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December 2017
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3D Printing - Creating opportunities
Mary Glindinning
Mary Glindinning

A cardinal rule at newspapers is just because you can print something doesn’t mean you should. You have to choose the best use of space.

It’s the same with 3D printers: they can’t print everything, and you have to choose to use them in the ways that make the most sense. But 3D printers do have the potential to change how material handling works in the next decade.

“It’s just technology. It’s not scary. It’s good to be aware of it,” said Steve Medwin, director of systems and advanced engineering at the Raymond Corporation. At Raymond, 3D printers make scale or full-size prototypes. “It’s easy to take it to a meeting. People can handle it” and see how it might work, Medwin said. “It’s a little more complicated to actually print a 3D part that is actually part of a truck. The issues lie in the designing of a part. For a 3D printed printer to successfully print a truck part, you have to consider material properties, cost and much more. Depending on the application, it may or may not be cost effective to print in metal. It’s not quite cost effective to do 3D printing in metal yet,” Medwin said.

The technology to 3D print has been around for 20 years, he said. Prices on hobbyist printers fell and people took note. The media paid attention, especially when astronauts used a 3D printer on the International Space Station. “It will have an impact, but I think it will be more subtle,” Medwin said. It takes time to print in 3D and the product needs finishing. “I think it’s something to watch. It’s prudent to be actively engaged in the technology today,” and it leads to consideration of how to design forklift trucks that could use 3D parts, he said.

But the prospect of eliminating a spare parts warehouse because parts can be printed in the back of a truck on their way to being delivered is far away. “It’s taken off in the last five years or so. Traditionally, additive manufacturing has been used largely as a prototype tool, but use cases are shifting more and more toward final parts. That said, it is important to note that additive manufacturing is not going to replace all manufacturing,” said Zach Simkin, co-president of Senvol, which conducts analytics and consulting exclusively for the additive manufacturing industry.

It can, though, reduce time to market through prototypes that can be made in an hour or two.

Simkin has a manufacturing background, and started to see how additive manufacturing could solve supply chain problems. “I think it’s hype that lead folks to believe that you push a button” and produce what you need. “It’s not like a microwave. The technology isn’t that good yet,” and Simkin does not foresee that being the case in the near term.

Just because a part can be produced using additive manufacturing doesn’t mean it should be. A cost-benefit analysis must determine which manufacturing method is most cost effective.

The Senvol Database has 1,000 industrial additive manufacturing machine and material entries. It helps people trying to understand the landscape, or helps engineers look for a machine or material for a specific application.

“3D printing has the potential to change both the timing and location of the manufacture of selected products. The manufacturing and distribution model would move to become not only just-in-time, but also at-the-point-of-use. We could see a dramatic reduction of inventory in high-value, unpredictable-demand 3D-printable products,” said Yves Leclerc, managing director at business and technology consulting firm West Monroe Partners, and Aaron Bresinger, experienced consultant.

But they don’t envision delivery trucks with 3D printers on board, creating the item ordered on the way to delivering it. “3D printing is a delicate, high-precision manufacturing technique. Temperature control and stability of the platform on which to print each layer of ink are two typical requirements. The environment of a delivery truck is not conducive to that type of production. I just don’t see any cost-benefit at this time to developing the sort of delivery trucks that could make this a viable option.”

“The greatest potential of 3D printing lies in the evolution of new inking materials and the ability of the printer to lay multiple inks when and where needed for a given product. Delivery trucks are not an optimal production environment unless one is able to maintain all of the necessary inks on-board and with the necessary environmental controls. 

“Legal considerations may also play a factor here.  Copyright protection is an unresolved issue. Also, we have to consider the need for quality control. There may be stringent controls on where 3D printing can occur,” Leclerc and Bresinger said. That said, the role of warehouses may change.

“Many production facilities and warehouses would relocate closer to the point of use. Warehouses could become smaller,” they said. “We could also see a change in the purpose of warehouses. Normal warehouses have overstock and picking. In a 3D printing world, future warehouses will not have a need to overstock, replenishment will become minimal, and picking will be limited from workers. Long-distance trucking may be reduced.”

3D printing could change the raw material used to build some products, and reduce the number of components needed to build a product. “In the US, new domestic-lab-produced 3D inks could replace many raw materials that are sourced offshore. We could see a significant move from global production to worldwide domestic production,” they said. And it could increase customization.  

“Customization would occur immediately prior to the load of the product design into the 3D printer(s). This could occur with each individual product, or could be done as needed in one-off scenarios,” they said. “If viable, mass customization benefits will include improvement in holding costs, working capital and space utilization. For expensive printable products with a customer base that desires customization, 3D printing would alleviate the need to carry the same “safety stock” as today. The ability to customize at the point of build will enable a decrease in inventory.

“3D printing breaks down the barriers between design and build. Customizable computer-aided design (CAD) programs generate the design for each product, which is then loaded into the 3D printer(s). The design then tells the printer exactly how to print the product, a purely digital process. The buyer will have more opportunity to customize the product to suit individual tastes or needs, since the cost to do so will be lower with 3D printing. This will be especially true for products that are built by the buyer using a local (at home or business) 3D printer.”

Here is their best advice for companies: “It is too early to make any significant changes. At this time, we advise the industry to: monitor the progress of 3D printing in technology-savvy industries (bio-tech, aviation and defense); identify products (e.g., after-market automotive spare parts) that best fit the optimal 3D printing product profile (high-value, random-demand); participate in R&D activities that involve new inking materials (This will provide expertise in special handling and storage that could be required for these materials.); and gain legal expertise in intellectual property and other issues relevant to the use and distribution of 3D printing materials and products.”

At the Matter Creative Center in Dubuque, Iowa, people use 3D printers at summer camp and workshops. “It’s not a manufacturing tool for us,” but a way to create, said Jordan DeGree, executive director. Just as a dot matrix printer puts a layer of ink on paper, a 3D printer lays one layer, but then a second, third, fourth and so on. Instead of ink, it uses filament. “Anything you can design” can be printed, DeGree said. It can take a long time to make a large quantity, but prototypes can be produced rapidly.

While the first filaments were plastic, now some can conduct electricity and glow in the dark. More options are emerging. As with any technology, the price of 3D printers will keep dropping. Right now, desktop 3D printers cost a few hundred dollars, although commercial models cost more.

The day could come when most households have a 3D printer, just as most homes have a dot matrix printer. But that could be years away, and it will need to be more user friendly.

“A 3D printer is never going to be able to produce everything. I would imagine it would be hard to print wood products,” DeGree said. 

Mary Glindinning is a freelance writer who has worked at daily and weekly newspapers for more than 20 years. She lives in rural Shullsburg, Wis. E-mail to contact Mary.

Additional resources on 3D printing