Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, has gained more followers over the last few years. And it's transforming manufacturing, impacting the way companies design, produce, and support products.
The introduction of 3D printing has affected the rate at which new products can be developed.
Designs are drafted in a computer program and sent to be printed, dramatically reducing the time to market for new designs.
Instead of taking weeks or months for tooling a given design, parts can be printed onsite or through a CAD file sent to a service bureau where it's ready in a matter of hours or days.
With the ability to quickly create tangible designs, engineering flaws and bad ergonomics are identified sooner to allow for fixes being incorporated in to the final design.
This process improves quality by exploring multiple design options in a shorter period of time resulting in a better final product.
Manufacturers also benefit from 3D printing in how they fix or repair things.
It allows for on-demand fabrication of replacement parts, particularly for products or equipment out of production, where spare parts are difficult to come by.
It often makes more sense to print a replacement part as a short-term solution to avoid downtime while searching for a more permanent spare part.
Entering the world of 3D printing does not have to be a solitary experience.
The Netherlands-based Ultimaker, a company which specializes in industrial desktop printers, uses an enterprise enablement program to help manufacturers reveal additive opportunities.
Jamie Howard, president of Ultimaker Americas, said "even in a single day, the right team can find dozens of problems additive manufacturing could solve."
They do this by conducting a site scan where Ultimaker applications engineers and additive operators, in conjunction with the facility's plant engineers and management, find parts up and down the line that can be 3D printed.
"Usually when we do these site scans we find between 10 and 30 parts that can be printed," Howard said.
"We'll print two or three while we're there and create business justifications just from the output of the site scan."
What to print is determined in a variety of ways, according to Howard.
The parts or pieces of equipment are found in the context of a Lean view of cost reductions, time savings, and waste eliminations.
Additional benefits from the identified parts is they inherently perform better, for less money, prevent or reduce downtime, or increase KPIs—key performance indicators—in some way.
Several manufacturers have found certain 3D printers to be invaluable new tools for their business. Additive manufacturing is still in its infancy with many more opportunities on the horizon.
The U.S. military is also getting in on the action.
As the Army continues to improve readiness and modernize equipment, it has created the Center of Excellence for Advanced and Additive Manufacturing at the Rock Island Arsenal-Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center in Illinois.
"This center will help us operationalize additive manufacturing to fundamentally bend the curve of readiness for our Army by ensuring soldiers have the equipment and repair parts they need when and where they need them," said Major General Daniel Mitchell, commanding general, U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command.
"Reducing production lead times from months to weeks or even days, will go a long way toward providing our war fighters with superior capabilities and increased readiness."
The RIA-JMTC will serve as a central location to develop best practices and promote execution throughout the Army materiel enterprise.
Mitchell has seen numerous developments in technology during his career, adding, "I would have never dreamed we would be able to print out parts. Advanced manufacturing technology holds the promise of greatly increased Army readiness rates, so we will be ready to spring into action whenever and wherever our nation calls upon us."