3D Printing / Additive Manufacturing / Supply Chain Management

Where could 3D printing work for my company?

“Just because you can 3D-print something doesn’t mean you should.”

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

Mike Vasquez, founder of digital manufacturing and 3D printing consultancy 3Degrees, guides companies looking to add 3D printing to their toolbox, and he’s quick to offer a reality check on the technology’s possibilities and limitations. “Just because you can 3D-print something doesn’t mean you should,” he says. “If you’re telling me that you want to recreate these screws and just use 3D printing for no justification, then that’s a challenge.”

Vasquez offers these questions for companies to answer in evaluating whether and where to incorporate 3D printing:

1. Are you saving time to production so you can get more product to the market sooner?

2. Will 3D printing allow you to reduce your inventory, creating more of an on-demand supply chain and saving on spare-part storage and maintenance costs?

3. How long is it going to take, really? “I think people underestimate the work that goes into post-processing,” Vasquez says. “If we’re talking about metals, you likely need to heat-treat or stress-relief that part afterward.” Plus, he says, a secondary heat treatment could be required, taking several days in some cases. SLM North America’s Richard Grylls notes: “If you imagine printing in layers of 30 microns and you’ve got a build height of up to 350 mm, depending on the laser run time and the amount of parts you’re building, it can take days to build a set of components on a build cycle.”

Siemens’ Karsten Heuser, VP for additive manufacturing in the company’s machine tool business, adds other considerations:

4. What is changing in your product? Is the frequency with which you’re looking to make changes to core product components likely to increase in response to customer demand/changes in the market?

5. What kinds of materials are you able to handle in your production environment?

6. How could 3D printing change your business model, and are you ready to make that shift? “You could consider to store, for your service business, 3D images of your part, and then you may send or sell to your customer the service part as a 3D image instead of a part that you sell as a hardware piece” so that a customer using 3D printing can print the part locally, Heuser offers. Is on-demand, on-site printing of parts something your customers will be looking for in the next 5–10 years?

Then there’s the personnel angle. As 3D printing moves from prototyping into production, “it’s many more people that need to be educated on the machines and the safety and the different pieces of the 3D printing process,” Vasquez says. That point leads to further questions:

7. Does your staff have the technical expertise to make 3D printing in-house successful? Moreover, will there be respect for the maintenance demands of 3D printing equipment? For example, “when you’re dealing with a laser system with precision optics, you have to keep it clean,” notes Grylls. “There’s a big difference between making one and making 10,000,” Grylls says. “You’ve got to do things for the long haul and keep up on your maintenance.”

To learn more, read the December cover story, "New frontier: Here's where 3D printing is headed next in industrial manufacturing."