How is 3D Metal Printing Supporting Mission-Critical Manufacturing?


Emily NewtonEditor-in-Chief at Revolutionized

Thursday, September 29, 2022

3D printing has always presented unique benefits, but it’s been limited to plastics for much of its history. Today, these technologies can use various materials, including metals, making them more useful and versatile than ever. 3D metal printing could become an integral part of mission-critical manufacturing as these advancements continue.

Article 5 Minutes
How is 3D Metal Printing Supporting Mission-Critical Manufacturing?

Conventional production methods typically involve long lead times, high expenses and disruption-prone supply chains. That’s not ideal for the parts and products organizations rely on. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, offers a helpful alternative. Here’s a closer look at how this technology is supporting mission-critical manufacturing.

Shortening lead times

One of the biggest improvements 3D metal printing brings to mission-critical manufacturing is its speed. Additive production can complete builds in one pass that would require a multistep process by conventional means. As a result, they can streamline manufacturing, reducing the time between ordering a needed part and getting it.

3D printing is also a more mobile and compact process than more traditional methods. Consequently, it can happen closer to the end user, reducing travel times after production. This reduction in distance further shortens lead times, ensuring organizations get the parts and products they need when they need them.

These efficiency gains are more than just hypothetical, too. Lockheed Martin reduced its lead times by 80% on one project after adopting a 3D printing solution. Improvements that dramatic could yield impressive long-term results.

Reducing costs

Similarly, additive manufacturing also reduces the cost of producing mission-critical components and products. Most of these cost savings come from 3D printing’s resource efficiency. These systems add material instead of cutting it away, so they waste less, reducing overall production expenses.

Shorter lead times also help reduce costs, minimizing transportation expenses and leading to faster ROIs. Streamlined prototyping and product development timelines have a similar effect. 3D printing is also more energy-efficient than many conventional processes, so creating parts involves lower energy costs than machining them.

This cost reduction is helpful in any scenario, but it’s particularly valuable for mission-critical manufacturing. As production expenses fall, so will end prices, making essential components and products more accessible. Businesses across industries could become more profitable as a result.

Ensuring quality

Mission-critical manufacturing must also meet high quality standards. In some industries, that involves detailed first article inspections before manufacturers can even solidify a deal with a client. 3D metal printing can help meet these high standards and ensure the quality of future parts and products.

Adding material instead of removing it allows 3D printers to create shapes and designs that would be impossible or impractical with conventional methods. Consequently, they can make components in fewer steps and less parts than traditional manufacturing, reducing the areas where errors can occur. The end product is more likely to meet high quality standards as a result.

3D printers also generate more detailed digital data as they operate. Manufacturers can use this information to track where errors arise and correct the process to prevent them in the future. These ongoing improvements help ensure mission-critical products only become more reliable over time.

Improving scalability

Using additive manufacturing instead of conventional methods also improves manufacturers’ scalability. 3D printers are typically smaller and more self-contained than traditional manufacturing processes. That means facilities can ship, deploy or pack them up faster, helping scale up or down as necessary.

Mission-critical parts are, by definition, essential to businesses’ operations, but they don’t always see immediate demand. That’s especially true of well-built, long-lasting machines and components. This means mission-critical manufacturing must fluctuate widely in response to uneven demand, which 3D metal printing enables.

3D printing lets manufacturers scale these processes up and down with minimal downtime and expenses. That scalability minimizes the cost of some components’ uneven, at times unpredictable, demand cycles. Manufacturers will reduce operating expenses while end users are assured they’ll get the parts they need.

Enabling on-site part production

Similarly, 3D printing lets some companies create needed parts and products in the same place where they’ll use them. Enabling this on-site production allows some organizations to minimize supply chain concerns and maximize uptime for mission-critical machines.

This on-site or near-site production is one of the leading use cases for additive manufacturing in the U.S. military. The Air Force uses 3D printing to create thousands of replacement parts without waiting on an outsourced manufacturer or supply chain. These components wouldn’t be economical for a third-party company to produce at scale, but they may be crucial to operations, so printing them on-site is the ideal solution.

Other organizations with high uptime needs and limited production timelines could use 3D printing the same way. Manufacturers could produce replacement parts for other machines in their facilities to ensure they can repair them quickly, minimizing downtime.

Considerations for 3D metal printing

3D metal printing has many advantages for mission-critical applications, but some concerns remain. Companies must review these to understand where and how best to apply this technology.

One of the biggest limitations of additive manufacturing is its newness. As such a novel technology, the metal 3D printing market is fairly small today, limiting the options businesses can choose from. As a result, some organizations may not be able to find the ideal solution for their specific needs.

3D-printed metal parts may also feature high porosity, low density and high stress. Manufacturers can avoid these characteristics through careful implementation, but the likelihood of these quality issues may dissuade some companies from embracing the technology. The high standards mission-critical components must meet may exacerbate those concerns.

Despite these lingering issues, experts predict the 3D metal printing market will grow to $11.6 billion by 2028. These systems will become a more viable investment for manufacturers as the industry matures and technology advances.

Additive manufacturing’s potential is vast

Additive manufacturing has considerable potential, and new use cases keep emerging. Mission-critical manufacturing alone could see substantial improvements from implementing this technology.

The metal 3D printing industry is still new, but early signs look promising. Companies that continue to adopt these technologies and work past their obstacles can become more cost-efficient, productive and resilient.

Emily Newton

Emily is a tech and industrial journalist with over four years of experience writing articles for the industrial sector. She’s Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online publication exploring innovations in manufacturing, technology and science. 


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