Leveling Up: Commercial Benefits of Additive Manufacturing

Article by Tom Serres

Here are some of the most important advantages of additive manufacturing driving businesses to integrate it into their manufacturing operations.

Lower Labor Costs

Among the key advantages of additive manufacturing is the fact that the technology offers considerable savings on labor. Traditional manufacturing methods require human laborers to oversee the process at every stage. This often involves several technicians, who each specialize in the operation of a different machine. By contrast, additive manufacturing can accomplish all this in a single machine which requires very little human oversight.
Despite the fact that additive manufacturing already offers a savings in labor compared to traditional manufacturing, a push is on to make the technology even more labor-efficient. The majority of the human work associated with creating parts with additive manufacturing comes in the post-processing phase, when parts are finished and support structures are removed. Companies are increasingly turning to automated systems to remove parts from 3D printers and execute post-processing tasks. With such systems and an array of printers, manufacturing can occur nearly continuously with minimal need for human workers.

Reduced Equipment Requirements

In a traditional manufacturing environment, development may involve not only several different workers but also several different types of machines. Additive manufacturing, however, reduces the amount of equipment needed to make a given object. By using a single device to create an almost unlimited range of potential designs, additive manufacturing allows businesses to decrease equipment outlays.

Faster and Less Expensive Prototyping

Rapid prototyping was one of the applications that first attracted businesses to additive manufacturing technology. 3D printers can be used to make both concept models and functional prototypes, allowing the technology to play an integral role throughout the entire process of design and development.
The largest advantage of additive manufacturing in the prototyping process is its ability to produce multiple iterations of a part or product in quick succession. Businesses with direct access to a 3D printer can print and test multiple designs in a matter of hours. This allows them to quickly improve on or adjust the final product. This ability to iterate quickly contrasts sharply with traditional prototyping methods, in which it can take days or even weeks for a machine shop to make and deliver necessary parts.
Just as additive manufacturing reduces the time involved in prototyping, it also reduces the cost. While traditional prototypes can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, additive manufacturing can bring the cost for high-quality plastic prototypes down to only a few dollars. So even with the cost of owning and maintaining a 3D printer factored in, businesses that design new products frequently can see substantial savings.

Less Material Waste

Because the additive manufacturing process works by adding material rather than removing it from a larger piece, the process results in less material waste than traditional methods of manufacturing. This reduction in material waste is of critical importance to businesses. Depending on the material and method being used, additive manufacturing can reduce material waste by as much as 40 percent. As a result, businesses can save money on raw materials and pursue a more sustainable manufacturing model.

Inexpensive Customization

While traditional mass production has harnessed economies of scale to lower costs, it leaves little room for variation within products. By harnessing additive manufacturing, however, businesses can make their products more valuable to customers through mass customization. This mode of manufacturing combines  digital design software and 3D printing to tailor products to the needs of individual users. Mass-customized products that have already proven extremely successful include earphones, eyeglasses and orthodontic aligners.

Greater Ease of Manufacturing for Complex Parts

Some sectors, such as aerospace and medical manufacturing, demand highly complicated parts that are traditionally difficult and expensive to make. With additive manufacturing, however, increased complexity does not translate to higher costs. It creates objects in the same way and on the same devices regardless of their complexity. Thus the technology is an ideal solution for manufacturing parts with geometries that traditional manufacturing methods struggle with.

On-demand Printing for Spare Parts

Owing to the complexity of modern products and the difficulty involved in managing parts supply chains, spare parts suppliers are increasingly running into challenges in meeting their customers’ needs. With a print-on-demand model powered by additive manufacturing, suppliers can reduce both costs and lead times for parts. At the same time, the print-on-demand model eliminates the need for suppliers to store and manage large inventories of parts. This on-demand printing model can even be used to print obsolete parts, allowing businesses to service products that have long outlived their original inventories of spare parts.
These are just a few of the important advantages of additive manufacturing that modern businesses can take advantage of. With the ability to create low-cost customized parts, additive manufacturing presents a massive opportunity. And the technology will continue to revolutionize the ways products are made as it improves in the coming years.
To learn more about how this technology is reshaping supply chains, check out our  white paper!