Damian Hennessey, director, Proto Labs discusses how 3D printing can power many UK businesses forward into the digital revolution
From recent headlines it’s evident that the 3D printing revolution is gathering apace. Beyond the consumer hype, many business leaders are discovering how advanced industrial-grade 3D printing supports faster time to market.
Furthermore, they are learning how extremely accurate and complex prototypes are made possible with 3D printing processes such as stereolithography, direct metal laser sintering, and selective laser sintering. In what has become known as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, driven by significant advancements in digital technology, those businesses that adopt new technological innovations will gain competitive advantages – and an investment in 3D printing is just one of those innovations.
3D printing – the business case
Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3D printing, has been adopted by businesses across diverse industries for many years. However, it can often be perceived as a consumer-focused technology. Rather than a replacement for existing manufacturing processes, 3D printing can be considered as complimentary in the development of more intricate parts.
By removing the cost of tooling or creating a mould it provides businesses with the flexibility to build more complex prototypes, and different product mixes can be considered and implemented at all stages of the printing process. 3D printing can enable a new era of bespoke manufacturing, in which businesses are able to offer more personalised parts and products than ever before.
In the medical world for example, many hearing aid manufacturers now use a form of 3D printing to create custom-designed hearing aids to the exact geometry of an individual patient’s ear.
Fundamentally, the technology allows for rapid design cycles which can either reduce design time, improve designs in a given time or, often, both. Furthermore, it can be used to optimise designs ahead of the manufacturing process, reducing the overall manufacturing costs, even if 3D printing is not actually used in the end process itself. Finally, it can be used to manufacture complex designs or single components that, if produced using conventional techniques, would have had to be made up of multiple components.
Beacons of best practice
Businesses in the aerospace and automotive industries are already benefiting from advancements in 3D printing.
In 2015, the UK government pledged £100 million to propel the future of the aerospace industry, an investment made in part due to the recognition of 3D printing’s strong potential. Indeed, the spirit of innovation is clear to see throughout the industry. Boeing–Lockheed Martin’s joint venture with the United Launch Alliance, for example, reported a saving of $1m a year through switching to 3D printing technology to manufacture components, and many other aircraft companies are already replacing traditional fixtures in planes with 3D-printed plastic parts.
Furthermore, as airline manufacturers constantly seek new ways to reduce weight and emissions and increase cargo capacity, they are increasingly turning to 3D printing as the way forward, allowing the testing of small components and vital parts used in engines and landing gear.
Elsewhere, the practice of ‘light-weighting’ is transforming the automotive sector, as shaving ounces – even fractions of ounces – off each component in a car can set manufacturers on the right path to meeting EU environmental compliance regulations and reducing overall costs.
For example, where once a rear view mirror was heavy enough to hammer in a nail, most are now comprised of a lightweight magnesium frame and a plastic shell while still retaining the same functionality and strength.
The secret to success lies in developing components that meet the necessary cost and function requirements, but that use alternate materials and smart designs to reduce their weight. By employing a process of 3D printing, selecting the optimum materials and manufacturing processes for these lighter weight components becomes notably more manageable.
The road ahead
3D printing offers businesses the flexibility to reimagine how parts are designed and manufactured, opening up further opportunities to deliver cost savings and speed to market.
The manufacturing industry is undergoing a digital revolution with new business models built around customer demand, production speed, and enhanced software programming. Embracing 3D printing will set businesses on the right path to power them through this ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’.
Damian Hennessey is a director of Proto Labs.