Video: Survey of AM Users Finds Machine Shops Employing 3D Printing for Plastic Part Production

Additive manufacturing provides an option for low-quantity production in polymer. One implication is that machine shops are liable to be less strictly metalworking businesses.
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Additive Manufacturing and Gardner Intelligence (the research arm of our publisher, Gardner Business Media) recently surveyed manufacturers using additive manufacturing (AM) to ask how they are using it, and in particular to learn the extent to which AM has been adopted for full-scale production. We heard from 344 manufacturing facility leaders, 164 of whom reported using AM. Of those, 27% reported using it for full-scale production. Out of this sample, an intriguing finding emerged: Most of the production additive manufacturing being done in machine shops — facilities we associate with metalworking — involves production of plastic parts instead of metal. I discuss that finding in this video:



Metalworking facilities are using additive manufacturing for production of plastic parts. That is the implication of a recent survey finding. Machine shops—metalworking facilities—are moving into plastics production thanks to 3D printing.

I’m Peter Zelinski with AdditiveManufacturing.Media. I recently worked with Gardner Intelligence to conduct a survey. My aim was to find out how much additive manufacturing was being adopted for end-use part production, how much it had made inroads there. Along the way, we discovered an intriguing finding.

We surveyed people in manufacturing with engineering. production management and C-level titles — so, manufacturing decision-makers. Many different industry sectors, many different types of manufacturing facilities, all related to discrete part production: metal parts, plastic parts. We got 344 responses. About half of them said they were using additive manufacturing for some reason.

So, looking just at the ones using additive, here’s how they’re using it: A lot use it for prototyping, a lot of use for tooling, as you’d expect. The share of additive manufacturing users currently using it for full-scale production is 27 percent, which if anything is higher than I might have expected.

Graph of additive manufacturing applications

How much production? So, look at this: Here are only those who reported doing full-scale production with additive. About a half are doing under 100 parts per month. About a third are doing under 1,000 parts per month. A fair amount are doing under 10,000 parts per month.

Graph of additive manufacturing production quantities

What material? Mostly plastic. That stands to reason. In various ways, polymer 3D printing is a little farther along when it comes to production. Among other things, polymer additive is lower cost than metal.

Graph of additive manufacturing materials

Now here’s where something interesting happens. We distinguish the respondents by type of facility. Red is machine shops, what we think of as metalworking. Blue is plastic processing plants, mostly injection molders. How are they using additive manufacturing? The different uses break out roughly the same. There's a bit of a difference around tooling, maybe because plastics processors have a lot of need for automation tooling and odd-shaped inspection tooling.

Graph of additive manufacturing applications, metal vs. plastics processors

Now look at this: For those using additive manufacturing for production, what material are they using? Among plastics processors, it’s 100 percent plastic parts production being done this way. Makes sense. 3D printing is another alternative for plastic parts alongside injection molding. But what material are machine shops using? Look at this: By two to one, machine shops doing production additive manufacturing are using it to do production of plastic parts over metal.

Graph of additive manufacturing materials, metal vs. plastics processors

Again, these are manufacturing leaders responding, manufacturing decision-makers in facilities where they report they’re using 3D printing for full-scale production. But in facilities that are mainly metalworking, machine shops, that full production is plastic. Why?

Here's why this finding makes sense. There are a whole lot of parts for which polymer is a perfectly appropriate material, maybe even the better material, if only there was a way to apply polymer for low-volume parts. Historically that hasn't been practical. A process like injection molding requires mold tooling, and therefore requires a large production run just to amortize the cost of the tool. Additive manufacturing offers a way to do plastic part production at low volumes, and low volumes are what a machine shop is really all about.

A machine shop doesn't need to be cutting metal. A machine shop is where you go for low-quantity production — 50 pieces, 100 pieces, 500 pieces. This is the kind of work you bring to a machine shop. And if the material doesn't matter all that much, then machining the part out of aluminum is probably the most cost-effective way to do it. But additive offers an opportunity that’s maybe even more cost-effective still. If the part could be made of polymer, if the part could be 3D printed, if the design actually argues for 3D printing, then yeah, use the 3D printer to run that job and save the machine tools for your work that really does require machining.

Now, we haven't proven anything with this. The survey was too small; it's not conclusive; we need to do follow-up work. But this certainly resonates with what the writers of AdditiveManufacturing.Media have seen anecdotally in our travels, in our visits with manufacturers. Thanks to additive manufacturing, machine shops are going to be less strictly metalworking businesses and plastic is going to find inroads to parts that previously would have been metal.