IMTS Insider

Is 3D Printing Really "Production-Ready"?

Category: Manufacturing Technology Oct 29, 2021

I recently had the opportunity to attend RAPID + TCT 2021 in Chicago, a showcase for additive manufacturing. As always, I was intrigued by the scope of products and materials that were there to greet the attendees.

One very interesting thing to note was that there was simply a sort of frenetic energy at McCormick Place, almost as if we were emerging from hibernation after a long winter. (Although, it seemed a bit strange that people that I know had to look at my nametag to know it was me. I must get more distinctive masks.)

But even more striking were the claims by many companies promoting some variation on the phrase, “We are production-ready,” generally followed by supporting phrases that “proved” their prerogative:

  • “Our process is now ’x’-times faster than before, and faster than our competition.”
  • “We offer materials that have not been used before in 3D printing.”
  • “Our build envelope is the biggest in the industry.”

Do any of those statements make a process “production-ready”?
All of them are certainly elements that bear on the question of preparing 3D printing to enter the world of volume manufacturing. But I contend that those advances, while necessary, are not sufficient to move additive manufacturing into high volume production.

A Look to the Past
To look at volume manufacturing in the future, we need to look a bit into the past. It seems to me that manufacturing is on a long, relentless journey toward manufacturing optimization. While humans have been manufacturing things for centuries, it took Dr. Taiichi Ohno at Toyota to provide an articulation about the goal in manufacturing. That optimization goal can be expressed in many ways, but it is always some variation on making exactly what the customer wants, exactly when it is desired, with minimal resource consumption and zero waste.

Real progress toward that goal began when we, as manufacturers, recognized new tools in the quest for manufacturing optimization. Those tools focused upon the reduction in the amplitude of variation in the things that we measure in manufacturing. So much of the work in lean manufacturing focuses on precisely that strategy – reduce variation in key metrics and effective, volume manufacturing will follow.

Back to the Present (and the future)
The advances being made in dynamic digital manufacturing are simply steps on this very long optimization journey. Dynamic digital manufacturing has the potential to unlock amazing design freedoms and incredible material configurations. That said, the journey remains the same – manufacturing optimization.

Process Control – The Key Element
After thinking about all of this, I would offer that the most effective path to create compelling new manufacturing approaches and strategies is to show that those approaches and strategies can demonstrate true process control. That is to say – in their implementation, they “de-risk” manufacturing. Faster, bigger, and more materials are all great. But until we can demonstrate true process control, that goal of high-volume additive manufacturing is likely going to remain elusive.

Read More from David Burns
David Burns is a frequent contributor to IMTS Insider and AMT News. He explores dynamic digital manufacturing technology to elevate our industry in his article, Set Aside the Silos for Reshoring Success.

Explore IMTS 2022
To learn more about industry leaders in additive manufacturing, take a look and get to know the companies exhibiting in the Additive Manufacturing Pavilion at IMTS 2022 from Sept. 12-17, 2022 in McCormick Place, Chicago.

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