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Beyond the Hype: 3D Printing’s Real-World Impact Across Industries

POSTED 12/18/2023  | By: John Lewis, A3 Contributing Editor, Tech B2B Marketing

Recent 3D printing advances have manufacturing and automation companies across industries rethinking how they bring new products, ideas, and applications to market by producing consistently high-quality products, ensuring industrial-grade reliability at lower costs, and enhancing performance with additive manufacturing.

Figure 1: Customized Smith I/O MAG IMPRINT goggles allow consumers to scan their face using Smith’s smartphone app and receive a made-to-order pair of goggles in 14 days that match their exact facial contours. The goggles’ frames are 3D printed using HP’s Multi Jet Fusion platform. (Image courtesy of HP 3D Printing.)Global supply chain issues, economic recessions, and other residual pandemic-related challenges have changed the way manufacturers think about producing and distributing goods. Simultaneously, consumer demands for hyper-personalized and sustainable products are pushing the limits of what can be achieved with traditional manufacturing methods and processes. In manufacturing and automation, AM (Additive Manufacturing) provides many unique capabilities. 

According to Paul DeWys, owner and sales engineer at Forerunner 3D Printing, “Complexity is free in additive manufacturing, meaning that more complex parts do not necessarily cost more or take longer to print. The standard lead time for printed parts is three to four days, which is significantly shorter than the lead time for parts requiring a 5-axis mill. Shorter lead times, design freedom, and the ability to make parts that cannot be made any other way are some of the benefits of 3D printing. However, 3D printing is not always the cheapest manufacturing option.” 

Duygu Gunay, product manager at HP 3D Printing, explains that in prototyping, “we see users leveraging the quick design iteration capabilities with 3D printing to reduce the time and investment it takes to bring a product to market. In terms of final production parts, in the robotics industry for instance, we commonly see examples of creating lighter-weight end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) or housing components that allow for lower payload robots to be used in production, leveraging the design capabilities of 3D printing to create complex structures printed as a single component, which usually is not possible with injection molding or CNC machining. This evidently leads to shorter cycle times, and less investment compared to larger robots, all while maintaining the overall functionality and performance of the EOAT itself.”

Tharwat Fouad, president and founder at Anubis 3D Industrial Solutions Inc., agrees that 3D printing offers several advantages over traditional manufacturing methods such as molding and machining. One of the main advantages, according to Fouad, is the ability to design complex geometries without having to create expensive molds or tooling. This can lead to lighter and more cost-effective parts, specifically using selective laser sintering (SLS) to print nylon parts. 

“In many cases, SLS printing can be more cost-effective than traditional manufacturing methods, even for simple parts,” Fouad explains. “3D printing can be cheaper than machining in some cases, depending on the number of features, number of processes, the size, and the weight. Additionally, 3D printing can be used to create parts that cannot be made with machining, such as parts that are printed inside each other. As a result, 3D printing is becoming more and more valuable. However, molding is still more cost-effective for producing large numbers of parts.”

According to DeWys, 3D printing is generally more expensive for simple parts that can be made quickly on a manual mill. However, for complex parts that require more time and expertise to machine, he says 3D printing can be a more cost-effective option, noting that “3D printing is a good choice for parts that would take a machinist 10 hours or more to make, or for parts that cannot be made on a manual machine.”

3D Printing Challenges and Opportunities

3D printing in manufacturing and automation presents both challenges and opportunities. One challenge is that engineers need to understand the limitations of 3D printing in order to design parts that can be manufactured successfully. For example, 3D printers cannot hold tolerances as tight as traditional machining methods. However, 3D printing also offers opportunities to create complex geometries that would be difficult or impossible to manufacture with traditional methods. 

Another challenge is educating customers about 3D printing. There is no formal educational ecosystem for 3D printing, so companies must teach their customers how to use the technology themselves. “This was a major challenge when we first started in the 3D printing industry,” notes DeWys, “but it has become easier as more people have become familiar with the technology.”

Fouad agrees that educating customers is a challenge. “3D printing is not as simple as it seems,” he says. “There are many layers of knowledge and know-how involved in how to design and print 3D objects.” With no standard set of tolerances for 3D printing, it’s difficult for designers to determine precision requirements. The strength of 3D printed parts can vary depending on the printing orientation and the material used, so designers must carefully consider part design to ensure that they are strong enough for their intended use. Also, surface finish can vary depending on the 3D printing technology used. This means that designers need to consider these requirements when selecting a printing technology.

Making 3D-printed products that feel and perform as well as traditional manufactured products can be a challenge due to the variability of 3D printing. 3D printing is generally less precise than machining or molding, which can make it difficult to produce parts that meet the required tolerances and specifications. Another challenge is ensuring that 3D-printed parts behave consistently from one part to the next. This is important for products that need to perform specific functions, such as sealing or locking mechanisms.

To tackle these challenges, manufacturers need to develop processes that can control the variability of 3D printing and ensure that parts meet the required specifications. This will require further investment in research and development, as well as improvements in 3D printing technology. Despite these challenges, 3D printing offers immense potential for innovation and manufacturing flexibility. As these challenges are overcome, 3D printing can be fully harnessed to revolutionize product design and manufacturing.

Reskilling the Manufacturing Workforce

Manufacturing’s labor crisis was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, keeping labor costs low is a huge benefit in today’s manufacturing environment. Additionally, it provides the opportunity for workers to reskill or upskill. Having a workforce that can oversee the operation of these new technologies is critical to maximizing 3D printing’s potential. 

“We also need to train the workforce to adopt a completely new design mindset if we are to successfully revise and enhance parts and applications for 3D print production,” explains Gunay. “This will allow the technology to expand into new verticals and achieve a new level of design optimization and enhancement that inspires the creative engine sitting at the heart of the manufacturing industry.”  

Figure 2: HP’s Jet Fusion 5600 Series Solution offers greater repeatability, reliability, and customization to help reduce development and validation costs, leveraging continuous printing capabilities with the Automation Accessory.(Image courtesy of HP 3D Printing.)3D printing paired with automation can not only lower the total cost of ownership of 3D printing technology, but it can also usher in a new era of “lights out” manufacturing independent of human intervention, especially during costly weekend and night shifts, according to Gunay. 

“This is a huge opportunity to rethink the way we stand up factories and supply chains by putting cutting-edge 3D printing technology and automation to use for us in innovative ways,” Gunay explains. “The next goal for the 3D printing industry is to break down economic barriers and make the technology accessible to even more brands and manufacturers interested in seeing what the technology is all about.”

Adoption of 3D Printing Across Industries

3D printing is more widely used in industries with high margins, such as aerospace and defense, where the benefits of 3D printing, including weight savings and performance improvements, outweigh the costs. In contrast, 3D printing is less widely used in industries with lower margins, such as manufacturing, where the costs of 3D printing are more difficult to justify.

This difference in adoption is likely due to the fact that the benefits of 3D printing are more impactful in industries with high margins. For example, in aerospace and defense, 3D printing can be used to create lighter and more efficient parts, which can save fuel and improve performance. These savings can be significant in industries where the cost of fuel or downtime is high.

On the other hand, the benefits of 3D printing are less impactful in industries with lower margins. For example, in manufacturing, 3D printing can be used to create custom parts or to reduce lead times. However, these benefits may not be enough to offset the costs of 3D printing, especially in industries where the margins are already thin.

Despite the costs, 3D printing and automation are being successfully adopted in many industries, including aerospace, automotive, and medical manufacturing. For example, 3D printing is a valuable tool within aerospace foundries, where it’s used to create material handling trays for holding turbine blades and other components. The trays are designed to be automatically loaded and unloaded into machines for various processes. 

3D-printed grippers are also used to handle turbine blades without damaging their delicate finish. These rubber grippers, which are attached to industrial robots for automated handling, are considered “consumables” as they need to be replaced regularly due to the abrasive nature of the sandblasting process in which they are used.

Custom Hand Tools

Another great application for 3D printing is for making custom hand tools. One large international tape manufacturer needed a tool designed to improve ergonomics for the operators who were applying double-sided tape to windows. Previously, the operators used a roll of tape in one hand and a small roller in the other, which was repetitive and strenuous. The custom tool created by the company helped to reduce strain on the operators’ hands by combining three functions into one unit: a tape reel, a cut-off mechanism, and a wet-out roller. 

The tool is designed to be used on window frames. The operator simply sticks it onto the frame and pulls it down. As they pull, the tool applies the tape, strips the backer, rolls out any bubbles, and cuts the tape at the desired length in one easy step. This eliminates the need for the operator to use separate tools for each of these tasks, which can save time and improve efficiency. The tool is also designed to be ergonomic, with a comfortable grip and easy-to-use controls, which helps to reduce fatigue and strain on the operators’ hands and wrists.

Jigs and Fixtures

Creating jigs and fixtures is one of the most common applications of 3D printing in manufacturing. Additive manufacturing can be used to create custom jigs and fixtures that are specifically designed for a particular product or process. This can help to improve the efficiency and accuracy of manufacturing processes because it allows for customized tools and trays tailored to specific components and assembly needs, improving accuracy and efficiency by ensuring parts are held securely and in the correct positions. 

For example, 3D printing is used to improve the efficiency and accuracy of manual office chair assembly. 3D-printed tools assist with aligning parts and driving pins/screws, making assembly faster and easier. 3D printed trays stage parts for assembly, ensuring efficient access and organization. 3D-printed tools and trays can also be designed for better ergonomics, reducing fatigue and strain on workers. 

As the consumer demands for hyper-personalized and sustainable products increase, the variety of the products to be manufactured and pass through the production lines also increase. Manufacturers like L’Oreal, for example, use 3D printing to create the customized jigs or fixtures needed to accommodate seasonally or rapidly changing demands for different product sizes and shapes. They save on designing and manufacturing molds or CNC programming by directly 3D printing the customized components they need, in scalable numbers. 

Figure 3: Unlike traditional manufacturing methods, 3D printing allows intricate and complex geometries to be created. Imagine a thin, 0.5-millimeter casing perfectly concealing a door switch and yet allowing it to operate smoothly. This type of part isn’t readily available, and crafting it using conventional methods would be expensive. (Image courtesy of KOCH Pac-Systeme.)Equipment Parts

While 3D printing is being used in the food and beverage industry for a variety of applications, there are some limitations due to the lack of food-grade materials. 3D scanning and printing is used for reverse engineering and reproduction of difficult-to-come-by spare parts for food and beverage equipment. 
One example is the use of 3D-printed sensor mounts, camera mounts, and replacement gears and sprockets for apple packing lines. 

Beyond replacing hard-to-find spare parts, food and beverage machine builders also use 3D printing to create production parts. Designing, developing, and prototyping in-house allows for faster overall production and, most importantly, increased customer satisfaction. For example, KOCH Pac-Systeme, a global manufacturer of blister machines, cartoners, and packaging lines, uses 3D printing to create customized machinery parts that are lighter, easier to assemble, more cost-effective, and more complex compared with those created by traditional manufacturing methods. All of this is achieved while also delivering greater speed, production agility, and flexibility at all phases of production. 

Nesting Blocks and Pucks

Because it offers design freedom, the ability to produce complex geometries, and cost reduction potential, 3D printing is also becoming increasingly popular for the production of nesting blocks and pucks across many industries. Many consumer-packaged goods pucks are 3D printed because they have a complex geometry that makes them difficult to manufacture with traditional methods. According to DeWys, 3D-printed nesting details are perfect for parts that have complex geometries that need to be held securely while other operations are taking place in the automated machine like clip driving, degating, inspection, etc. 

“These 3D-printed nests can achieve an accuracy of +/-.010 inches over a length of 6 inches and dowel holes used for locating the nest onto the machine can be printed directly into the part. If the nest requires tapped holes in it for mounting other details or sensors there are a few options: The threads can be printed into the parts as long as they are 8-32 or M4 in size or larger; threaded heat set inserts can be used; or key-locking inserts can be used. Using 3D printed nests to hold class “A” parts with finishes like paint, chrome plate, or parts that are lenses is also a possibility.” 

Figure 5: 3D printing enables designers to create custom EOAT with integrated vacuum channels, parts consolidation, and organic shapes that match the object being handled. (Image courtesy of Forerunner 3D Printing.)3D Printed EAOT 

3D printing allows designers to create custom EOAT perfectly suited for its specific task. This freedom enables features like integrated vacuum channels, consolidation of multiple parts into one, and even organic shapes that match the object being handled. This flexibility unlocks new possibilities for optimizing robot performance.

Anubis 3D makes 3D-printed grippers designed specifically for picking and placing bottles, jars, and containers. Unlike traditional balloon bottle-style grippers, Anubis 3D bottle grippers eliminate the need for costly replacements, making them a much more budget-friendly option in the long run. Each gripper comes equipped with 4 to 8 gear-driven hooks that securely lock onto the necks of bottles, jars, or containers, ensuring safe and rapid transport. 

Designed with lightweight materials, these grippers are built to last and offer a wide range of compatibility, making them a perfect fit for any pick-and-place operation. Each row is actuated by a high-quality linear pneumatic cylinder through a gear and rack system and can be actuated separately to decrease cycle time or build variety packs. 

Figure 6: To reduce operating costs, carbon footprint, and noise, each row of mechanical grippers uses a single pneumatic actuator that consumes just a small fraction of the compressed air that the expandable rubber grippers or finger grippers do, and each actuator has its own high-volume airline.“3D printing offers the advantage of creating complex parts with intricate geometries. However, this flexibility comes at the cost of design time,” Fouad explains. “While designing a simple part may take only an hour, designing a complex part can take significantly longer. The actual printing time for complex parts, on the other hand, is relatively short. Therefore, when evaluating the efficiency of 3D printing for complex parts, it’s crucial to consider the overall time investment, including design time, printing time, and any post-processing requirements.”

Metal 3D Printing

Though still in its early stages of development, metal 3D printing is a particularly promising area, according to DeWys. “Thanks to the expiration of early patents and the emergence of new startups, along with advancements in technology, the increased competition is leading to lower prices, making it more affordable and accessible, and a more viable option for a wider range of applications.”

In the coming years, expect to see companies in the additive manufacturing sector truly embrace AI and data analytics, helping to bring more compelling applications to market. This will involve a shift towards cloud-based solutions that require more end-to-end encryption and data security tools, AI models being deployed to improve design processes and help train new designers in 3D, and also the integration of AI to optimize production runs to increase yield and reduce waste. 

The integration of AI and data analytics is also an important step in the movement towards 3D print automation, according to Gunay. Automating steps across the production line is the key to scalability, which is essential in order for additive manufacturing to reach its maximum potential. Effective automation will allow manufacturers to reduce errors and maximize uptime without human intervention, ushering in a new era of manufacturing marked by “lights out” factories.

Overall, adoption of 3D printing will continue to grow in popularity in both high-margin and low-margin industries. However, the rate of adoption will be slower in low-margin industries due to the need to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of 3D printing. In the meantime, 3D printing will continue to quietly contribute to our everyday lives, with many people being unaware of how it is being used to manufacture the products they use.