There are times when 3D printing end-use parts do not offer economic or performance gains. There, I said it. While this may seem controversial to say for a company that is in the 3D printing business, TriMech is founded on the principle of candor and speaking honestly with our clients. We like to tell it like it is. But hold on, there's more. Even in the most difficult 3D print applications, there is a strong chance that additive manufacturing can have a significant positive impact on the life cycle of a product – even if the final product doesn’t contain a single additively manufactured part.
This might sound confusing and contradictory at first, but let’s dive into this series and explore the design, fitment, and testing phase required for bringing a product to market. Let’s then pair that with the ability to produce manufacturing aids and production level tooling so we can see how 3D printing can impact end-use parts without the end-use part actually being 3D printed.
To help illustrate this, we wanted to use a practical example that touches on several common manufacturing needs. Something that incorporates complex machined parts that require a variety of composite materials and parts that are cheap and easy to manufacture. And while we're at it, we wanted to make it fun and interesting so we're going to use a 1:10 scale radio-controlled 4WD race buggy.
We are going to specifically focus on the car’s thermoformed rear wing. While this part is instrumental to the performance of the buggy, it is not an ideal candidate to be replaced directly with 3D printing. However, as we take a closer look at the manufacturing process, we will begin to see how its design, profitability, and production can still be greatly improved through the use of additive manufacturing, even if the part continues to be produced using thermoforming.
When Not to Use 3D Printing as a Direct Replacement
To find out if an end-use part is an ideal candidate for 3D printing (or any specific manufacturing process) you need to look at the final product and what it's going to be used for. In this case, the rear wing is a relatively thin part that needs to withstand some high stresses.
If you're 3D printing a part using FDM technology, layer-by-layer lamination, you will not get the same strength as you would with something shaped from a single piece of material like thermoforming. Different 3D printing materials can accommodate for this, even with thin-walled parts, but that brings us to our next point…
Looking at the cost-per-part, assuming quality is comparable, you need to consider the time and material cost afforded by the manufacturing process you choose. Thermoforming is one of the quickest and cheapest methods to use, so if it’s an available option, you shouldn’t use something like additive manufacturing “just because”. That’s not where you’re going to get improved profitability from 3D printing technology.
Use 3D Printing to Augment Your Existing Manufacturing Process
When looking at the different manufacturing processes for making a rear wing for an RC car, the final end-use part, we can see that 3D printing is not an ideal candidate. However, there is more to the process than just the end result.
In the initial design process, or even when going back for design optimization and cost-reduction, you may find that you need to experiment with changing attributes of a part. You’re going to want to rapidly test different shapes, sizes and designs to physically test to find out if one iteration is better than another. Additive manufacturing allows you to do this without creating different iterations of tooling, which can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.
Speaking of tooling, 3D printing can be an ideal solution for creating iterative, or final tooling, depending on the process being used. In this case, it's an ideal candidate for creating thermoforming tools. Depending on the process, jigs and fixtures can also be printed, versus using manual or other methods.
So, when looking at different examples of end-use part creation, 3D printing technology may not be ready to completely replace other forms of manufacturing. As you can see, there are other ways that additive manufacturing technology can be applied to help save you time and effort as well as make you more profitable. It all depends on where you look in the manufacturing process.
As we continue this series, we are going to walk through the process so you can see how these benefits can be applied at each step of a practical manufacturing cycle.