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Impact of 3-D Printing on Manufacturing

Earlier this year we discussed how the next phase in the digitalization of the manufacturing sector, Industry 4.0, is reshaping product development and operations in factories abroad and here in the United States. Industry 4.0 consists of a number of technologies and trends, including additive manufacturing (3-D printing). 3-D printing is a manufacturing process that builds layers to create a three-dimensional solid object from a digital model. To print a 3-D object, the manufacturer uses a computer-aided design (CAD) program to create a digital model that gets sliced into very thin cross-sections called layers. During the print process, the 3-D printer starts at the bottom of the design and builds up successive layers of material until the object is finished.

The difference between traditional manufacturing and 3-D printing is in how the objects are formed. Traditional manufacturing processes generally use a “subtractive” approach that includes a combination of grinding, forging, bending, molding, cutting, welding, gluing and assembling. For example, let’s look at making a simple object such as an adjustable wrench. Production involves forging components, grinding, milling and assembling. Some of the raw material is wasted during the process, and vast quantities of energy are expended in heating and reheating the metal. You need specialized tools and machines that are optimized to produce wrenches of one size and nothing else. Almost all everyday objects are created in a similar (but usually even more complex) manner. A 3-D printer on the other hand produces an adjustable wrench in a single operation, layer by layer. The wrench comes out of the printer fully assembled, including all its moving parts. After some post-production work such as cleaning and baking, depending on the material, the wrench is ready for use (though currently it is not as strong as its drop-forged metal counterpart).

Although 3-D printing will not be taking over the mass production of wrenches any time soon, as technology evolves and larger volumes are supported, manufacturers are beginning to study how 3-D printing should be integrated with traditional subtractive manufacturing. Some 3-D printing solution providers in fact are looking to develop hybrid machines, which combine both additive and traditional operations. By combining subtractive and additive techniques the best of both worlds could be realized. For example, custom shapes could be produced cost-effectively while at the same time encompass highly accurate features.

Benefits of 3-D Printing

Today, making prototypes of new products is the largest commercial application for 3-D printing, estimated to be 70% of the 3-D printing market. Prototyping gives designers (and their customers) a way to touch and test products as concepts or functional objects early in the design cycle. This avoids expensive changes later in the process, saving significant time and money when bringing new products to market. Rapidly printing prototypes allows manufacturers to also significantly shorten the development lifecycle and gain a competitive edge.

Other benefits of 3-D printing include:

  • Reduced production of waste: Traditional manufacturing methods such as milling often lead to the production of significant amounts of waste material. As we stated earlier, 3-D printing uses less energy and is able to significantly reduce the amount of waste produced, based on its method of developing parts layer by layer. Materials are being used more effectively and efficiently, helping manufacturers save money on purchasing of materials.
  • Supply chain efficiency: As 3-D printing produces single parts rather than multiple parts that need to be assembled, this helps simplify the supply chain. By removing unnecessary assembly steps in the supply chain, labor and tooling costs are reduced and speed of the production process increases, reducing the time from concept to market.
  • Environmentally friendly: The fact that 3-D printing requires less energy than traditional manufacturing methods combined with the production of less waste also means that this process is much more eco-friendly. In addition, as more parts and products are manufactured in finished form with manufacturing sites located closer to the end destination, the need to procure parts from multiple sources could be significantly reduced and, in turn, decreasing the need for global and local transportation, which is much more environmentally friendly and helps to reduce costs.

It’s important to note, too, that there are potentially increased exposures with 3-D printing including product liability, cyber liability and intellectual property risks.  For example, should a product prove faulty, who is ultimately liable will depend on who is producing and selling the product. If a manufacturing firm uses 3-D printing to make prototypes, or even components for use in its own products, there will be little change. But liability becomes less clear where processes are split, such as where one firm produces a component for use in another’s product, or where one firm provides the design, another the 3-D manufacturing, and another the distribution. Also, 3-D printing will enable manufacturers to produce personalized or customized products, raising the question as to whether each individual product will need to be tested.

Precision Manufacturing Insurance Services (PMIS) specializes in insuring manufacturing firms throughout California. We are committed to keeping our finger on the pulse on emerging trends and changing technologies and how these technologies are impacting today’s manufacturers. We are also dedicated to staying ahead of the curve to understand the liability implications that come with new technologies and how insurance policies will respond in the event of a loss as well as the need for reviewing risk management processes to address issues such as quality control. For more information about our manufacturing insurance products, please contact us at 855.910.5788.

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