3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM), has seen a flight of investment over the past three decades, driven by companies seeking dominance in the market. In order to achieve an acceptable level of printing quality, these investments were needed. The development of advanced materials for 3D printing has also sparked a new wave of investments now that 3D printers can print technically better final parts.
A significant amount of effort and money has been invested in designing and handling print files, automating order intake and nesting software, and 3d printing ERP software. As a result of introducing quality improvement measures in post-processing, such as polishing, dyeing, automated support removal, etc., the next step was to implement these measures.
A growing number of applications are now able to be handled by AM technology, which works across both ‘core’ manufacturing applications as well as those related to aerospace and automotive. In summary, AM has proved to be a powerful technology that can cope with a wide range of applications, including those in manufacturing as well as those in the aerospace, automobile, medical, and pharmaceutical sectors.
The AM manufacturing infrastructure was not designed for sets of high volumes, let alone a mix of high volumes and high mix output
High Volume and High Mix are inevitable
To begin with, the economics of a powder bed 3D printer – industrial print’s most popular technology – dictates that it is run 24/7 and that it prints as many parts as possible. Therefore, nesting should be optimized within the building box, if not maximized.
Additionally, by using as much virgin material during one print run as possible, the possibility of reusing it by mixing it with virgin material is minimized; ensuring quality is a delicate process of balancing the two qualities of powder. One aspect of 3D printing that maximizes material efficiency is its economic value. If the demand for a print job begins to increase, instead of collecting enough suitable orders to print it – a business model still used today – lead times start to impact the economics of printing.
As with external print services as well as internal print services, volumes must be processed according to desired delivery. Due to the long lead times, printers are forced to handle both one-off and serial production, which is high mix and high volume.
High volume and high mix have the following effects
The growth of AM as a serious manufacturing technology is expected to be characterized by high mix and high volume production. Post-printing workflows have therefore been able to handle parts coming in all shapes and sizes.
Post-processing is currently primarily a manual labor-intensive process. There are special workstations specially designed to process printed parts and to improve the quality of the print output: de-powdering units, cleaning units, tumbling units, dyeing, spraying units, polishing units all improve the quality of the final product. Post-processing requirements vary according to the order.
Since factory parts are more variable and have higher volumes, tracing all parts is crucial. Additionally, the individual parts have their own specific menus, so all steps are carried out individually and in batches. Identifying each of these menus individually is the only way to keep track of them all. As soon as you identify parts, you can transport and route them based on their particular menus. Moreover, it is possible at the end of the workflow to combine the different parts of an order to prepare them for shipping (recombination).
Sorting and identification are currently done by hand. Expand your 3D printing output by adding one more printer upfront, and add two to three additional people to process the additional output. Due to an increase in labor costs, prices on individual parts begin to rise, which negatively impacts 3D printing’s competitive strength against traditional manufacturing techniques.
Automation is the way out of this loop.
There needs to be automation developed in order to implement this track and trace capability. Layers app is one of the pioneers in this area, providing 1st generation solutions to customers who have already had to face the challenge of print costs and lead times.