August 7, 2022

Is Additive Manufacturing a World-Changing Process?

The ability to shift production to a localized point of use consumption through additive manufacturing is an exciting period in the industry's history. Reductions in traditional manufacturing disappear as additive manufacturing has relatively constant per piece costs, regardless of volume. In addition, the ongoing enhancement of additive technologies will continue to shrink per piece costs.
From Paper to Infinite Possibilities

Additive manufacturing is what is commonly known as 3D printing.  Many people have seen the crude 3D printed objects of multiple layers of paper in the earliest iterations of this process.  Additive manufacturing builds a product layer by layer by adding material only where it is necessary.  The work is done in a few manufacturing processes to produce the desired component.  Additive manufacturing represents a significant shift from traditional manufacturing, which begins with an object, like a block of steel, and removes material using a vast number of operations until achieving the final form.  We will explore why some consider this a process that could change the world.  

"Additive manufacturing absolutely has the disruptive potential, and there are three key elements that will help to unleash it – additive thinking, robust and accessible processes, and cost." – Guido Degen
A Growing Industry Option

A McKinsey article shares a prediction of additive manufacturing growth to $10 billion in the 2030-to-2035-time range.  An expected shift will move from experimental use to the high-end metals market in five to ten years due to decreased lead times and lower production costs, and will allow a  reduction from many processing steps to three: metal production, powder production, and product printing.  Additional benefits include lower small-batch prices, consistent quality, reduced waste, improved geometries, and enhanced mechanical properties.  

The Top Ten Materials

An element of the projected growth is the vast array of materials options that continue to grow constantly.  The top ten materials for industrial additive processing are: ABS, alumide, flexible material, high-impact polystyrene, nylon, polyethylene terephthalate, polylactic acid, photopolymer resin, stainless steel, and titanium.  The article shares the advantages and disadvantages of each material type.  Engineers will carefully select the one that best fits the end user's needs, considering the cost, material type, printing technology, and texture.  

From One Size Fits All

Plastics Machinery magazine predicts that additive manufacturing will result in a location of use production.  Product needs vary across countries.  This technology can shift supply chains from a "one size fits all" approach to one delivered by local employees that understand their language, culture, and industry requirements.  The article includes several examples of success with localized manufacturing, including Nordson, making several acquisitions to create a global company serving local markets.  The entrepreneurs who optimize additive manufacturing will meet a wide variety of needs for communities and, more importantly, keep wealth within them.

Additional Benefits of Localized Production

Ben-Ner and Siemsen also see localized production causing a drastic change in the manufacturing industry by mid-century.  They argue that supply chains will shrink as production shifts from mega factories to mini-local operations.  The transformation will also change the employee requirements from narrow disciplines to a hybrid position that combines sales, consulting, engineering, production, and service skills necessary to serve the local market.  UPS sees the negative impact of reduced supply chains on its delivery business and explores developing additive manufacturing operations worldwide.  The mega to mini transition is possible by eliminating the former benefit of large production lots to achieve lower per piece cost.  Reductions in traditional manufacturing disappear as additive manufacturing has relatively constant per piece costs, regardless of volume.  In addition, the ongoing enhancement of additive technologies will continue to shrink per piece costs.

Christian Reil from Pixabay
Additional Implications

Additive manufacturing has the potential for many economic, demographic, environmental, geopolitical, security, and social implications.  Examples include:

• The reduction or elimination of assembly lines and supply chains.

• A shift from shipping products around the world to transferring digital files.

• The elimination of inventories with on-demand production of products.

• Customized products without the additional costs of retooling traditional manufacturing operations.

• The distribution of products is de-globalized as manufacturing occurs near the consumers.

• Reshoring as production operations return to the home countries where goods are consumed.

• A substantial carbon footprint reduction by shifting away from traditional manufacturing operations and supply chains.  Significantly fewer emissions from transportation of finished goods is another desirable outcome.

• The current widening gap between open positions and applicants interested in manufacturing roles shrinks with the reduction in the number of production operations to produce goods.

The subsequent years will tell the story of whether additive manufacturing has significant potential to change the world.  However, it appears that the many benefits of this form of manufacturing are achievable.  In particular, as technology advances and total production costs continue to improve.

Key Takeaway

Despite the many issues the world is experiencing with COVID-19, racial unrest, political division, unemployment, and much more, we see a positive trend of significant manufacturing advances.  The ability to shift production to a localized point of use consumption through additive manufacturing is an exciting period in the industry's history.  I expect this production method to have an additional benefit of significant positive environmental, financial, and social impacts on our communities.    

Next Step

Individuals interested in an overview of metal additive manufacturing should view the video titled What is Metal Additive Manufacturing and What Can it Do? on YouTube.  Like most emerging technologies, it is not a complete solution for all component production.  However, the costs will continue to decrease while producing optimal parts previously impossible, potentially impacting the industry significantly.

My Gratitude

I admire individuals like Charles W. Hull, with credit for building the first 3D printer using the stereolithography technique.  His work was the birth of an industry revolution.  However, in the mid-1980s, I suspect he could not have fathomed the significant advancements that have evolved in the subsequent years.  May we all continue to do our part to maximize our abilities to change our world in whatever way we can best make an impact.

Sneak Peek

Next week's blog will explore the benefits of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), allowing for superior products that align with the humanist manufacturing framework.  

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Cover Image Credit: ZMorph Fab 3D Printer from Pixabay

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