3D Printing Applications: What is it good for?

A lot of managers are struggling to understand the potential of 3D Printing in their company. They know that they should probably be on top of this, also since two thirds of all top manufacturing companies currently use 3D printing. But for many it just seems like a mess.

In order to reach for clarity and create an overview, let’s take a look at the different functions, or generic needs, that 3D Printing can serve in companies. In this blog post, an overview of generic applications is created and the applications are explained in order to understand how companies can utilize them to increase, or even leapfrog, their competitiveness.

 FIGURE: Overview of generic 3D Printing Applications

3D Printing Application overview

4 Generic Applications
The 4 generic applications are in this instance labelled as prototyping, tooling, ramp up and direct manufacturing. Given that the aim is to create an overview of how 3D printing can be exploited in companies, we will walk through the 4 generic applications of the technologies in terms of benefits and barriers as well as address how they can be used by manufacturers right now.

Go to: Prototyping / Tooling / Ramp up / Digital Direct Manufacturing


Prototyping (Rapid prototyping)

Definition: The use of 3D Printing to create physical representations of ideas and product developments.
Includes: Everything from visual aids and physical representations of ideas to form, fit and functional prototypes testing feasibility of product developments.

Main benefits: 3D printed prototypes speeds up innovation and saves costs, going directly from digital data to physical unit, using low labor, in an automated way and without tools. Savings on costs and time range from 50% to 90% as compared with previous prototyping technologies.

Main barriers: In some cases, prototypes need a very smooth surface finish or a very particular material, which is not always achievable with 3D printing technology. Accuracy and consistency can be an issue, while specific learning is required for in-house implementation of functional prototyping.

Comment: Rapid prototyping is the classic and most widely adopted application of 3D printing. In fact, in several industries it has become the expected standard. If you’re not using 3D printing for your prototyping efforts at this point, chances are that your company is simply not as equipped for matching the customer needs as competitors are. Given the pre-existing use of 3D modelling software and minimal consequences in business models, it is a rather incremental change inside organizations, and whether in-house or outsourced, 3D Printing can and should be used right now to accelerate new product development processes.


 Tooling (Rapid tooling)

Definition: The use of 3D printing for creating production tools.
Includes: Two categories within 3D Printing for tooling: Indirect and direct approach. The indirect approach uses master patterns to produce a mould or die, and the direct approach fabricates tools or tooling inserts directly from the machine.

Main benefits: Using 3D Printing for tooling is generally faster, cheaper and performs better than conventional methods. Impressively, 3D Printing has been reported to reduce tooling costs by as much as 97%! As regards lead time reductions, they normally vary between 40% and 90%, while the ability to increase quality and performance of tools is mainly brought forward by the possibility to integrate cooling channels.

Main Barriers: There is a lack of variety in suitable materials available for tooling and even though build volume capacity have seen an increase in recent years, fabricating bigger tools for large scale manufacturing is still an issue. Organizations need relatively complex learning, and often “un-learning” of previous limitations, in order to exploit the potential of rapid tooling, which is part of a relatively high initial investment, especially if implementing in-house.

Comment: Next after prototyping, tooling is the most adopted generic application of 3D printing technology, used by a wide range of manufacturing industries. It’s worth mentioning the flexibility that 3D Printing adds to the tool making process, as exemplified by the case of a technical service provider that created a custom cleaning tool with day-to-day readjustments, thanks to a close collaboration and feedback from their client. Analogue to the case of rapid prototyping, rapid tooling increases efficiency of current operations and does not lead to noteworthy changes in business models. Any manufacturing company, especially those with wishes of being closer to market needs, should look into the attainable benefits of 3D printing their production tools, while consulting a technical service provider for guidance and cost/benefit analysis is a good start.


Ramp up (Rapid market launch, pilot marketing)

Definition: The use of 3D Printing to fabricate whole products or components thereof to be marketed while the conventional manufacturing line has not yet been fully set up.
Includes: Various combinations and hybrids between conventional methods, rapid tooling and direct final part production, at times only 3D Printing very few, if not only one, of the newest or most advanced components in a product development.

Benefits: Using 3D Printing in the ramp up process can lower time to market substantially while diminishing the risk of new product launches via increased flexibility and the enabling of a proactive approach to market learning. Companies are able to be first on the market, earn early income, test market reception, detect potential holes in the total offering and have the flexibility to react on learning from the market in time. It can basically enhance first mover advantages and diminish first mover disadvantages by entering the market in a flexible way, in the sense that potential fast-following competitors will not be able to react as quickly and precisely as a firm doing 3D printed pilot marketing well.

Barriers: Using 3D Printing for the ramp up process is relatively costly in general and has quite some barriers in terms of certifications, standardization, variety of materials and material properties, since final products have certain quality standards and consistency demands to encompass. The need for technical know-how and internal education as well as integration into the conventional production also represent vast initial investments. Apart from that, cross-organizational involvement is needed with buy-in from different management levels, while some internal resistance can be encountered due to the change in marketing approach.

Comment: 3D Printing for the ramp up process, or pilot marketing, is possibly the most overlooked generic application – many readers have probably never heard of it. As an example it has been used by a 3D Printer manufacturer to 3D print the newest components of its newest 3D Printer until conventional fabrication started. There is no question that manufacturing companies will need guidance from a technical service provider and possibly also some management consultancy for setting up an effective market feedback system to reap the full learning benefits or perhaps for altering aspects of the business model towards more service offerings. However, the cost of implementing ramp up with 3D printing can be completely offset by the value of market learning, especially if dealing with very valuable high priced products.

You should consider implementing if you operate in a highly competitive market, where being first in the market is important, or if market demands are uncertain and vary a lot, leading to a need for many product alterations. A clear requirement here is that the technical and internal organizational barriers should be surmountable in your context.


 Direct Digital Manufacturing

Definition: The use of 3D Printing to produce final products or product components.
Includes: Various integrations into conventional manufacturing setups.

Benefits: 3D Printing for final manufacturing makes it technically possible to meet customer needs in total new ways and create innovative offerings for both existing and new markets. When manufacturing with 3D Printing, most classic design limitations of conventional fabrication are simply not present, which leaves the door open to achieve new geometries, shapes and functionalities in products. Complexity is basically free and concepts like typology optimization allows you to edit the inner structure of your components to better match the functionality, weight or pressure requirements etc. while also saving raw material.

Moreover, 3D Printing allows unprecedented agility and flexibility in the production, which opens the door for concepts like true mass customization, where every customer can have on-demand individually customized products to suit their specific needs perfectly. This means that new unique customer experiences can be designed, since the manufacturing of either whole products or key components for customization can be distributed to local physical shops, outsourced locally or even potentially crowd-sourced in some particular instances. 3D Printing for manufacturing essentially allows companies to move away from an almost singular focus on economies of scale towards economies of scope in various forms, by widening the potential offering, and thus enhancing the ability to match the need of both current and new target customers.

Barriers: The cost is simply just higher than conventional manufacturing, with no current outlook to get cheaper than traditional methods. Also, as soon as we are talking about higher volumes of series production, 3D printing is much slower than for instance injection moulding. The previously mentioned technical barriers all apply, while especially material variety, availability and quality as well as certifications and standardization are prevalent issues to deal with. Thus, in many instances there is a need for specific technological development to occur before being able to meet the demanded standards.

Furthermore, mass customization requires the development of a smart customization user interface, which is a lot easier said than done. The need for organizational learning, unlearning and changes in workforce requirements is undeniably very present and internal resistance will most likely be met initially. Gaining buy-in from not only various management levels, but throughout the whole organization and beyond to gain alignment in the supply chain is also a prerequisite.

Comment: First of all, lets just kill the myth that 3D Printing technology will totally replace conventional manufacturing anytime soon, or anytime in the next 20+ years for that matter. Rather than a complete substitution, it typically makes sense and is much more technically feasible to use 3D Printing in a complementary way by integrating it into the current production flow. For instance a good way to get the best of both worlds is to define key components with customization value or a need for advanced functionality, which should be 3D Printed, while the rest of the product is manufactured with more cost-effective conventional methods. However, when production series are very low with frequent changes in product specifications, 3D Printing could prove to be a superior choice, as is the case with a lot of spare parts for instance.

As previously indicated, 3D Printing for manufacturing typically disrupts a company’s business model so much, that they are often better off creating a whole new separate business model. Potentially as a pilot project or even a spin-off that incorporates 3D printing capabilities, likely with a focus on servitization. There is a reason why Copenhagen Business School is stepping up research activities on Servitization of business models, where 3D printing is referenced as a way to achieve higher customer value through services. In this sense 3D Printing for final manufacturing acts as a driver for new business model innovation, forcing companies to reconsider they way they create and deliver customer value, which is a definite head start in increasing competitiveness majorly, let alone to avoid becoming obsolete, as a company.


So, In conclusion…

As seen in the figure above, we can basically place the difference generic applications in a continuum of increasing potential and barriers as we move from prototyping towards direct manufacturing. Where prototyping and tooling have easily identifiable direct benefits, the specific benefits and cost/benefit analysis of 3D Ramp up or Direct Digital Manufacturing can be harder to calculate. As depicted above, there can be various degrees of barriers and innovative potential in different contexts, which again highlights the need for acquiring expert help from technological service providers and perhaps specialized management consultancy.

Another important notion to consider is the apparent transferability of barriers in that once you have found solutions to for instance functional prototyping and direct tooling, you are already a solid step closer to be able to use 3D printing for ramp up successfully because of the specific technological development and the learning involved. Thus, the sooner companies start learning about 3D Printing and starts investigating more advanced exploitation of the possibilities in their context, the sooner they will be able to leapfrog their competitiveness and take the lead in their industry.

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