3D printing was invented in the mid-1980s and has rapidly grown into a reliable manufacturing technology countering traditional manufacturing techniques. By comparing 3D printing with traditional manufacturing, we aim to help you understand each technology's benefits, potential, and limitations.
This article will give you a side-by-side comparison of 10 key factors, including cost and time.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, creates three-dimensional objects from digital CAD files by successively laying down thin layers of material until the product is complete. It has higher initial setup costs than traditional processes, but the technology is evolving and continually becoming cheaper. Modern 3D printing delivers unprecedented advantages like complex part manufacturing, lower short-run costs, elimination of the tooling stage, and a data-oriented approach that allows for cheaper product customisation.
Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM), Stereolithography (SLA), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), and Binder Jetting are some popular 3D printing processes.
On the other hand, traditional manufacturing is a range of material removal processes where solid blocks or rods are shaped by cutting, turning, drilling, and grinding. These are also called subtractive manufacturing processes.
The major advantages of traditional manufacturing include cheaper mass production and global availability of a large pool of skilled labour.
CNC Machining, Injection Moulding, Forming, and Joining are traditional manufacturing processes.
When comparing 3D printing to traditional manufacturing, production time is a key differentiation factor. Traditional manufacturing methods such as injection moulding require moulds (tooling) to make parts. Creating these moulds can take 1-2 months or longer. A time delay can mean success or failure in today's competitive environment. This tooling stage is expensive, so small production runs make the process uneconomical.
3D printing changes this dynamic. It eliminates the tooling stage and can start production immediately after design. This means faster time-to-market, giving you a competitive edge.
3D printing does not incur additional costs with each new unit produced. This means it can produce one part and hundreds of parts at almost the same cost per part. This is impossible with traditional manufacturing, which often requires an expensive tooling stage that is only justified if products are mass-produced. Thus, for short runs, 3D printing saves production costs.
Secondly, the traditional production and assembly stage requires significant machine setup and labour costs. This is considerably reduced or even eliminated with 3D printing as it requires minimal manual intervention, eliminates tool change operation, and reduces the assembly time.
Because the cost of each added unit in 3D printing remains the same, an unlimited number of product changes are possible. This helps implement design thinking principles as designers and engineers can iterate and change the product without incurring heavy costs. Spending more time and effort on a product that will be more compatible with customer needs can increase sales.
Lowering the cost of each iteration lowers the cost of failure. As a result, 3D printing allows for greater risk, which can aid in developing better products.
The uniform cost per product also aids in personalisation. Personalising products to meet customer needs creates a positive brand experience.
3D printing and sustainability are inextricably linked. Subtractive methods of traditional manufacturing generate scrap material that often cannot be reused.
3D printing, on the other hand, works on the additive manufacturing principle. The product is built from the ground up, minimising waste. Implementing DfAM, topology optimisation, and generative design can reduce material usage and product weight. A lighter product can save 40 to 60 percent of energy on shipping and logistics.
Interested in making 3D printing even more sustainable? Fishy Filaments and 3D Printing Cornwall have developed a 3D filament from recycled fishing nets.
Traditional manufacturing faces several constraints that affect product costs. Part complexity is a major limitation. Complex designs require more precision and skill, which raises traditional manufacturing costs. The greater the complexity, the greater the cost.
3D printing brings a unique set of advantages to manufacturing. It removes the design constraints involved in manufacturing complex designs. Increased complexity doesn't affect manufacturing costs as the price per part remains fairly constant. Additionally, part consolidation, which means combining multiple parts into a single piece, can also be implemented to eliminate or reduce assembly and shorten manufacturing time at no additional cost.
3D printing accelerates product development from the conception or ideation stage to an actual prototype and a finished product. The speed is unprecedented and significantly faster than traditional manufacturing processes.
As previously stated, it can combine multiple parts, eliminating the assembly stage. This reduces the overall manufacturing time for a given product.
Traditional manufacturing only benefits from mass production. Most manufactured products also need spares. So, traditional manufacturing has huge warehousing needs. Warehouses are full of products and spare parts, just in case they are needed. This means heavy warehousing costs, including land rent, warehouse infrastructure, labour, etc. which eat up profit margins the longer the stock is stored.
3D printing can save the huge capital invested in warehouses by enabling on-demand manufacturing and low-volume production. This can practically reduce the need for warehousing and save costs for your company.
According to McKinsey, 71% of consumers expect personalised interactions. Customers associate it with feeling special. But traditional manufacturers struggle to personalise products. Their technology cannot adapt to make new parts quickly. To bring a new iteration of product into the market, they have to invest in new machines, designs, and moulds. This is not feasible if the niche is small.
3D printers, on the other hand, are versatile. They have no new tooling costs and easily absorb product changes. There are no additional costs with each new unit produced, making 3D printing ideal for mass-producing personalised parts. So, even if new trends disrupt the earlier product, you just need to modify the design and keep printing.
Sourcing or initial capital investment remains a minor barrier for companies looking to incorporate 3D printing into their manufacturing workflow. You may not want to spend $1,000 on a 3D printer and instead may think of outsourcing 3D printing jobs. It may seem like a better option, but it's not a good long-term strategy.
3D printing is still evolving, giving it a distinct future advantage. An increasing number of industries is adopting it. This means that the technology will develop to be more economical, iron out its limitations and offer better and newer materials, technologies, and a more sustainable manufacturing approach.
So, to capitalise on the advantages, it’s better to incorporate 3D printing technology sooner rather than later.
Manufacturers who adopt 3D printing now will lead the incoming pan-industrial revolution. 3D printing will open up new avenues for your business. By joining manufacturing marketplaces like Xometry, Fictiv, etc. you will be able to cater to global customers. 3D printing will make you a competitive manufacturer no matter how small you are today. With 3D printing there is no limit to the industry you cater to. You can service various industries, from aerospace to jewellery, automotive to fashion, defence to oil and energy.
This article compared ten key factors between 3D printing and traditional manufacturing. 3D printing today isn't competitive enough for mass production or injection moulding-level surface finish, but it's an evolving technology and is already the preferred technology for low-volume production. However, investing in a 3D printer and producing in-house might be more competitive.
3D printing imparts value throughout the supply chain, unlike traditional manufacturing, which is limited to production. You will discover that 3D printing allows design and manufacturing flexibility, saves materials, reduces warehousing and shipping costs, shrinks time to market, helps you build better products, and saves money.
Investing in a 3D printer today will secure your company's future.
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