3D printing is not just a solution, it’s a tool

January 22, 2020
3D technology is ready to be an integral part of the manufacturing and production processes of today 3D technology is ready to be an integral part of the manufacturing and production processes of today

The manufacturing sector is used to the term additive manufacturing, or 3D printing - it’s not a new concept. What is new, is that 3D printing is no longer only a niche technology limited to the role of rapid prototyping; today, it has evolved into a practical tool that can be fully integrated into the broader production process to deliver a wider range of efficiency and efficacy benefits to assist the production lines of numerous manufacturing enterprises.

Erroneously, adopting and integrating 3D printing is often considered a challenge. Designers typically still begin creating product plans with a specific material and a specific production method in mind, without considering 3D printing. But rather than discounting the technique as it’s one many feel they have yet to master, it’s time that we actually look upon 3D technology and realise its potential as another strong ‘business as usual’ production method, alongside the traditional injection moulding and milling methods commonly used today.

In order to accelerate the world’s transition to digital distribution and local manufacturing, 3D printing needs to be easy, reliable and accessible. It now is. It has the potential for its users to take their designs and applications to a new level of quality and consistency, with greater flexibility, efficiency and confidence. The key is to overcome the perceived barrier that the technique is complex and material options are limited: since its earliest conception, the technology has drastically evolved into an easy-to-use manufacturing process and today a wide range of materials is available for 3D printing through intense collaborations between manufacturers of 3D printing and leading material companies.

The key is accessibility: a blend of hardware and software is essential and working with pre-defined printing profiles is fundamental in an efficient work environment. In the early days, it took for instance a lot of time to find the correct print settings, which include flow rate, print speeds, layer size, temperatures, etc. It took much experimentation, skill and patience to gradually identify the best settings through trial and error - and a lot of wasted filament.

Today, things are so much easier. Rather than manually tweaking over 350 + printer settings, which could take material manufacturers up to 6 months to put together, today’s print profile assistant software enables leading everybody to create base profiles for end users in a only a few weeks. This process unlocks new applications, as end users are no longer limited by material availability and can readily adopt new materials and design formats. Moreover, this allows products to be produced close to home, rather than outsourced to or shipped from another country, and makes the designs digitally distributable - speeding up the supply chain process.

The ability for more businesses to affordably disrupt markets with  rapidly developed, locally manufactured parts and models, makes 3D printing so desirable today. With the latest technology innovation, designed and tested for unattended use, engineers can design, test, and produce models and custom end-use parts with the widest range of materials for their manufacturing needs. They can reliably manufacture smaller parts and models as part of a organisation-wide production process, while today’s price-point has removed the barrier to entry for prototyping or production line innovators – as well as SMEs - to make the initial business case for 3D printing. Now, anyone who wants to start leveraging a powerful 3D printing solution can do so and make full use of the wide array of materials  with  print profiles  available in the marketplace today. 

3D printing has the potential to fully integrate in the modern day production line as a ‘business as usual’ tool, while also presenting huge opportunities in new and emerging markets. The ability for designers to be able to quickly and cost effectively print accurate, high quality prototypes is invaluable. But, to integrate such technology and encourage it to become a standard method of production is what is now so easily achievable.

The potential of 3D technology and the ease of its production capabilities is set to revolutionise traditional manufacturing processes; as we move towards a close-to-home, just-in-time and digitally distributed model, it is those organisations who have adopted 3D printing at the core of their production facility that will gain the upper hand.

By Paul Heiden, Senior Vice President Product Management, Ultimaker

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