What SMEs should know about 3D printing

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By Jon Bruner, Program Director at Formlabs Digital Factory

3D printing has become a familiar technology over the last decade; printers are ubiquitous in design and engineering offices and are widely installed in schools, hospitals, and even a few homes. Now 3D printing is finding its way into small and midsize factories, where it may find its greatest impact yet—driving down the cost of new product development, underpinning localized manufacturing, reducing risk, and making it easier for small manufacturers to compete effectively.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, refers to a set of manufacturing processes in which material is gradually deposited to build up a specified shape layer by layer. This could involve extruding melted plastic, curing a liquid resin with ultraviolet light, or fusing powdered plastic or metal with a powerful laser.

Most manufactured goods today are produced by moulding, casting, stamping, or machining. These processes, refined over decades of heavy industrial usage, are extremely efficient, but they all entail high setup, or tooling, costs. For instance, the steel mould for a reasonably simple part like the plastic shell of a television remote control could start around several thousand pounds—but could easily exceed £50,000 if the product requires complex shapes, multiple materials, or extremely tight tolerances.

Setup costs like these represent a formidable barrier to small companies producing innovative new products. They must be certain that they’ve arrived at the best possible design before beginning the manufacturing process, and they’re stuck with their investment in tooling if demand doesn’t materialize or if changing market requirements force a redesign.

The economics of additive manufacturing are essentially reversed. 3D printing requires no tooling in the conventional sense; 3D printers convert digital design files straight into fabricated parts that can be finished by hand or machine. The first print costs as much as the thousandth.

3D printing isn’t yet attractive for extremely high-volume manufacturing, like the kind that produces mobile phones by the millions, but it’s ideal for small and mid-size manufacturers who produce everything from aerospace components to specialty hardware.

Without initial tooling costs, product development becomes an iterative, flexible process. Companies can test new markets and respond quickly to changing customer requirements, which means they shoulder less risk. Complex new products become easier to develop, making it possible for smaller businesses to compete with larger, established ones. And mass customization—creating unique products for every customer in fields ranging from athletic equipment to dental implants—becomes practical.

The economics of additive manufacturing have become even more favourable through the recent emergence of professional desktop 3D printers—office-friendly machines smaller than a mini-fridge that cost from £2,000 to £4,000 and perform nearly as well as their £100,000 industrial counterparts. These machines have begun to appear in factories as well as well as offices. In addition to cost advantages, they also offer flexibility and streamlined creative process: an industrial designer can prototype with the 3D printer on her desk, then send the final file to a bank of identical printers in the factory for production. The advantages are compelling enough that Gartner reckons 75% of enterprises will be using 3D printing by 2020.

As Britain searches for post-Brexit advantages in manufacturing, 3D printing may become an essential investment for SMEs. German factories, which produce nearly three times the output of British factories, have invested six times as much in automation. For conventional heavy industry, this represents a formidable lead.

While 3D printing doesn’t enjoy the same economies of scale as traditional manufacturing, this also means that small producers aren’t penalized. For products that can be produced additively, it is practical to distribute manufacturing across any number of small factories. The future of British manufacturing may be 3D printed—highly specialized, responsive, customized, and local, with tight linkages to Britain’s outstanding creative workforce.