The Additive Future

If additive manufacturing of end-use parts becomes routine, the ways we think about industrial production will change.


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What will manufacturing look like once additive manufacturing is in more widespread use? DiSanto Technology, subject of this article, offers clues. 3D printing of metal components now accounts for a notable share of this firm’s production. If manufacturing in general is on its way to adopting additive processes to a similar extent, then the differences we see at DiSanto, along with other adopters of additive manufacturing for end-use parts, are suggestive of the shift we are likely to see in the very nature of part production.

How will manufacturing look different once additive production has matured? Here are some of the ways: 

1. Fewer employees. An additive machine needs a person to oversee it, but that same person could go on to oversee four, six or eight of the machines just as effectively. With additive production, expanding capacity does not necessarily entail expanding the production staff.

2. Office-like plants. Additive machines are quiet and clean. A shop with nothing but 3D printers running feels more like a lab than a plant. DiSanto set up its additive machines in what used to be an office. Since the room remains tidy and free of shop noise, it still seems like an office, particularly given the staff member working at a desk within this same room.

3. Simple machining. Some of what is done through five-axis machining today can more easily be done through 3D printing. Geometric complexity adds challenge to a machining process, but in an additive process, a complex part is about as easy to produce as a simple one. In an additive future, it seems likely that relatively simple cuts will account for a larger share of total CNC machining activity.

4. Easy onshore/offshore. To start production on an additive manufacturing job, little is needed in the way of setup or tooling. For companies with access to additive machines in multiple countries, this means the choice of where to produce can be made as quickly as the digital file can be sent. Jobs will shift rapidly across national borders.

5. Super JIT. Additive machines seem slow, but their cycle times are short compared to the overall lead times for other processes. Today, a responsive manufacturer provides just-in-time delivery of known and established parts. Additive production will bring just-in-time delivery of previously unknown and unestablished parts. Quick production will be possible even for new or custom designs.

6. Super unattended. See point 1. A room filled with additive machines might represent the ultimate in unattended production. Such a shop is less like a factory for making parts and more like a farm for growing them.

7. Tooling just for high volumes. Certain DiSanto-made parts used to require forging dies, but no longer. In the future, an increasing share of part numbers will be components that formerly needed engineered tooling, but now can be made through 3D printing. Dies and molds will still be made and used (some will even be made additively), but we will associate this tooling with high volumes to an even greater extent than we do today.