This month, our 3D Printing group is hosting seminars throughout New York and Pennsylvania, titled “Smarter Manufacturing: Additive is the New Fourth Shift”. By creating these presentations, it has given us the opportunity to take a hard look at manufacturing in the world today, and think about how 3D Printing can make the biggest impact.

Looking at manufacturing today, you can’t help but be amazed. In our modern world, it is incredible that we are able to purchase so many different products. Can you imagine the journey a product takes before you end up buying it? Let’s look at something simple: a pair of scissors. The metal blades had to be converted from iron ore mined from the ground into steel. That steel had to be machined and sharpened into blades of the proper shape. Steel is used and machined in a separate method to create the screw that allows the blades to move past one another. Oil is pumped from the ground and refined to create plastic pellets. Those plastic pellets are heated and pushed under pressure into the steel-machined injection mold to shape the handles. The handles, blades, and screw are assembled together in such a way to create a functional cutting tool. If that is not impressive enough on its own, that process happens millions of times, and those units are shipped all over the world. The process costs are kept low enough that you and I can buy scissors at the store for one dollar, and all parties that put effort into making those scissors made money (hopefully).

Can you imagine how much time went into creating each tool and component of those scissors? What about something more complicated? A toaster, a smartphone, and a car are all significantly more complicated, and yet each of those are manufactured and made available to consumers today at prices they can afford. When these products can be assembled more efficiently, everyone wins. Profits for companies can increase while products are made more affordable for the public. How can we take incredible manufacturing processes and make them better? And what role can 3D printing play in making that happen?

There are many different methods of making manufacturing leaner and striving for optimization. Toyota is generally credited with founding the first methods of lean manufacturing, aiming to intentionally target and eliminate overburden, inconsistency, and waste. Three areas 3D printing can help eliminate waste are in Motion, Over Processing, and Defects.

Waste of Motion occurs when a piece of equipment or a person is required to move further than necessary to complete a task. 3D printing can be utilized to create custom tool holders, drawer organizers, and organizational bins to allow workers to have everything they need as close as possible. Because these items are custom-designed for the manufacturing environment or work station, they are more valuable than off-the-shelf options. If custom products like these were to be created using conventional machining, the stock material and machine time combined would make them far more expensive than their 3D printed counterparts.

Waste of Over Processing is most likely to occur when designing a tool to assist in your manufacturing process. Due to the constraints around what shapes can be easily cut using conventional milling or turning operations, designers need to ask “How would I make this part?” during each minute of designing. When designing a tool to be made via 3D printing, the question changes to “What do I want this part to accomplish?” Due to the additive nature of 3d printing, an assembly of five or more conventionally-manufactured parts can often times be combined into a single, additively manufactured part that accomplishes the same task.

Waste caused by defects comes down to a variety of factors, but one of the biggest ways 3D printing can help is with the inspection of parts. We have seen a multitude of manufacturing customers create cost-effective measurement or “go/no-go” gauges that enable them to give greater attention to detail to their inspection efforts. By 3D printing cost-effective measurement gauges, manufacturers are able to check more parts, more often, leading to less products being scrapped due to errors. Tooling or machining issues are made easier to pinpoint when parts are able to be checked at different points in the manufacturing process.

Modern manufacturing is an incredible process that can be easily forgotten when products are nicely displayed for us in stores or online without the full story of their origin being told. What sets a great manufacturing process above a functional one is often intense attention to detail of each step of the process, looking for small ways to move towards reduction of waste and optimization of workflow. As businesses save a few seconds per operation in their manufacturing process, when multiplied by the hundreds of thousands of parts during a year, the money associated with that time can be substantial. 3D printing can be a great tool in creating the physical parts that are needed to make those changes happen.

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