For small businesses today, there’s a constant desire to reduce cost, timing, and risk in production programs to bring about sustained, long-term success. Additive manufacturing has the ability to affect these goals in ways that weren’t possible before and now big corporations and small start-ups alike are incorporating additive manufacturing into their processes, regardless of scale, to reap the rewards.
What is additive manufacturing?
Additive manufacturing is a service we offer to clients and we have seen first-hand the real business benefits it can bring, and how it aids the design process.
Literally speaking, additive manufacturing is a process where 3D design data is used to manufacture a component for a product by layering up a depositing material. The major advantage of additive manufacturing is that production can be scaled up without making major changes, so manufacturers are able to easily increase the speed and profitability of their business model. Increasingly, additive manufacturing is being used synonymously with 3D printing but there is a difference. Additive manufacturing is about more than just creating a physical product, it is about bringing design and innovation to the forefront and is integral to the whole design for manufacture process.
3D printing on the other hand, is a process of building up an object one layer at a time - a singular production. In the design process, it is commonly used for the production of rapid prototypes. Clients find 3D printing extremely useful in the early stages of product development where they can iterate different options very quickly. By designing, prototyping, and then testing a product, they can very quickly repeat the process to arrive at the final design they want. 3D printing is also useful for SMEs who require samples to test their product with potential customers and gain insightful feedback. This is crucial in the early stages to ensure the end-user is always front of mind in the design process. Once feedback is received, and any design changes agreed, small business owners do not need to worry about the costs of tooling over and over again.
What are the benefits of additive manufacturing for SMEs?
Additive manufacturing is the key to a better design process for SMEs and can significantly accelerate the product production process, without wasting time and money. In fact, having creative freedom without worrying about cost or time penalties is one of the primary advantages of additive manufacturing.
This creative freedom puts SMEs in a better position to respond to market conditions with new products significantly quicker, with lower costs for development and also significantly lower risks. All of these factors work in the favour of SMEs who are already capable of getting to market much faster than many larger businesses owing to their naturally more streamlined hierarchy and decision-making process.
One big benefit of additive manufacturing is the ability to scale up production without making major tooling changes. This enables SMEs to increase the speed and profitability of their business model. Conventional tooling in manufacturing is typically a major cost, often requiring significant investment before the first unit is produced. Additive manufacturing changes this. With additive manufacturing, tools can be built on site at a fraction of the cost of traditional tooling. Many manufacturers do not turn a profit until the tooling cost is recovered, however, additive manufacturing means with costs being lower, there’s a much shorter path to profitability.
Increasing the speed of production is a real business benefit to SMEs, putting them at a major advantage over competitors. In many cases, business is won or lost based on speed to market, and sometimes the success of the entire organisation is at stake. In addition, as new markets are created, it pays to be second to market, as opposed to third. A critical method for achieving this goal is to leverage additive manufacturing to reduce production lead time. No longer does a manufacturer need to wait until market research is complete to justify tooling investments, nor does it need to wait for the tooling to be produced.
Reduced risk is the final big benefit to additive manufacturing. There is always an element of risk in launching any new product to market. Additive manufacturing gives businesses an opportunity to test a new product before committing to the large investment necessary for tooling. It allows changes to the design of a product before committing to stock levels which again can be expensive to store.
So, if additive manufacturing is so great, why would you move to conventional production?
Once a business has established its route to market and has a clear product lifecycle, conventional production may become more economical as volumes naturally start to increase.
This is not the case for every business, for some, it makes sense to stick with additive manufacturing as their production technique. Those SMEs in fast moving markets where designs and fashions, whether functional or aesthetic, change rapidly, find it beneficial to continue using additive manufacturing as it suits the fast pace of their business. it can also be a long-term solution for product designs that have built in personalisation aspects. This allows each product to be individually tailored to a customer without the need for a huge number of variants within each product line. One client who works with us in this way is LIMB-art, in the design and production of their prosthetic leg covers for people with limb loss. Using small batch in-house additive manufacturing , we are able to rapidly design and produce prototypes to ensure the correct fit for wearers all day, everyday and in all conditions. The resilient nature of the Nylon substrate offered by the HP4200 printer we have in-house is instrumental in this part of the design process. After a year in business Limb-art have created a combination approach to manufacturing, with their more popular lines now utilising injection moulding and their bespoke designs still additively manufactured.
There are also some cases where the design can only be created utilising a 3D printing technique, such is the case for the endodontic training teeth we create for EndoReality. In the production of their realistic Training Teeth, which bridge the gap between endodontic training and performing real procedures, two types of 3D printed material are layered up to create the final design. Using Micro CT scans and dental examples as a reference, we’ve been able to design a family of anatomically correct Training Teeth which capture the intricacies of the real thing.
What are the different colours, materials and finishes in additive manufacturing product design?
Finally, we are asked frequently about the different colours, materials and finishes you can achieve with additive manufacturing. As with all product designs, the design team selects the best material to use based on the desired qualities of the end-product. Once printed products can be finished in a wide range of ways from dying, hydro-dipping, polishing foil wrapping to painting.