It is important to first define the primary applications where 3D printing will be used in order to guide the selection of the right technologies that will provide the greatest positive impact for your business. This article will highlight some of the common 3D printing applications and outline some key attributes to consider when selecting a 3D printer.
Concept models improve the early design decisions that impact every subsequent design and engineering activity. Selecting the right design path reduces costly changes later in the development process and shortens the entire development cycle, so you get to market sooner. Whether designing new vehicle components, power tools, electronics, architectural designs, footwear or toys, 3D printing is the ideal way to evaluate alternative design concepts and enable cross-functional input from all stakeholders so they can make better choices.
During this early phase of product development, it is desirable to quickly and affordably evaluate numerous design alternatives with models that look and feel like the real thing but do not typically need to be fully functional. Stakeholders can better visualize design intent, and they can make faster, more effective decisions, when they can see and touch alternative concepts side by side.
For most concept modeling applications the key performance attributes to look for in a 3D printer are print speed, part cost, ease of use, and life-like print output.
As product designs begin to take shape, designers need to verify and test design elements to ensure the new product will function as intended. 3D printing allows design verification to be an iterative process where designers identify and address design challenges to spur new inventions or quickly identify the need for design revisions.
Applications may include form and fit, functional performance, assembly verification and aerodynamic testing, to name a few. Verification prototypes provide real, hands-on feedback to quickly prove design theories through practical application.
For verification applications, the parts should provide a true representation of design performance. Material characteristics, model accuracy, feature detail resolution and build volume are key attributes to consider in choosing a 3D printer for functional verification.
As product development converges on the final design, attention rapidly turns to manufacturing start-up. This stage often involves significant investment in the tooling, jigs and fixtures necessary to manufacture the new product. At this stage the supply chain expands with purchase commitments for the raw material and other required components.
Lead time for these required items can stretch out time to market, and 3D printing can, in a variety of ways, reduce the investment risk and shorten the time cycle for product launch.
Pre-production 3D printing applications include rapid short-run tools, jigs and fixtures, which enable early production and assembly of final products, as well as end-use parts and first article functional products for testing and early customer placements.
At this stage the functional performance of the print materials is critical. Accuracy, precision and repeatability are also of paramount importance to ensure final product quality is achieved and manufacturing tooling will not require expensive and time-consuming rework.
Some 3D printing technologies can print virtually unlimited geometry without the restrictions inherent in traditional manufacturing methods, thus providing designers greater design freedom to achieve new levels of product functionality.
Manufacturing costs are reduced by eliminating time and labor-intensive production steps, and reducing raw material waste typical with traditional subtractive manufacturing techniques.
3D printed components may be end-use parts or sacrificial production enablers, such as casting patterns, that streamline production flow. Leading companies in industries as diverse as jewelry, dental, medical instruments, automotive, electronics and aerospace have adopted 3D printing to produce end-use parts, casting patterns or molds.
Doing so reduces manufacturing costs, increases flexibility, reduces warehouse costs and logistics, enables greater customization, improves product quality and performance, reduces product weight, and shortens production cycle times.
For some medical and dental applications, materials may need to meet specific biocompatibility requirements. As well, some aerospace components need to be compliant with UL 94 V-0 for flame retardancy.
For manufacturing applications, the key 3D printer attributes are high accuracy, precision and repeatability, material properties, specialized print materials specifically engineered for application requirements, part cost, and production capacity.