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3D Printing and Supply Chains

What is the big deal about supply chains and 3D printing? How might this affect your business, and will it be positive or negative?

Canada Makes and NGen asked Canada's leaders in additive manufacturing to brainstorm on the topic and they came up with the mindmap below.

Clearly a lot to unpack, and that’s what we will be doing over the next weeks here on Canada Makes.  

We have asked member companies to provide a short focus article to explain how they see 3D printing impacting supply chains. This should give us a wide, contemporary, and uniquely Canadian perspective. We will follow up each piece with a podcast interview so that we give every branch of this complex topic a good shake! The podcast will allow a deeper, critical discussion of experiences and adoption across Canada.

The first article in our series has been provided by Mosaic Manufacturing, looking at some of the innovations that have changed the economics of polymer printing.

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Four Innovations that Launched 3D Printing into Manufacturing (Courtesy of Mosaic Manufacturing)

A lot has changed with 3D printing in recent years. Gone are the days of slow, expensive, inconsistent processes. A number of technological innovations coupled with a reduced cost of materials has evolved polymer 3D printing beyond the limitations of the past, making it a viable solution for manufacturing at scale, while also providing an agile alternative for custom part manufacturing. What was once thought of as a clunky and expensive process, now presents an accessible and cost-effective alternative to traditional manufacturing methods. In this article, we outline some of the major developments in polymer 3D printing that are helping to bring groundbreaking changes to the manufacturing floor.

 1. Commodification of Materials

A lack of access to quality materials once represented a major obstacle in adopting 3D printing for manufacturing. In recent years, however, we have seen the commodification of various printing materials, resulting in a lower cost of production. What was once a $300 spool of ABS, for example, now retails for $30 - $40 a spool. Similarly, the quality of the materials and availability of more technologically advanced polymers means shops are no longer limited in what parts they can produce. It’s economically feasible, for example, to produce engineering grade parts in CF Nylon. For some of the most intense, military-grade applications, materials like PEEK and PEI 9085 represent the high end of cost but can now be produced on a sub-10K machine. 3D printed polymers are no longer reserved just for personalised commercial goods, but modern-day material diversity means machine shops adopting this technology can manufacture the exact parts they need, in house.

 2. Reduced Cost of Machinery

The availability and production of industrial grade printers has increased significantly in the past 10 years, resulting in lower priced units. As a result, the amortised cost of 3D printing has decreased, and the overall capacity of print operations to produce parts has grown. Print farms are now able to afford greater quantities of printers, which allows them to print more parts simultaneously. Ten years ago, the initial costs associated with setting up an industrial printing facility was so high that it presented a serious barrier to entry. This cost reduction also supports localising part manufacturing, circumventing the dependence on the existing supply chain. A significantly lower barrier of entry for printing high performance materials and single machines capable of producing 10 times the number of parts as a typical desktop printer also means that bureaus and custom manufacturers get more bang for their buck.

 3. Integrated Robotics

Traditionally, 3D printing has required a significant amount of operator oversight, making it difficult to implement for large scale production. These operators were required to have niche knowledge of the materials and the machines they were operating. Operators were needed for material loading, build plate changing, and defect detection. Nowadays, the adoption of robotic operation in 3D printing has reduced the need for human operators, thereby expanding the overall throughput potential by increasing the speed and efficiency of use. The previously typical ratio of one operator to every 10 printers is being dwarfed by ratios of 1:150 thanks to breakthroughs in automation. Just as palletizing added automation to a CNC workflow, robotic bed changing can perform a similar degree of automation to increase throughput. A similar level of robotic integration is now possible in 3D printing workflows. One such example of this would be the Array 3D production system from Mosaic Manufacturing. It features integrated robotic systems that automate bed changing, material switching, and file management, thus greatly reducing the amount of manual oversight required. By minimising the amount of user touch points needed, and allowing for 72 hours of continuous operation, it decreases the cost of a 3D printed part by up to 95%. Innovations like this ensure the scalability of additive manufacturing; it is now conceivable for an organisation to achieve the throughput of thousands of printers while maintaining a manageably sized workforce.

 4. Intelligent Systems

Simply put, the systems and software utilised in 3D printing have gotten a lot smarter. Nowadays, integrated sensors and AI managed processes allow printers to virtually run themselves while monitoring for quality assurance. This level of control also allows for in depth analytic collection, giving manufacturers a better understanding of how much material they are using, and thus how to best use it. As a result, the consistency and calibre of prints has greatly improved. Software suites that work similarly to manufacturing execution systems also allow for fleets of printers to operate seamlessly. Improvements to efficiency and print quality have greatly aided in allowing additive manufacturing to develop as a viable alternative to other traditional manufacturing methods, such as injection moulding and CNC milling.

If you still think of additive manufacturing as being slow, expensive, and inconsistent, then you need to forget what you know as things are moving quickly in 3D printing of polymers. The combination of lower material and system costs, reduced labor, and the integration of robotics/ intelligent software has allowed for the breaking down of barriers -- additive manufacturing now presents a viable one-stop shop solution for everyday manufacturing.

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