are being addressed. Enterprise-grade 3D printers now operate at higher speeds with greater accuracy and can accommodate the production of larger components made with a broad range of materials, not just thermoplastics. In addition, 3D printers with support for multi-materials allow shops to combine different material choices in the same product build, expanding their applicability beyond prototyping to the production of fully functional components.

We are pretty much digital all the way through until we cut hard tooling. 3D printing just completes that picture.
Mike Zeiglemanager of Trek Bicycle's prototype development group

As a result of these advances, manufacturers from industries like aerospace and defense, automotive, medical and others are ramping up use of 3D printing in production-level applications. As a viable alternative to conventional manufacturing processes, 3D printing promises a range of benefits, from reduced tooling costs and simplified production runs to the ability to produce shapes and structures that aren't feasible with other production methods, analysts say.

"The beauty of using [3D printing] for production is you don't need to design for manufacturing," Caffrey said. "Your final, approved prototype is the first production design; tooling costs disappear so risk is minimized. Capital is not tied up, inventory is digital … and a small production run can lead to a limited market introduction to evaluate success."

Obama administration bullish on 3D printing

Citing its ability to democratize the design, production and distribution of products, McKinsey Global Institute is projecting 3D printing to have an economic impact of up to $550 billion a year by 2025. The Obama administration is also bullish on 3D printing's potential to transform the manufacturing sector. In 2012, the administration established the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, Ohio, as part of its plan to invest in American manufacturing. Now called AmericaMakes, the innovation institute is devoted to promoting 3D printing's use in manufacturing via research, education, skills training and investment in early-stage incubators.

"[3D printing] as a form of manufacturing is very promising," noted Jacob Goodwin, director of membership engagement and communications for the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, another of the Obama administration's federally funded R&D organizations focused on digital manufacturing. "It needs to be part of the digital thread."

Rather than replace conventional practices, Wohler's Caffrey said 3D printing will evolve into another manufacturing option in the factory of the future along with subtractive and formative processes. "[Additive manufacturing] will not replace conventional manufacturing, but will develop into another tool in the designers and manufacturers toolbox for making products," he explained.

Trek Bicycle leverages 3D printing in design process

At Trek Bicycle Corp., use of 3D printing is soaring, primarily as a more effective means of prototyping, but potentially as a way to produce select parts, said Mike Zeigle, manager of the bike manufacturer's prototype development group. Trek is leveraging 3D printing continually throughout its design process as a faster and less expensive way to explore more radical design options as well as for checking interferences and for exploring how well a design might hold up under real-world conditions.

"We are pretty much digital all the way through until we cut hard tooling," he said. "3D printing just completes that picture."

Next Steps

See five very cool 3D printers

Learn how digital manufacturing helps reduce risk

Hear an expert podcast about global manufacturing technologies

How well do you know the elements of a digital supply chain?


Dig Deeper on 3D printing and software