Great expectations and rookie mistakes
The biggest mistake people currently make is to consider 3DP too far down the product development roadmap. It’s usually considered when something didn’t work out as planned and a quick fix is needed. At this point, the assembly that the part sits in will have already been completely designed, and the main features of the part will be fixed.
On top of this, the expectation goes as far as believing that a part that has been designed specifically for machining can simply be printed instead. And it usually can. But it won’t be economical. In fact, it will be comparatively expensive, with little functional gain.
The advantages of metal 3D printing lie in the design freedom, in the possibility to completely rethink a part or assembly and do something entirely different – something that fulfils the desired function without the compromises that often have to be made with other manufacturing methods. If the part is already designed, these opportunities are locked out.
Cost and value
For many organizations who first dip their toe into metal 3D printing, the experience can – unfortunately and unnecessarily – be one of increased costs. But that is only the case if they failed to balance out cost with the value added. If designing the part differently can make it lighter or better, or combine several parts into one, then increased process cost pays off and can make the end part cheaper.
This can be particularly effective where expensive materials are involved. Not only does 3DP enable incredibly lean, lightweight structures, it also uses only the material required for the part. There’s no milling down from an expensive block of titanium.
Getting the timing right
The biggest chunk of the eventual production cost of a part is set during the design process through design decisions that narrow down manufacturing options – with little room for later changes. But this is also where important aspects of the part’s value are decided. How much can it do, how many functions can it fulfill, how reliable will it be? This is where 3D printing can open new avenues, making timing crucial when it comes to using the technology successfully.
In 3DP, complexity is free. This means complex structures to achieve a light weight are suddenly an option. Functional integration of many parts into one becomes possible, because we don’t have to worry about how to create a mold or toolpath for an intricate, nested part.
Ultimately 3D printing comes into its own at the earliest stages of the design process, when neighboring parts and assemblies aren’t already fully designed, and when the production line for it isn’t already being planned.
Starting early means unlocking incredible value – and competitive advantage – as well as sufficient time to get design and production infrastructure right and make sure the economics work. If done right, this can drastically improve tooling-up time as well as time to market.
Materials, volumes, infrastructure: Planning ahead
The main current limitations to consider are available materials, production volumes and manufacturing infrastructure.
The readily available selection of alloys is still limited, but includes highly versatile types of titanium, aluminum, inconel and stainless steel, the mechanical properties of which can be modulated through design. For example, you may not need a lightweight material if you can easily create lightweight structures.