To Print or Not to Print: 4 Additive Manufacturing Tips for Industrial Manufacturers

by Andrew Wheeler
- Jan 27 2016 - 5 min read
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Industrial-machinery manufacturers have competitors just like any other industry and look to new technologies, like additive manufacturing, to give them an edge. Of course, this “edge” basically translates to an investment risk.

mold_drillLike any risk, the degree of potential payoff determines its worth. When it comes to adopting an industrial additive-manufacturing system, that payoff is the ability to produce low-volume objects that require a high degree of customization. Everything from more realistic prototypes to other customized tools, molds, jigs, and fixtures are becoming staples in the modern industrial landscape. These reasons, along with shape complexity and functional design possibilities, are driving more and more companies to seek out additive manufacturing, or 3D printing.

“Industrial-machine manufacturers adopt the technology heavily in preproduction,” says Jeff Hanson, director of Stratasys Direct Manufacturing’s Global Manufacturing Network. “This allows them to mitigate capital investment up front for production tooling, where if they invest too soon, they’re at risk for design change. And then we see in-machinery usages, typically in a low-volume product line where these original equipment manufacturers are adopting additive manufacturing to produce parts that would be components on that equipment.”

Manufacturers essentially have two options when adopting industrial additive-manufacturing systems: outsourcing work to a 3D-printing service or purchasing an in-house system. The reasons for choosing one over the other vary, but in any situation, manufacturers need to make certain baseline considerations, including existing production costs and processes, materials, volume, and skills of their engineers and designers.

Even with these considerations, many industrial-machinery companies simply don’t know how to get started with additive. Fortunately, services and consulting companies have made the incorporation of 3D printing at various points in the supply chain streamlined and effective. Below are some tips on entering the additive arena.

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1. Search the Senvol Database. The Senvol database, the first of its kind, is a comprehensive, online industrial-additive-manufacturing database. The free site features a highly customizable search tool created specifically to help determine which parts of the supply chain could most cost effectively be replaced with 3D-printed materials. In more than 30 different fields, users can search everything from types of materials to sizes, tensile strengths (measurements of maximum stress before failure), and prices. The site is user friendly and designed for everyone from end users and engineers to analysts and potential industrial buyers.

Nevertheless, searching through a considerable number of data fields can be daunting for those just beginning their research. “The key is to find the intersection between what is mechanically viable—that is, what can the technology do—and what is economically viable—what is cost-effective to implement,” says Senvol Co-President Zach Simkin. “Only when both the mechanical and economic criteria are met should a company adopt additive manufacturing.”

2. Consult Additive-Manufacturing Experts. In the expanding world of additive manufacturing, companies dedicated to consulting are beginning to pop up with increasing frequency. One of the top international additive-manufacturing service providers is Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, whose team of project engineers and manufacturing specialists combines high-end additive manufacturing with traditional techniques and an array of finishing processes. The company can do the production work for clients or recommend purchases of in-house Stratasys printers.

“We work with clients throughout their product-development life cycle, from prototyping all the way to end-use parts,” Hanson says. One such client, Curt G. Joa, came to Stratasys Direct Manufacturing for what it thought was just a prototype of a vacuum-forming drum used to create the company’s sanitary paper products. Stratasys Direct Manufacturing was able to not only validate the design but also recommend a different material (thermoplastic) for the drum, resulting in higher product yield from the machine. Curt G. Joa now leverages Stratasys’ network of nearly 200 FDM machines for volume on-demand production of the part.

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The final Curt G. Joa thermoplastic part. Courtesy Stratasys Direct Manufacturing.

Senvol, too, offers consulting services and has worked with many Fortune 500 companies, including GE. Senvol initially gained popularity by offering seven scenarios in which additive manufacturing can be beneficial enough to consider implementing.

3. Get Training and Education. Manufacturers that are looking to learn more about additive manufacturing and the processes, implementations, and benefits involved can find training programs on everything from quality control and safety to design and economics. As a “global independent safety science company,” UL provides education, training, certifications, inspections, and validations in all manner of industries, from appliances and HVAC to plumbing and medical equipment. For the past three years, additive manufacturing has been an area of strategic focus for the company.

“It’s quite a broad portfolio of services that we can offer to a client, and it’s depending on what challenges or problems they are facing,” says Chris Krampitz, UL’s innovation and strategy director, additive manufacturing. “We have a formal training and professional certification program, and that gets people to understand how to use the technology and still conform to industry standards, regulations, or any technical requirements.”

For more hands-on assistance, UL provides an array of advisory services to help clients set up manufacturing facilities and processes and qualify facilities for certain applications. UL can also consult on which product lines or parts are best suited for additive manufacturing.

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4. Make the In-House/Outsource Choice. One of the most important considerations is, of course, whether to purchase a 3D printer or send out designs for manufacture. Because machines are limited in what they can produce, the most important factor is obviously what a manufacturer will be printing. If metal is needed, the next step is to narrow down what type of machine will work best: powder bed, blown powder, binder jetting, or hybrid 3DP/CNC. If plastic is suitable, the question is whether prints will be used for models and prototypes or functional parts, which require industry-standard material properties. If needs are simple and unlikely to change dramatically, then an in-house printer may be the best option.

Even so, it’s not a simple plug-and-play endeavor in which a machine is purchased, installed, and producing parts the next day. “It really shifts the whole engineering and production process up to the design stages significantly, front-loading the process,” Krampitz says. “And what we’re seeing is that the design engineer and the manufacturing engineer are becoming one and the same with additive. A design engineer and a process engineer have completely different skill sets, and now we’re trying to put those two together—and that’s a superengineer that currently doesn’t exist.”

While the industry catches up to that new breed of engineer, manufacturers can thankfully fall back on service providers or service marketplaces. Still, industrial manufacturers take note: Whether in-house or outsourced, additive manufacturing is an important component of the future of advanced manufacturing.

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