What’s Solid Innovations Objective?
This is where rubber meets the road. We’ve heard a lot about 3D-Printing disrupting the manufacturing world but is it making a significant impact? We hear about how Additive Manufacturing provides engineers the ability to make things like super lightweight structures designed by topological optimization that look like they came off an alien space ship but how many of these components are used in an end-use fashion?
Granted, there are end use Additive components being used in today’s world but when was the last time you saw thousands of 3D-Printers operating simultaneously under a single factory roof like you see with traditional manufacturing machines? The answer is you haven’t because there aren’t any factories like that yet (let’s stay on track and not argue about decentralized manufacturing for the moment). Additive Manufacturing aka 3D-Printing in its current state is not an easily scalable manufacturing technology.
3D-Printing isn’t easily scalable for a few primary reasons: Speed, Cost, and Quality.
Speed is an extremely variable part of any 3D-Printing process and depends heavily on type of material, material deposition methods, process parameters, desired component geometry tolerances, desired component mechanical properties, etc. Many 3D-Printing processes also require post-processing steps involving subtractive manufacturing, heat-treating, and other traditional manufacturing steps. Generally speaking, when assessing any Additive process for speed and accounting for post-processing steps, you’ll realize that it can take hours, days, or even weeks to yield an end use component. Additive is considered “slow” for these reasons relative to most traditional manufacturing methods. Slow manufacturing technologies like 3D-Printing struggle to meet high volume demands when producing consumer products.
Cost is another primary driver inhibiting adoption and scalability of Additive Manufacturing. The obvious issue right off the bat is that 3D-Printers themselves are expensive. Additive systems today can range between a few hundred to millions of dollars depending on build volume size (max size of a part), usable material(s), speed, and even ease-of-use. There are however hidden costs such as support equipment for post-processing, mandatory software licenses, and most importantly, highly trained operators. To set up a simple 3D-Printing service bureau with a single mid-range polymer 3D-Printer from a company like Stratasys or 3D-Systems could easily cost you $50k plus a $50K-$100K/year operator and the additional overhead that comes along with the proper facility and safety requirements. That’s easily $100k a year in operating costs just to run a single plastic 3D-Printer in a commercial environment. Additive is not a cheap business to get into.
If 3D-Printing is slow and costly, couldn’t you just buy enough machines to compensate for the speed if you had deep enough pockets?
Sort of but with one minor hiccup, quality.
In every other traditional manufacturing supply chain, an extremely detailed set of standards and procedures exist to check and assure that a fabricated component meets customer quality requirements. As an example, that’s why planes and cars in the United States of America rarely have catastrophic issues and this provides confidence to consumers who travel millions of miles every year without having to worry about the wing braking off an aircraft or your steering wheel snapping off as you merge onto a highway.
Individuals have dedicated their lives to ensures components of any manufacturing process, utilized in an end-use consumer application, meet quality specifications so that we, as consumers, don’t have to learn quality lessons the hard way. The truth is, Additive is currently the Wild West of manufacturing where confidence in component quality is almost entirely lacking.
Is Additive Manufacturing even worth Scaling?
Some will argue that 3D-Printing should only be utilized for custom designs, as that’s where manufacturability cost drivers make Additive appealing. Our view at Solid Innovations’ is that Additive can create previously non-manufacturable (click here to learn more) components cost effectively and fast enough to meet the needs of a global economy but the level of scalability required just isn't quite there yet.
We believe this because AM machine costs are primarily driven by intellectual property at the moment and as these barriers for the systems and processes themselves dwindle and expire over time, we will begin to see more affordable AM systems just as we did for FFF and FDM systems.
Process speeds are also increasing dramatically as process technologies evolve. An example of that is what Carbon 3D has done for Stereolithography (SLA) 3D-Printing. According to published information, their SLA 3D-Printers are 25X to 100X faster than traditional SLA 3D-Printers such as those offered by FormLabs and 3D Systems.
Our mission at Solid Innovations is to focus on improving the quality and traceability of Additively Manufactured components. Increased speed and reduced machine costs are already areas of significant innovation, but they can only take you so far towards the mass adoption of 3D-Printing in the modern manufacturing supply chain. Without the ability to provide operators and customers with complete traceability reports for Additively manufactured components, consumer confidence will continue to be a sticking point for growth and adoption. That is why Solid Innovations, LLC is focused on creating and providing software solutions capable of collecting and analyzing data during 3D-Printing processes to close the feedback loop between operators and equipment while simultaneously qualifying Additive parts.
- Joseph M. Sinclair
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Part III Coming Soon... Stay Tuned