With a relatively new technology like additive manufacturing (AM), the path for adoption has been trail blazed by high value, low volume parts such as those required in aerospace and motorsports. To date, it has been the arsenal of larger manufacturers that have the money to invest in R&D, have the skillset and are able to take a financial risk. Many are also investing in AM campuses across the globe.
Not wanting to take risks or lack of budget means that SMEs are being left behind when it comes to innovation, with many not realising the true potential of AM as a manufacturing tool and being put off by its apparent complexity and too many unknowns.
If you’re a small business considering AM, ask yourself these questions – what are you trying to achieve? Are you looking to improve a product or develop a new one? What is the best technology or technologies to achieve that goal? What are your competitors doing or what are they not doing that if you do will give you a competitive edge?
It’s important to research all the options available that will help you find the right solution to achieve your vision. It’s always worth seeking independent advice on the benefits and challenges of adopting any technology, whether it is AM or not, before you embark, to ensure you’ve picked the correct path.
Why should SMEs adopt AM?
AM can be used for prototyping, using CAD data (to ensure that the part design is optimised to take full advantage of the design/production flexibility AM offers) and AM to create prototypes, which are ideal for product development. You can use it to help develop new products or find ways to improve old ones to improve their efficiency. You should be able to significantly speed up your iterative design/prototyping function and thereby bring products to market much more quickly.
Other benefits of AM include reducing waste during manufacture (particularly important if you use expensive materials such as titanium or gold!), the ability to respond to rapidly changing customer demands for custom items or redesigns without the need for costly re-tooling, and the ability to minimise stock holding since items can be ‘made to order’ rather than held in a warehouse. This could facilitate “batch size one” production at an affordable price.
In some areas, spares can also be saved in CAD form, electronically available for production by the end user/consumer, reducing the need for transport with the environmental burden and costs entailed.
What are the Technology Options & Risks?
As with any new technology, there are a perplexing range of machine types available and there are disadvantages and advantages to each, so make sure you’re fully aware of the pitfalls of the technology and that you select the best fit to your business.
The costs of AM equipment and materials, while reducing, are still high, which can often be out of budget for SMEs, hence larger companies leading the way in this technology. Standards for AM produced products are only now being developed so manufacturing items for use in a regulated application, can be difficult to validate to the regulators’ satisfaction.
Remote manufacturing is risky too. Sending CAD files for off-site or even end-user production raises serious concerns about the production quality and protection of intellectual property from abuse.
Anomalies can also occur during the build such as occlusions, cracks and other stress defects, blocked internal passages and deviations from the CAD, which need to be identified and, where possible, rectified during post processing or redesign and rebuild. Metal AM is particularly susceptible to such anomalies and an SME AM adopter has to not only be aware of the risks but be able to identify them.
Invest or outsource?
There’s also the question of do you invest in your own 3D technology or outsource it? Obviously, it’s all down to budget. Think about the volume of the work, is it a small or big job? Do you have the skillset in-house or do you need to exploit the skills of someone externally?
To buy a printer, you’d be looking at investing anything from below £500 to more than £1m, depending on the quality of your end product and the materials used. At the lower end of the scale, there’s the desktop printers that can print in polymers such as PLA and at the other end there’s the metal printers that can produce low volume products that are robust and can be used in engineering, energy, healthcare and other applications.
Facilities such as the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre (3M BIC) in Huddersfield, in conjunction with the National Physical Laboratory (the UK’s National Measurement Institute), can provide a holistic approach to AM, taking your concept from idea to design, right through to fixes and the end result, and can ensure that the end product conforms to the design intent, is validated and fit for purpose. The advantages of tapping into these skillsets is that you benefit from expert support throughout the whole process that can respond to rapid design changes, ensuring the end product is exactly how you want it.
If you want to ‘do-it-yourself’, there are online bureaus where you simply send a file and they send you back your 3D printed object. You’ll need to be able to provide the correct CAD files, which you may be able to do in-house or you will need to outsource it to a design consultancy. Do your research and ensure you find the right bureau that can deliver what you want at a competitive price. Many will be able to advise and fix any flaws in your product.
Skilled or not to be skilled?
Remember skills in AM may not necessarily come from outside the existing workforce. Consider enhancing the skillset of a current member of staff who can undertake AM in-house, whether its production or post-processing. Training providers and national bodies such as the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) provide a framework for apprenticeships and other qualifications across AM.
Look out for any non-technical training courses as an introduction to AM that cover its capabilities, the benefits and pitfalls to a business and will showcase case studies of businesses that have already applied it. If you’re looking to work with a 3D printing facility, ask them for examples of their work within your sector and sit down with them to discuss your needs before making any decisions.
If you’re ready to take the leap into the world of additive manufacture make sure you do your homework. AM shouldn’t just be the preserve of the larger companies, SMEs should embrace AM too to ensure they remain at a competitive advantage in an ever-evolving economy.