Additive Manufacturing (AM) is already one of the fastest growing fields in manufacturing and, given anticipated surges in automation and robotics in line with Industry 4.0 ambitions, 2018 really should be the year that 3D printed parts take centre stage in production line planning.

Of course, this rise in prominence is predicated on the assumption that desire to adopt 3D printing as part of a production line strategy, automatically equates to subsequent decisions and implementation.

But while interest in, enthusiasm for, and even intent to use this technology readily manifests itself as a clear and tangible understanding of the improved productivity and competitiveness that 3D printed tools and fixtures can offer, the truth is that steps forward often stall. Adoption is delayed. Sometimes indefinitely.

Barriers are inevitable: remember why it’s worth breaking them

The reason for this delay boils down to the fact that recognizing benefit is not the same as overcoming barriers.

It’s true. Understanding the benefits of 3DP adoption should be the perfect starting point for any production manager. After all, the list is long. Utilizing additive methods to design and manufacture production parts and fixtures has significant implications for reducing lead times for new tools and fixtures, improving part performance through enhanced functionality, reducing component costs by minimizing subtractive wastage, and for reducing stock requirements as ‘digital spares’ can be printed and deployed as required.

These and many other advantages of 3D Printing, impact on key performance metrics of the production line, including productivity, overall production cost, efficiency/processing time, product quality. Crucially, due to faster turn-arounds on product-specific tools and fixtures, production becomes more agile and responsive, enabling quick adaption to changing customer demands or increased product customization. Lines for new models or products are up and running faster and can be tweaked more easily once live. All great.

But rather than being a solid base from which to move forward, production and assembly line managers keen to see exactly what 3D printing can achieve often feel more like they are on a pedestal; like taking the next step forward will result in a fall. Change is inevitably met with objection; barriers get thrown up that make progress difficult.

They key, however, is to anticipate and understand these concerns. With this in mind, there are some useful ‘barrier breakers’ to be aware of.

Consider total cost

For many, the first stumbling block is cost – a common perception being that 3D printing a part is more expensive than producing/obtaining traditionally manufactured parts. For businesses squeezed by economic concerns and keen competition, this is perhaps the single most important consideration and often, barrier.

This negative cost perception is unfounded as it typically fails to take into account value, or more specifically ‘total cost’ in its truest sense. Like for like, 3D printed parts can work out more expensive per part price. But, the design freedom that goes hand-in-hand with 3D printing enables incredibly lean, lightweight structures to be created; parts previously - of necessity - produced separately, can be combined and printed as single components, all of which means also means that parts and fixtures can be more readily and precisely customized according to the exact task. In other words they can do the same job better, and in some cases carry out tasks that weren’t possible before. In a manufacturing environment increasingly driven by advances in automation, this is huge.

Suddenly the cost equation looks very different. Lighter tools/fixtures mean faster production; parts with fewer components fail less/require less maintenance; improved task performance reduces end-use part failure/defects. Clamps, jigs, mounts, grippers, and nozzle can all be re-imagined and re-developed from a wider range of materials to be lighter, easier to handle, more durable and ultimately quicker to deploy, keeping production cycles lean.

In short, initial higher process cost is outweighed by total cost benefit.

Pick apart ‘picking a part’

Achieving these benefits is, however, dependent on selecting the right parts for 3D printing in the first place. Not all will lend themselves to the method and if production teams don’t know with which part to start, they risk not starting at all.

Here, some simple rules can help. Functional gain is key. And with that in mind the best starting point is actually not with specific parts but with the line itself. What’s not working? What’s causing issues and downtime? What is breaking frequently? Is there a fixture or tool that is unnecessarily bulky or heavy? Are there any issues around tolerances and precision due to imprecise/variable fixtures? For obvious reasons, the insights offered by frontline production line personnel can be invaluable to this identification process.

The next step then is to ask: what causes the issue with this particular fixture? Is it where welded parts are struggling with temperature changes; or where machined fixtures are unnecessarily heavy due to design limitations? Wherever a part is only made in a specific way because of a lack of alternatives i.e. where there is enforced dissatisfaction, that’s where additive manufacturing can add value.

To name a few examples of usual and unusual suspects, they could be nozzles and grippers, brackets and holders, jigs and fixtures, feeder bowls and guides, and almost any other type of tooling. If it’s vital to the working of the line and isn’t very simple or very big, it’s usually a candidate.

Don’t go it alone

The other important thing to point out here, is that identifying the right ‘candidate’ doesn’t have to be a lonely process. As a production line manager, it doesn’t matter how enthusiastic you are about 3D printing or how deep your understanding of the potential advantages – identifying where to start can be daunting. ‘Going it alone’ can be the biggest progress deterrent there is.

So don’t. And don’t be worried about approaching a 3D printing solutions specialist with a “fuzzy brief”. If you have simply an idea that you can do things better and that 3D Printing is the way to go, that’s enough to approach a 3DP business in order to start to explore what’s possible.

The truth is that partnership working to co-create solutions to specific production line problems is often the start of something special. Production managers and engineers know what’s needed i.e. what the line needs to do better, quicker or differently. Pairing those capabilities and knowledge with a 3D printing specialist – with experts in design capabilities and printing techniques - can fast-track production line solution development significantly.

What’s more, once an initial project is complete, this often triggers a subsequent change in workforce perceptions to aid long term, ‘organic’ 3D printing adoption. Philips is a case in point. Following an initial project our team at Materialise carried out to re-invent a specific bracket/holder used to keep lamps in place during production, their Factory Engineering Designer, Danny Van der Jonckheyd said “the biggest difference has been the impact this has had on the mindset of those who work here. It’s sparked a thought in everyone that we can and should do things differently – since this initial project I’ve been approached by people from different aspects of production with ideas for other ways 3D printing can work for us. It’s truly engaged our workforce”.

Skill up and futureproof

Sticking with the subject of workforce engagement, the final thing to say is that there is safety in numbers. 3D print adoption might not be right for your line right now; it may never be. But without exploring the possibilities it’s hard to tell. And that can be difficult to keep fighting against in a ‘lone voice’ situation.

While partners can offer and provide an external skill/resource function to get the ball rolling, long term change will come far more readily with internal champions in place. Ultimately an engaged workforce needs to become an informed workforce, and the best way to make that happen is to embed ‘design for AM’ as a core competency skill as part of recruitment and training development processes.

Starting to look at 3D printing in a production line context will quickly create that crucial first opportunity to learn, which can have a powerful ripple effect across teams. Upskilling to ensure that ripple keeps going will ensure that 3D print adoption becomes easier, faster and simply a production line way of life.