The recent 2018 RAPID + TCT conference and trade show demonstrated a wide range of new machines for rapid prototyping with emphasis on additive manufacturing.  Many new 3D Printing machines were launched, with particular emphasis on materials especially in the metals category.  While these new technologies open up capabilities for new product manufacturing, one talk at the conference stood out that described the impact happening throughout the manufacturing industry.

Dr. Phil Reeves, who leads Stratasys’ consulting services division, was part of the opening keynotes for RAPID. Dr. Reeves of course recognized the changes happening in product design and development through the adoption of additive manufacturing and its unique capabilities.  3D Printing’s ability to create complex geometries is the most obvious use of the fabrication method in product design.  For example, new digital designs notably reduce weight, which is important for parts being incorporated into planes, automobiles, spacecraft, and other transportation machines that use fuel. Reduced weight directly translates into cost savings in these industries.  For medical devices and prosthetics, 3D Printed parts that weigh less are more comfortable and convenient for the patient. Lighter parts also save shipping costs for all industries.

However, Dr. Reeves points out that 3D printing’s influence can be felt in many more areas of manufacturing beyond product design and is also improving many aspects of the supply chain.  The complex system required to move products from suppliers to end-users involves a logistical coordination of raw material, finished parts, data, and other elements of the manufacturing/distribution process. Here are a few ways in which additive manufacturing can reduce time, eliminate waste and improve productivity in the supply chain.

Assembly

Many parts can be fabricated as fully functional assemblies with no additional construction required.  Gears turn, hinges bend and other mechanical operations perform right out of the 3D Printer.  There is no need for assembly, reducing a step in the supply chain, which may also involve shipment to another location. 

Inventory

Functional assemblies reduce parts count, minimizing part carry costs and simplifying inventory control.  GE’s famous LEAP engine nozzle has gone from 20 parts to just 4 by 3D Printing functional assemblies.  As an added benefit welding is almost eliminated in the nozzle, increasing strength 5 fold while weight is reduced 25%

Sourcing Components & Subassemblies

In some cases manufacturers are making components and subassemblies right at the site where they are required, rather than buying or making elsewhere and shipping to a central assembly location.  The environmental impact of such supply chain changes is potentially very large.

While Dr. Reeves’ comments were focused on additive manufacturing, many of his concepts also hold true for other technologies on the factory floor. Whether using laser micromachining, CNC machining, or other digital tools to make products, advanced manufacturing brings new strategies for streamlining the entire supply chain for our customers.  Potomac’s solutions for the medical device, biotech, microfluidics, consumer products and microelectronics markets extend beyond product development to innovate the entire manufacturing process.