Cost Savings and Benefits of Additive Manufacturing
Can 3D printing actually save companies money?
In the world of Industry 4.0 and smart manufacturing, cost management is the bellwether for business growth. But additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, isn’t often associated with money-saving measures. Until recently, most companies moved away from traditional production because of design restrictions. But today, thanks to new materials and lower barriers to entry, additive manufacturing has proven to offer more efficiencies and capabilities than ever before. As a result, the opportunities for cost savings have grown as well.
From increasing uptime to enabling profitable 3D printing for niche and small-scale production, here are three areas where additive manufacturing can reduce costs for businesses.
No. 1: Materials matter
Additive manufacturing techniques are used with a range of materials — including metals (steel, gold, titanium, silver), ceramics, glass, and even food items like chocolate — but none are as inexpensive (and hard to pronounce) as thermoplastic materials.
Thermoplastics are plastic polymers that can be heated and cooled repeatedly. When thermoplastic materials are heated, they can be easily manipulated into shape, making them ideal materials for 3D printing applications. For fused filament fabrication (FFF), thermoplastic materials are turned into filaments that are then extruded through a nozzle onto the print bed. Some of the most commonly used thermoplastics in FFF are:
- Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS): Heat- and impact-resistant; often used for lightweight automotive parts
- Polycarbonate (PC): Heat- and impact-resistant, flame retardant, and electricity insulator; used for items such as bullet-proof glass
- Polyether ether ketone (PEEK): Offers mechanical strength and chemical resistance; used for piston parts, pumps, and cable insulation
- Polyether ether ketone ketone (PEKK): Similar to PEEK and offers mechanical strength and chemical resistance
- Polylactic acid (PLA): Made from renewable resources like corn starch; used in medical applications and food products
- Polyphenylsulfone (PPSU): Superior replacement for polycarbonates; used for specialty automotive and aerospace applications
- Polypropylene (PP): Common polymer found around the house; food and microwave safe; used for product packaging and automotive plastics
- Polyetherimide (PEI): Commonly used build surface; offers VO flame performance and no-smoke generation; used for aerospace materials
In addition to a lower price point when compared to metal and glass, many thermoplastic materials also protect against radio-frequency interference and electrostatic discharge, an important characteristic for aerospace applications.
No. 2: Ideation and innovation: Benefits of 3D printing
Reducing cost is a key driver for business performance, but one that might seem at odds with creativity and innovation. Additive manufacturing can accomplish both goals. 3D printing brings greater design freedom, enabling the creation of complex parts that are expensive, and time-consuming to create with traditional manufacturing methods. Iterations are also easier and cheaper because 3D printing is a software-driven process.
“Companies that explore and use additive manufacturing are doing so to examine ways to get to market faster, increase design freedom, and reduce the 3D printing ‘cost’ to the environment,” said Jeff Cernohous, Ph.D., COO, Infinite Material Solutions. “There’s an inherent overall cost saving with these technologies.”
Companies like Infinite are also creating new materials that empower engineers. For example, Infinite’s high-temperature tap water-soluble support materials, AquaSys®120 and AquaSys® 180, allow engineers to create complex geometries and intricate builds while reducing time to part. In addition, AquaSys 180 is the only water-soluble support material on the market today that’s compatible with PEEK, PEKK, PEI, and PPSU filaments. This reality revs up the process for rapid prototyping, making ideation and iteration faster.
The digital processes used in additive manufacturing streamline prototyping, thereby requiring fewer resources (including labor for manual processes) and producing less waste. In addition, tap water-soluble supports don’t require toxic-finishing chemicals, relieving the burden of waste disposal. When support material dissolves in water, there’s no need for hands-on removal of breakaway material. This reduces the risk of breaking, cracking, or scratching the product. It also reduces the cost to replace prototypes.
“We hear from our customers that Infinite support materials are easier to work with than others,” said Brandon Cernohous, Research and Development Manager, Americas, for Infinite Material Solutions. “This translates into cost savings across the entire process of innovating. When materials are easier to work with, you’ll realize fewer failed builds and more positive outcomes.”
No. 3: Streamlining production
For some industries, such as aerospace and automotive, the short-term expense to implement the technology is balanced by what can be achieved in the long term. For example, additive manufacturing doesn’t often offer economies of scale in terms of mass production. But the benefits become clear with low-volume and small-scale production.
Take airline parts, for example. Thermoplastics are lighter and more ergonomic than most metals. And because eliminating just one pound from a carrier can mean saving thousands of dollars per year, there’s a clear business case for using 3D printing to create lightweight heat- and smoke-resistant parts like armrests, fuel tanks, and engine components.
Further, with soluble core applications, engineers can print complex ductwork, parts with thin walls or curved surfaces, and carbon-fiber components that would otherwise be impossible to create.
For automotive applications, additive manufacturing is being used to create custom and one-off parts for high-end luxury cars, end-use parts for vintage cars, and even ultra-lightweight replacement parts for race cars.
Jigs and fixtures are widely integrated into automotive production because of their proven role in efficiency gains. Using additive manufacturing to produce the jigs and fixtures themselves has become a mainstay application for additive manufacturing because of vastly lower costs and improved time-to-part versus traditional manufacturing techniques.
Additive manufacturing also enables fast adjustments and on-demand replacements, keeping production lines efficient and avoiding line stops due to a broken jig or fixture. And, the quick interactions possible with 3D printing of jigs and fixtures apply to rapid prototyping, too. As such, it’s no surprise that these two applications put additive manufacturing on the production map.
Digital processes are integral to Industry 4.0 and technological advancement. Additive manufacturing embodies the key attributes of smart manufacturing — agility, speed, efficiency, and integration with other systems — to push the boundaries of what’s possible.
Read more on the growing role of additive manufacturing and FFF in "Additive manufacturing: Open vs. closed systems."
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