Why Everything You Take for Granted about Manufacturing Is Wrong


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3D printer in action. Image: drywater_photography.

Additive manufacturing may be gaining ground in industrial applications, but that doesn't mean it's well understood.

Additive manufacturing (AM) is more than a single technology—it's a new way of thinking about the future of manufacturing, according to Darrell Wallace, a professor at Youngstown State University and president of Assimilogic, and 3Degrees founder Dr. Mike Vasquez.

And that new train of thought, Wallace and Vasquez say, changes nearly everything people once knew to be true about manufacturing.

Wallace and Vasquez recently shared their insights on changing paradigms in the industry in a free webinar hosted by ASME and they shared their perspectives at ASME's Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing Conference and Expo. We've summarized their key takeaways from the webinar below.

Innovation now, best practices later

Darrell Wallace began by deconstructing several assumptions about manufacturing, most notably the role of standards. Wallace says imposing standards at such an early stage in the AM game constrains rapid growth. He would rather wait to see how the industry evolves before codifying best practices.

Those standards will eventually need to evolve to address material properties, Wallace says. In traditional manufacturing, suppliers are responsible for material properties and composition. AM introduces a unique challenge here in that AM processes don't create the same homogeneous material properties we expect from batch-processed materials.

Wallace says AM parts manufacturers will begin bearing that responsibility—an area of expertise they haven't traditionally held.

Challenging manufacturing basics

Perhaps the most basic tenet of manufacturing is that mass production leads to lowest per-unit cost.

However, thanks to AM, Wallace says, that is no longer necessarily true. Some customized components can now be made quickly and cheaply, and save raw materials in the process. Small-scale production can also free up manufacturing, moving it from highly centralized, high-capital facilities to a more local, distributed model.

Decentralization will challenge the role of experts in manufacturing innovation; because 3D printing requires modest skill and minimal capital, almost anyone will be able to access manufacturing tools. With literally millions of individuals potentially exploring innovative approaches to AM, Wallace says it's reasonable to predict that experts in manufacturing may play a smaller role in the next iteration of AM.

But the democratization of manufacturing raises complicated questions about risk, namely: Who will be held responsible for faulty products when private consumers are printing them at home?

Wallace says this will lead to the reassessment of the "balance of liability between designers, manufacturers, and home manufacturers."

In the meantime, Wallace says companies will likely integrate AM into traditional manufacturing processes by using it for rapid tooling, jigs, and fixtures, as well as end-use components that aren't safety-critical. “This will all happen in parallel to standards development...and will be a critical source of input to the standards-development process," he adds.

One technology to rule them all?

Meanwhile, Mike Vasquez took the opportunity to challenge certain assumptions about AM, including the belief that one technology will solve all of a company's problems.

“There's no one-size-fits-all solution," he says—in fact, there are actually seven categories of AM techniques, each with its own pros and cons.

Vasquez says companies will have to work hard to avoid the pitfalls of underestimating the techniques' limitations and not getting all the facts before sinking their money into a particular technology.

In-depth research is critical to matching the right application to the right process, machinery, and materials, Vasquez says.

Materials are one of the more complex aspects of AM because they're still evolving. Layer-by-layer technology can make parts manufacturing even more complicated, since how an object is built has a lot to do with its intended usage and mechanical properties.

Vasquez also says coming up with a plan for process control is a must.

"At the moment there's very limited process control with current AM machines—[they're] not to the same caliber as traditional manufacturing machines," he says.

Business strategies for AM

Although manufacturers will have to think hard about hardware and build setup, Vasquez agrees that AM can bring significant benefits once all the nuts and bolts have been sorted out.

Aside from the possible cost, time, and space savings, AM also allows rapid iteration and continuous improvements without additional tooling or molding. It optimizes the supply chain, and even enables manufacturers to optimize parts for shipping and packaging.

But to do AM right, companies need to strategize, Vasquez says.

First, manufacturers should know which components they're applying it toward and why. They also need to know which methods they'll use, if they'll have the infrastructure to support them, and how they'll measure their effectiveness.

Of course, a company's budget will automatically narrow its choices. Vasquez says case studies are an important point of comparison for companies looking for a little context and wisdom before introducing AM to their supply chains. They're an excellent tool for getting into the AM mindset, understanding the future of manufacturing, and preparing for your company's own future.

The new frontier of additive manufacturing can be intimidating to navigate; fortunately, there’s the ASME AM3D conference to help guide you as you integrate AM into your business. Learn more about the ASME Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing Conference and Expo here.

Kate Dougherty is an independent writer

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July 2015

by Kate Dougherty