Guest Blog: 3D Printing - Future Fabrication for Advanced Manufacturing
Matthew Aldridge, Managing Director, igus UK
Manufacturing in the UK and Europe has experienced much change over the last 30 years, with substantial volume manufacturing production shifting ‘offshore’ to lower labour cost countries and developing economies in the Far East or Eastern Europe. Over the same period, there have been dramatic increases in industrial automation and tremendous innovation in manufacturing technology, across areas including plant automation, robotics, advanced materials, digitalisation and ERP systems.
Over the last couple of years, in a reversal of the previous trend, we have started to see manufacturers beginning to ‘reshore’ certain key parts of their manufacturing. Increasing costs in traditionally lower labour cost countries have certainly played a role in this trend, but some of the key drivers are related to manufacturing technologies - rapidly increasing automation and digitalisation are helping make ‘onshore’ manufacturing a more attractive, viable and competitive proposition.
At the same time, advanced materials, including high performance engineering plastics, have helped lower cost and improve capability in manufacturing applications and systems. But it’s not just advanced materials that are having an impact on cost and performance – new fabrication techniques, including 3D printing or additive manufacturing, are playing an important role too.
The rapid growth in the adoption and use of 3D printing has seen it progress quickly from its beginnings as a gimmicky tool for hobbyists and gadget geeks into a serious rapid prototyping alternative. But it is the development of more advanced and capable engineering materials with which to print that is now starting to see it develop into a credible and sophisticated fabrication technique ideally suited for advanced manufacturing.
Manufacturers can now access and utilise these same advanced engineering plastics for their 3D printing and additive manufacturing requirements, whether they want to print themselves or order parts from a supplier who offers printing as a service. They may want to produce prototypes in their design phase, real world test samples, or low volume, precision manufactured finished items – even 3D printed tools and injection moulds. Indeed, more and more requirements can be serviced using 3D printing and additive manufacturing fabrication techniques as more capable advanced materials are developed.
As well as helping seed the maker movement’s transition to a more serious commercial proposition, ultimately, the continued adoption, growth and development of 3D printing and additive manufacturing technology can help accelerate time-to-market for R&D teams, help manufacturers reduce costs and improve their supply chains.
Bridging the gap between one-off prototypes and high volume, advanced manufacturing takes the benefits of 3D printing technology one step further by producing 3D printed mould tools, which can be used to manufacture injection-moulded parts.
Traditional steel mould tools are expensive and technically laborious to manufacture, and therefore only really suited for high-volume production. Engineers can produce prototypes and small batches of up to 500 pieces, while benefitting on cost efficiency and speed of production. For instance, moulded parts from a simple 3D printed mould tool can be delivered within 2-5 days – all with an estimated cost saving of up to 80 percent.
We are well on our way to all R&D teams employing 3D printing in their design flow, and more and more manufacturers are incorporating 3D printing into their manufacturing process. As the technology and materials continue to develop rapidly, this versatile fabrication technique will continue to become a valuable part of every manufacturer’s toolkit. Who knows where this trend will end? Perhaps one day, every home will have its own 3D printer producing the ultimate in just-in-time products for consumer use.