Will 3D Printing Replace Traditional Manufacturing?
There is no ‘Yes/No’ answer to this seemingly simple, yet complex question. It is as complex as the products that can be made through additive manufacturing. But the ideal answer to this burning question is that 3D printing will certainly not replace the traditional manufacturing processes. At least not in the short term. Any replacement will take decades of research, improvements, innovations, and developments over the existing AM processes.
Through this article, we build our case to state why 3D printing won’t replace the traditional manufacturing processes but we will also state how it can replace the traditional processes and give you a glimpse of how the future of manufacturing looks.
Traditional or Conventional manufacturing are the technologies that represent the processes where the material is removed (subtracted) through cutting, machining, drilling, or grinding techniques or cast into molds. These processes were developed since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have progressively been adopted globally for manufacturing all types of products used today.
The four main categories of traditional manufacturing processes include injection molding, machining, forming, and joining. Each process is laced with both advantages and drawbacks and over the years the manufacturers have weighed these to choose the optimum process for any new product developed.
Processes in TM
Injection molding is the most popular traditional manufacturing process used for building plastic products. This process consists of melting a plastic material and injecting it into a mold of the desired shape. Once inside the mold, the material cools and solidifies to take the shape of the mold. Through the built-in action of the machine, the solidified part is ejected from the mold to obtain the part. Many of the common household items like chairs, containers, bottles, consumer durable casings, etc. are made from this technique.
This age-old technique delivers consistent results with high-quality products having an excellent surface finish. The concept of economies of scale can be effectively achieved with this technique as it supports mass manufacturing. It can churn out thousands of parts in mere hours.
The major drawback of this technology is that it has high startup costs and it is not suitable for low-volume production.
Computer Numerical Control (CNC) system can machine (drill, mill, turn) any material into the required shape. A block of material is clamped in the machine and a numerically operated tool removes pieces of material from the block till the required shape is achieved. Since the machine is alt o perform multiple operations it is a great tool to create a lot of metal parts.
The process can be used for a wide range of materials and delivers superior and unmatched quality products. A lot of the common products like gears, precision equipment’s, engine and its parts, all types of tools are made from this technique.
The major drawback is that it cannot manufacture products with undercuts or internal features with machining.
Plastic forming, in general, uses a sheet of plastic that is draped over a mold using air pressure to turn the sheet into the shape of the mold. This is a slow process and each part of manufacturing involves manual intervention and there is scope for some amount of manual error. It is limited to forming simple shapes.
This process is an umbrella term for all the joining processes like welding, adhesive bonding, fastening, etc. Through all these different processes, two or more individual parts can be joined to form a consolidated object. Though it is being used for a long time, it is not the most efficient. The process also takes a good amount of time and effort and also involves a high labor cost.
Advantages of TM
The most important advantages of traditional manufacturing processes include:
- Ideal for mass manufacturing
- Gives economies of scale advantages
- Faster bulk output
- High-quality output
- Availability of cheap skilled labor
- Complete knowledge of all possible errors and problems to troubleshoot
Disadvantages of TM
- Not suitable for low-volume manufacturing
- Huge amounts of material wastage (scrap)
- Not a sustainable way to manufacture goods
- Long product development cycles
- Long tooling stage
- Extended supply chains
Applications of traditional manufacturing can be seen everywhere around us. Almost every single product and its core parts are manufactured through these processes. From bottles to containers, from home appliances to footwear, and from vehicles to aircraft.
As you already might be knowing that 3D printing is a process of manufacturing solid three-dimensional objects from a digital CAD file through a layer-by-layer deposition process. In this process, the material is added to create the final object against subtracting it from a solid block of material in the case of traditional manufacturing processes.
Processes in AM
3D printing is not a single process but a range of processes that operate on the principle of additive manufacturing. According to ASTM, 3D printing can be classified into seven categories namely, Material Extrusion, Vat Photopolymerization, Powder bed fusion, Material Jetting, Binder Jetting, Sheet Lamination, and Directed Energy Deposition.
Advantages of AM
Additive manufacturing is a new technology that was invented as the solution to rapidly manufacturing prototypes and reducing the time to market. However, over the years, it has grown to be much more and has resulted in delivering numerous advantages like those mentioned below:
- Eliminates tooling stage
- Ability to create complex shapes
- Faster time to market
- Ability to mass customize products
- Supports On-demand manufacturing
- Supports low-volume manufacturing
- Gives Economies of scope advantages
- A sustainable way to manufacture products
- Less material wastage (negligible waste/scrap)
As the technology grows in adoption, we see more and more applications for additive manufacturing. Below are some of the industries where additive manufacturing is widely used.
- Healthcare, Medical, and Dental
- Fashion and Footwear
- Oil & Gas
Barriers to Adoption
With all its advantages, it seems that 3D printing is the answer to the future of sustainable manufacturing. But according to experts, the technology has multiple barriers to adoption. As many as 18 barriers were identified in a 2018 report published in the Science Direct Journal. The eighteen barriers are as follows: education, cost, design, software, materials, traceability, machine constraints, in-process monitoring, mechanical properties, repeatability, scalability, validation, standards, quality, inspection, tolerances, finishing, and sterilization.
It can be easily concluded that without the elimination of these barriers the technology will not see a complete adoption and eventual replacement of the conventional processes. By simple estimation, we can say that it will take at least 3-5 decades of continuous research, improvements, innovations, and developments for 3D printing to completely replace traditional manufacturing.
Factors that can Accelerate Replacement
To accelerate the complete replacement of the traditional manufacturing technologies, there are a few factors that are crucial in the replacement process. The way to achieve replacement is through the elimination of barriers and so we share a few factors that will lead to the lifting of the barriers paving the way to complete replacement
One of the major barriers to the adoption of 3D printing is its inability to support mass production. 3D printing is not built (yet) for mass production and that causes most manufacturers to sideline the technology. Many companies are working on building a mass-producing 3D printing technology but it is still not comparable to injection molding. Not in terms of the quantity nor in terms of the quality.
This major hurdle, if achieved, can be the tipping point for the mass adoption of the technology and will lead to many companies adopting it instantly.
Application across the Value Chain
The traditional approach to product development has long been relied on adding value to a product only during the manufacturing stage. This was perfect till a few years ago when 3D printing was not used as a mainstream production method but today it is no longer a legible reason.
3D printing can have an impact across the value chain. It can lead to optimized and even complex designs, it can create customized products, can help in choosing better materials, the production can be done faster, reduce material wastage, reduce the need for infrastructure, can support distributed manufacturing network, a virtual warehouse can be leveraged to reduce warehouse space and costs, develop businesses through economies of scope, etc. The benefits are immense when talking about the ways 3D printing can create an impact on any organization across the value chain.
3D printing can revolutionize a vast number of sectors ranging from automotive, aerospace, defense, medical, construction, fashion and footwear, food, and many others. As new and new capabilities are developed into the technology, the adoption, and eventually, replacement rate will climb rapidly.
Startups have developed products and processes that are changing how things are sustainably manufactured. Even the design process has changed and we are witnessing a design revolution as well. We see concepts of topology optimization, generative design designs through AR systems are new but revolutionary.
As these new capabilities are optimized and harnessed, limitations of the older technologies like casting forging, milling, turning, drilling, etc. are overcome to offer a new range of products and processes.
As the technology develops the march towards adoption is gradual. However, the pace will be accelerated once more and more competitors start adopting the technology. It has been proven that the market grows when competitors use the technology to offer better products to their customers.
Companies will compete on quality, price, innovative products, faster new product development, and numerous other advantages. The disruption will
3D printing can also leverage data as shown by Adidas in their 3D printed footwear line-up where they can create a customized shoe for every individual based on their running behavior. Companies leveraging such advantages are sure to accelerate technology replacement.
The Way Forward
The way forward is to not look at 3D printing as a replacement technology but it should be used in conjunction with the traditional processes. 3D printing can be a great technology to complement and augment traditional processes. We have a look at how this can be achieved.
Complementing each other
As we saw earlier that injection molding is one of the most popular mass manufacturing technology. This technique uses molds to shape a liquid plastic into the required shape. This is the best mass manufacturing process but it has its challenges. The molds are always hot as the liquid plastic flows around them. The continuous heat restricts its continuous and long-term use. Traditionally, cooling channels are built into the mold but they are not entirely efficient.
3D printing can be efficiently used creating efficient mols that dissipate heat faster so they can be used for longer continuous periods of production and also their shelf life increases. This is achieved by developing conformal cooling channels in the molds. Such channels are impossible to build through conventional processes. So, a 3D printed mold with such cooling channels will cool faster giving it the ability to live long and deliver reliable results that will augment the molding process.
Investment castings are used in manufacturing for ages. It is one of the earliest manufacturing techniques invented. It makes use of wax patterns and ceramic molds to create complex shapes. Current methods demand the patterns be made through injection molding but that results in higher costs and it also restricts the designs.
Again 3D printing can fit right in this scenario to create the investment casts from wax or wax-like materials. 3D printing technologies like SLA/DLP are perfectly suited for this application. Castable resins developed to be used in casting processes are available at cheaper prices which have excellent burnout characteristics.
Moreover, the 3D printers needed to print with castable materials are quite affordable than injection molding machines and thus allowing even smaller organizations to jump into the business and take advantage.
Spare part management is one of the biggest pain for any product-based company. It can, almost, never be efficiently managed. Availability of a spare part is a necessity for the company as it directly impacts the end-user and can directly reflect on the brand image. Spare parts inventory is another issue that not only eats up space in the warehouse but also is a ticking meter that extracts a cost on the company through warehousing.
To find a solution to this age-old problem, companies are now experimenting with 3D printing. Due to its on-demand manufacturing capabilities, companies can print the required spare part right on time and right where it is needed. This solves multiple problem areas. First, it solves the customer’s problem of finding a spare part. Second, it eliminates the need to stock spare parts all across the globe wherever the product is sold. Third, it eliminates the cost of warehousing. Fourth, only a digital file of the spare part is to be stored in a virtual warehouse and it can be easily transferred to all locations and be easily 3D printed close to the customers' location.
Though it has several barriers to implementing 3D printing in spare parts management, it is still a viable option and it will only get better in the coming time.
Repair and Maintenance
Not all problems require the replacement of parts. Some parts require repair and that can be a tricky challenge for many critical industries. This is a huge problem in the marine, oil & gas, and energy industries. Many parts in all these industries are big or critical and are too costly to be easily replaced with new ones. So, such parts require repair and maintenance. Some parts may also require frequent repair activities depending on their application and use. Traditional methods are not always a good way to repair.
Here also, 3D printing can greatly help. Directed Energy Deposition (DED) 3D printing technology is the perfect solution for carrying out repairs. It is also called Laser engineered net shaping (LENS) or direct metal deposition (DMD). In this method, a powdered material (or sometimes a wire) is fired upon the location where the printing is required and at the same time, an electron beam is flashed onto the particles which melt the particles. The melted material gets deposited onto the part. Multiple layers of material can be deposited on top of the previous layers to add strength to the repair.
In this simple way, any worn-out part can be repaired by adding material to it through DED technology.