This article reviews the challenges for companies while adopting three-dimensional (3D) printing technology. A big challenge for companies figuring out whether they need to invest in 3-D printing is the different types of printing systems available in the market. At a high level, there are seven different families of 3-D printing processes. Each of the seven technologies is differentiated by the materials used and how the materials are fused together to create three-dimensional objects. Another barrier is that most companies have not yet found it viable to put the processes in place to incorporate the change in design, engineering, and manufacturing production that is required. Not only capital funds are needed to purchase machines, but to effectively use the technology to create a sellable product, one also needs to have a targeted product line and clear vision of the ways that 3-D printing can help lower material costs, save energy, and simplify manufacturing and assembly.
It's been almost 30 years since Chuck Hull invented 3-D printing, which he commercialized as stereolithography through his company, 3D Systems. Fast-forward to today, and dozens of companies are now making 3-D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) machines, materials, and software. Some of these systems are small enough to go on a desk while others are scaled to print car housings and entire homes.
However, for all of the hype that the technology has received in the past few years, the industry is still in its infancy and many manufacturing organizations are just starting to grapple with the issue of how (or if) the technology will affect their business.
I talk with business leaders all the time to help them work through that very issue. And what I’ve found is that while determining what technology is a good match for your business is key, I believe there's a much more important first question: Does your business even need the technology in the first place?
There is no doubt that the technology has a rightful place in many organizations, but it hasn’t yet matured to a place where it makes sense for every business. And given the investment, it's smart to not just jump into the deep-end.
One challenge for companies figuring out whether they need to invest in 3-D printing is the many different types of printing systems on the market. At a high level, there are seven different families of 3-D printing processes. Each of the seven technologies is differentiated by the materials used and how the materials are fused together to create three-dimensional objects. No single printing technology is right for every need. Instead, successful adoption of this technology requires end users to become smart about the options available to them and to make decisions on the types of applications where they believe the technology can benefit their businesses.
Factors such as cost, materials, resolution, part size, and mechanical properties are vastly different depending on the type of machine used. Some company leaders may be persuaded that they can afford to wait, since the technology continues to improve and evolve, and future advances in 3-D printing may be better suited to their needs.
But many businesses are in a position where implementing the technology—today—could have significant advantages. For that to happen, however, it's essential to have a realistic understanding of the capabilities that the current technology can offer to you: the cost implications, the material applications, and the final output options.
If all you know about 3-D printing is the hobbyist devices like the MakerBot, the range of possibilities may be a surprise. A 3-D printing machine can run in price to more than a million dollars, depending on its size and the technology it uses. For most businesses that adopt 3-D printing, it's a significant investment.
The good news is that there's a burgeoning industry that allows you to “try before you buy”—3-D printing service bureaus. Service bureaus are companies whose primary business is to print objects on demand for their customers. Oftentimes they have 3-D printers of different types, so a potential purchaser can sample the capabilities of different systems by printing from his own design files to determine which system best suits his needs.
There are other advantages to using service bureaus, including not having to pay for underutilized equipment, more material and machine options than might be possible in an in-house shop, and no need to maintain or develop in-house expertise in operating the machinery. Also, service bureaus can provide additional finishing work—something often needed for 3-D printed parts.
However outsourcing is not without its drawbacks. Companies may discover delays or errors in part delivery, and since they don’t maintain control of the model through the entire process, there may be errors in part construction that could lead to designs being compromised. Also, companies may not know the quality of the material being used or whether the part is built in the optimal way. And with no real control on the markups, costs can add up.
Generally, the biggest advantage that companies find in 3-D printing versus traditional, non-additive technologies is the design freedom provided by layer-upon-layer manufacturing techniques. From a product development perspective, 3-D printing eliminates one of the earliest design constraints, which is that added complexity equals increased cost.
For instance, if you are making a part that is to be injection molded, one of the constraints is making sure that the mold is sufficiently simple enough to allow for proper channeling and construction. More complex molds typically result in higher costs, which translate into the need to either sell a lot of the final products or charge a lot of money for each one in order to turn a profit.
For additive manufacturing and 3-D printing, the calculus is different. Design complexity becomes a non-factor: it doesn’t make a product more difficult or more expensive to produce. And for now, this is one of 3-D printing's biggest advantages. It allows manufacturers significantly more freedom in design, allows parts to be built together that previously had to be developed separately, and can successfully create anything that can be designed in a piece of software.
In short, to maximize 3-D printing, users shouldn’t try to replicate the existing manufacturing of products, but instead should use 3-D printing to enable design improvements to products that would be too costly to do with traditional processes.
So, how does this translate into using the technology in smart and efficient ways?
As I see it, there are opportunities to capitalize on 3-D printing's versatility on several different levels including the way in which different groups work together to manufacture improved and more cost-effective products.
The first—and still most common—is the use of the technology for prototyping. A 3-D printer offers a low-cost way to make small volumes of parts that can be used to test fit, form, and function. Consumer product companies use 3-D printed samples to garner customer feedback in focus groups. Athletic companies are developing prototypes to test things such as a bike's aerodynamic features. Companies which use 3-D printing that way are saving thousands of dollars and employee hours by making their R&D more efficient.
Other companies are using 3-D printing as a platform to introduce concurrent engineering principles in their product development. Specifically, companies can create multidisciplinary teams of engineering, design, manufacturing, and marketing people who work together from the original ideation of a product through the manufacturing rather than sequentially. This close collaboration helps to eliminate problems earlier in the process and avoid costly delays at later phases of development.
For most companies, however, the technology has not yet made the leap to full end-product manufacturing. There are two major factors at play that make adopting the technology in that way challenging.
First, as discussed earlier, is the segmented nature of the available technology, which limits the materials and quality of the end product that can be created using a single 3-D printer.
The second barrier is that most companies have not yet found it viable to put the processes in place to incorporate the change in design, engineering, and manufacturing production that is required. Not only do you need the capital funds to purchase machines, but in order to effectively use the technology to create a sellable product, you need to have a targeted product line and clear vision of the ways that 3-D printing can help lower material costs, save energy, and simplify manufacturing and assembly, to name a few considerations.
And often companies looking into 3-D printing aren’t aware that printing the object is only part of the process. For instance, nearly every 3-D printing system requires parts leaving the printer to undergo some sort of finishing. Part finishing is a big, time-consuming chore and must be considered in estimates of the time needed to complete the production process. Once this extra time is factored in, the advantages of 3-D printing may disappear.
For companies I advise that are evaluating how to start using or efficiently expand their 3-D printing capabilities, I counsel that there are four things—four Ms—they should think about as they start down this path. The four Ms are: methods, money, measure, and message.
Business leaders driving a 3-D printing initiative within their organization need to clearly define the desired outcome, and then very clearly outline the methods that will get you there. The important things to consider in this phase are company-specific and require using knowledge of the organization as well as doing significant homework engaging with various groups to assess their needs.
Business leaders should create a list of potential use cases for 3-D printing and then develop an understanding of what materials and processes those use cases will require. When thinking about these questions, they need do so through the lens of the end customer, meaning the people who ultimately will end up with the final printed product. Do they value customization, large or small volumes of parts, personalization, or something else?
Money is an unavoidable topic for two reasons: One needs to know where it is coming from (and ultimately to whom to sell the plan), and one needs to understand all the costs that go into operating a 3-D printing infrastructure. The mistake that many organizations make when looking at costs of 3-D printing is they too narrowly define all the expenses.
The major expenses that almost everyone considers are employees, printers, and materials. This covers about two-thirds of the costs, but what is missing includes training, service contracts, software, post processing tools, and building and construction costs. Those missing expenses add up quickly and should certainly be factored in as you develop your budget.
Even if someone can build a strong case for moving into 3-D printing and has the resources to pursue it, there is still the need to measure whether the initiative is giving the company the results it wants. Many companies do not do this in a smart way when they start deploying the technology, and it makes life more difficult than it needs to be when you want to expand the capabilities.
The best measurement is grounded in what's important to a company's leadership, and then tracks how 3-D printing is making an impact on those objectives. Some common things to keep track of include how many parts are being printed, the number of engaged partners in the organization, products affected, time saved, and manufacturing errors avoided. This way of thinking provides something tangible to benchmark the 3-D printing capabilities against and makes setting reasonable projections easier.
Building and growing consensus can be challenging. I have seen firsthand how companies have spent $50,000 or more on equipment and hardware, and after a few months that investment has translated into a machine that collects dust on the shop floor. Oftentimes that is because the reality of the technology wasn’t aligned to the expectations: The printers were viewed as being too slow; the material was hard to use, or the end-product didn’t have the right finish.
Such problems can in large part be addressed by driving alignment very early in the process and ensuring everyone has the same understanding of the capabilities and desired outcomes. When a company begins to incorporate 3-D printing, it should make sure to educate various stakeholders in the organization. This can include holding training seminars or open-lab events to give people an inside look at the machine, and engaging groups in the organization that are involved in taking a product to market and collaborating with them to find ways to use the technology to help them. Finally, company leaders should build a structured process that directs how the lab works, including setting expectations of timing and availability.
3-D printing is going to continue to improve and expand into more applications. At the moment it is not right for every manufacturing company. Sure, for some companies, there are great 3-D printing applications that can save money and drive innovations. But for others, my best advice has been to stay on the sidelines until the technology has further evolved.
The only way to know what's right for any particular organization is to understand where the technology excels, and to map those capabilities against the organization's strategy, budget, and priorities, and to see if there are areas of alignment.
If that advice doesn’t sound so different from what's offered for just about any technology, there's a reason. Forget all the hype: 3-D printing is a tool, and not every tool is right for every company.