Printing goods in three dimensions is no longer a new phenomenon. The aptitude to create items by designing them digitally and having a printer use plastics and various other materials to make a real-world version of that item has slowly begun to gain prominence across the manufacturing sector. What’s new is that it’s starting to hit the tipping point for being an extremely valuable technology.
There are some advanced 3D printing projects in place, such as one Asian business building houses with 3D printers. However, the major value for 3D printing at this moment is in prototyping. In times gone by, prototyping has been a long and luxurious process in which:
The time and fiscal resources needed to 3D print a prototype is minimal compared to traditional processes, making it much easier for manufacturers to experiment with new products and projects. Rapid prototyping is invaluable across manufacturing, but this functionality is especially useful in the configure-to-order manufacturing segment, where the ability to quickly alter products is critical.
When you combine the rapid prototyping offered by 3D printing, a configure-to-order manufacturer can use a configuration to design a new product based on customer requirements, plug that design into an augmented reality solution to get a clear idea of what the product will actually look like when produced – giving customers more clearness into the design – and then 3D print the product to quickly have the custom item ready for customers.
The ability to accelerate prototyping and new production creation can lead to significant cost savings in terms of labor, materials investments, tooling and other processes that would normally be needed to prototype or customize a product. Plus, in many cases, 3D printing allows manufacturers to combine a number of smaller individual parts into a single part, reducing the complexity of the product.
The technology surrounding 3D printing continues to evolve, pouring new opportunities for manufacturers to reap value from 3D printers. Three areas of expected future growth are:
These three areas of growth are on the horizon, but the fourth area of innovation is around the corner integration with the Internet of Things. The ability to bring data from IoT devices into 3D printing processes could allow for a greater degree of coordination and optimization within printing processes.
Organizations that want to take full advantage of 3D printing must work to bring their processes and capabilities into the 21st century. Everything from sales to the shop floor must be connected so departments can share data and interact seamlessly with one another. This will enable sales teams to work with customers to quickly fine tune products and send those orders directly to production, where 3D printers can interrelate with inventory and supply chain management tools to access the materials needed, pull digital models from configurations. And create a product with minimal human intervention.
This vision for manufacturing may sound like something from the world of science fiction, but the reality is that ERP solutions are already making these 21st-century workflows possible and putting them in reach of manufacturers. ERP solutions bring together data workflows from across the business and, when combined with 3-D printers, can allow organizations to not only prototype solutions more quickly, but also use the flexible prototyping to become more adventurous as they create products.