Additive Manufacturing, in simpler terms, is large scale 3D printing. 3D printing can be traced back to the early to mid-1980’s and has been progressing ever since. It was in the 2000’s that Additive Manufacturing became an umbrella term for the technology and has since become synonymous with 3D printing.
Additive Manufacturing is the process by which 3D designs are used to construct a product in layers by depositing material. The machines take the materials needed and construct the product by adding layer-upon-layer. Currently these machines are producing products composed of various metals, plastic, concrete and it is theorized that one day they will be able to use human tissue. However, one of the limitations is that Additive Manufacturing requires the materials to be in fine powder form. Depending on the material used, components can be manufactured using stereo-lithography, 3D printing, or laser sintering.
If you’re a leader considering implementing the technology, it is important to consider these strategic questions:
How can your product be improved?
Whether by yourself or by competitors, consumers expect to see frequent improvements to their favorite products. With the ability to manufacture smaller batches of products, you will be able to perform market testing, final product design, and make it available to consumers more quickly.
What is the optimal process for what you’re manufacturing?
Key components to any process are: how, what, when, and where. The how is easy, since it will be the technology. The ‘What’ is now flexible as the technology will enable you to be free-thinking with product design as well as the variability of products offered. Manufactured products can now occur at any time since the technology can run independently from human interaction once the design has been finalized. Finally, by consolidating your process to Additive Manufacturing, smaller facilities can be used and can operate in various countries across the globe. Additionally, you can have your design team in NYC and the actual facility in Texas. You are no longer limited by geographical boundaries.
How will this technology affect your current manufacturing environment?
The environment consists of people, places, and things. As mentioned above, ‘places’ can be anywhere as the technology is not geographically limited. For this blog we will consider ‘things’ to be the raw materials. Since Additive Manufacturing currently requires the materials to be in powder form, you are limited on what you can use to construct the end product. It’s the ‘people’ that will likely be most affected by this new technology. This technology will be put in place of work that was previously performed by an employee. It is here that a leader needs to determine how employees can be re-trained to support the new process or if the same level of staff is necessary.
These questions add up to significant strategic discussions to determine the best roadmap for your company, employees, and customers. The benefits of Additive Manufacturing are outstanding and can provide value to most manufacturing processes. Coincidentally it comes with the same difficult decision of technology over people and also the capital investment required. I’ll also leave you with another thing to consider; the time it takes to transition. The U.S. Hearing aid industry converted to 100% Additive Manufacturing in less than 500 days. If you’re considering adopting Additive Manufacturing into your process, I recommend looking into it sooner rather than later because the risk of waiting may be too great.