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July 21, 2016

Additive manufacturing is disrupting business models, products & supply chains. A Structured approach & collaboration with experienced vendors can help overcoming the challenges to adoption.

In my previous blog post, I discussed the ability of additive manufacturing to disrupt the product development lifecycle. By enabling 3D printing of complex geometries, it helps eliminate the need for expensive tooling and assembly equipment, while allowing personalization, boosting performance, and reducing operational costs and lead times. These factors are encouraging companies to adopt additive manufacturing or industrial 3D printing technology to manufacture end-products and not just prototypes. According to Wohlers Report 2016, the 3D printing industry was estimated to be at $5.17 billion in 2015, registering a growth of $1 billion over the previous year. The sale of industrial metal 3D printers too went up by 45% in 2015.

If you are looking to include the technology in your manufacturing mix, the following four aspects should be considered:

Ensuring thorough assessment

This is the primary challenge encountered by automotive, aerospace, industrial equipment, and medical device manufacturing companies while adopting additive manufacturing. As thousands of parts are assembled to develop a complete product, manufacturers have to carefully assess each part to determine their suitability for additive manufacturing. Another daunting task is to select the right-fit solution from the seven major classes of additive manufacturing processes defined by ASTM International. Further, unlike conventional processes, the absence of should costing tools such as Boothroyd and Dewhurst makes it difficult to estimate the cost of implementing additive manufacturing. Therefore, adopting a structured approach to analyzing the potential of additive manufacturing can simplify the assessment process.

Leveraging the design potential of additive manufacturing

Design engineers typically design parts suited for manufacturing and assembly rather than performance, especially in the case of conventional manufacturing. However, to derive the full potential of additive manufacturing, it is imperative to design parts specifically suited for this technology. This requires an approach that focuses primarily on improving product performance. Certain limitations, such as the need to maintain minimum wall thickness, the distance between features, surface finish, and tolerances, should be considered while designing the additive manufacturing process. You will also need to explore ways to compensate for the lack of strength and rigidity in products manufactured through the additive manufacturing technology. Collaborating with 3D printing service vendors that have in-depth knowledge of the additive manufacturing process, as well as requisite product and domain knowledge, can help address these challenges.

Managing material and manufacturing requirements

One of the biggest obstacles to successfully adopting additive manufacturing is the availability of a limited number of materials that can be used for printing. While more than 90,000 grades of polymers and 80,000 grades of metals can be used in conventional manufacturing processes, the options for additive manufacturing are fairly limited. Moreover, process-induced anisotropy makes it difficult to simulate and predict actual performance of the end-product. Some R&D projects are underway to develop simulation aids. Physical validation through testing of printed parts can help address this issue to a great extent.
Based on interactions with various additive manufacturing service providers, it is estimated that in metals manufacturing, the majority of the total time used for producing engineering parts goes into the preparation and secondary processes such as finishing. This is further marred by factors such as part size limitations due to the build chamber size requirements, and the relatively slow speed of additive manufacturing led production compared to other mass production techniques. Factoring in these aspects will ensure that there are no surprises when you switch to additive manufacturing.
Ensuring regulatory compliance
Regulatory bodies such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have mandated manufacturers to conduct a wide range of testing and validation studies to obtain various certifications and approvals. Some of these are chemical, mechanical, and non-destructive and destructive testing of parts produced through additive manufacturing; material specification reports; and test specimen creation reports.
However, many service providers are unable to comply with the extensive documentation process required to satisfy the quality processes of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).
Further, there still exists a considerable gap between the quality assurance processes of additive manufacturing and conventional processes, such as advanced product quality planning or production part approval process.
Manufacturers can address this problem by identifying the gaps in the as-is and to-be quality processes, and then drawing up a plan to bridge these gaps.

Overcome the barriers with a collaborative approach

Additive manufacturing is not only a disruptive manufacturing technology, but also a driver for new business models, products, and supply chains. While the challenges in adopting this technology may appear daunting, collaborating with experienced vendors can help accelerate its adoption. To mitigate these challenges, manufacturers can start by identifying components and assemblies through a structured framework. Vendors with an in-depth understanding of the technology, coupled with advanced design capabilities, can help address these challenges. You need to partner with vendors who can supply sample parts for validation, and are ready to tailor their quality processes to your requirements. They should also have the capability to provide comprehensive reporting and the test specimens required for regulatory approvals. Doing so can help you quickly counter the challenges and move to mainstream production.

Sukhdev Balaji heads the 3D Printing Solutions, Next Gen Design to Manufacturing CoE within the Engineering and Industrial Services (EIS) business unit at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). He has over 22 years of experience in engineering design and development, and his areas of expertise include plastics product engineering, product packaging and green engineering. Balaji has a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering from NTTF and is a certified PMP with the Project Management Institute, USA.


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