by Michael Griffith, Manufacturing Technology Engineer, NWIRC

3D Printing-in progress
A 3D printer, at the Penn State Behrend Engineering Department, in process of making a prototype for NWIRC.

It remains to be seen whether additive manufacturing, or its synonymous term 3D Printing, actually transforms manufacturing. GE is one of many companies leading the development of additive manufacturing as an advanced manufacturing technology to improve its products and production.  GE describes its new Center for Additive Technology Advancement (CATA), located outside Pittsburgh, as a “new manufacturing facility that will drive innovation and implementation of additive manufacturing across the company…(CATA) will be the flagship center for additive manufacturing, focused on developing and implementing industrial applications from which all GE businesses – and in turn customer – can benefit.”1

While small and medium -sized manufacturers do not have the luxury of their own dedicated additive manufacturing research facility, individual manufacturers of all industries can radically transform their business by implementing additive manufacturing into their operations. A PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) survey suggests that 66.7% of manufacturers are either using or testing 3D printing in their manufacturing operations, with an additional 24.7% planning to adopt 3D printing in coming years.2 Adding 3D printing to a company’s capabilities can increase value to customers, reduce operating costs, improve manufacturing processes, and engage employees to increase productivity.

Manufacturers can increase value to their customers by providing additional engineering services. Additive manufacturing engineering services gives manufacturers an opportunity to partner with their customers on product development. Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) don’t always have the design-for-manufacturability expertise that their suppliers can offer. Partnering with a customer in their product development; offering expertise that is not had by the customer, is truly adding value for the customer. Ever increasing material availability for additive manufacturing, especially metals, increases the potential to fulfill low volume orders, orders that might otherwise be turned away where they cannot be economically produced utilizing traditional manufacturing processes.  A significant opportunity for manufacturers to be a value add to their customers is by consolidating vendors for low volume parts.  The up-shot is that there is always potential for low volume orders to become high volume orders that can be switched to conventional production methods.

Additive manufacturing is not likely to ever completely replace subtractive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing can, however, be a compliment in part production.  Typical uses are in tool and die builds, injection molding inserts, tools, jigs and fixtures.  Complementing traditional manufacturing processes with 3D printing capabilities can significantly reduce costs and improve manufacturing processes. Adding 3D printing capability into production processes as described above can energize the workforce and encourage employees to think of new, creative ways to innovate their own work space.  Employees engaged in improving production processes can not only reduce production costs but encourage further increases in productivity.

Additive manufacturing has the potential to positively impact all manufacturing businesses, no matter the size or industry. Contact your NWIRC Strategic Business Advisor to learn more about additive manufacturing and its potential impact on your operations.  If your business has already implemented 3D printing, let us know the ways this emerging technology has impacted your operations.

1 https://additivemanufacturing.com/2016/04/06/ge-celebrates-grand-opening-of-first-additive-manufacturing-center-in-pittsburgh/ 

2 https://www.pwc.com/us/en/industrial-products/assets/3d-printing-next_manufacturing-pwc.pdf

Michael Griffith is NWIRC’s Manufacturing Technology Engineer. He has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and MBA, both from Penn State University, plus over 15 years of manufacturing sales and development experience. He can be contacted at mgriffith@nwirc.org.