Slow and Steady Wins the 3D Printing Race
Four steps for a careful, committed implementation
A fuel nozzle from GE that will revolutionize aviation, thanks to a partnership between GE and the US Air Force. Beautiful ceramics that rival fine art found in any museum across the globe. Gourmet food items; homes created in less than a day for a fraction of traditional costs that could help stop the housing crisis.
3D printing wields power and creates opportunities. And for companies working in the manufacturing of goods, it brings added value and the potential for exponential growth. It can boost productivity, expand reach and serve as a force of immense creative energy and business expansion.
But when implementing 3D printing, it’s important to have a plan. The additive manufacturing industry has grown so quickly over the past decade that it’s easy to want to jump straight into the deep end and bring its agility to your business. And in the wake of COVID-19, when the strength and efficacy of 3D printed solutions have been tested under fire and shown themselves to be truly innovative and effective, it’s understandable that a manufacturer would want to establish additive manufacturing as part of their production plan, and establish it fast.
But like the famous tortoise who overcame the hare, companies wishing to implement 3D printing should move with careful, committed focus. Here are guidelines and steps I recommend for a successful and profitable transition into the creative, energetic, ever-nimble world of additive manufacturing:
1. Start slow
You have to crawl before you can walk. And by the same token, you shouldn’t attempt to flip your entire manufacturing process to 3D printing overnight. Rather than implement 3D printing across a full product line, identify the one specific project you want to start with, and focus your energies on getting this right. Use this one project as a test case, aligning the engineering team with the operations team and getting the supply chain calibrated.
And while much of 3D printing’s value lies in the fact that complexity is free, in the early stages, keep it simple. Your first 3D printed project should be created not to push the boundaries of cost effectiveness and manufacturing ability, but rather to solidify a series of best practices and to firm up a hierarchy of supply chain. Get your designer, engineers and product distributors in line. Test the entire process and then test it again. This is 3D printing 101, and you’re not meant to be doing work beyond entry-level experimentation. Once you know that the production of this one simple item is flawless, you’ll be ready to expand to bigger and better ideas.
2. Talk to the experts
The blind are not meant to lead the blind, especially in an industry with such a love of communication and a deep respect for insight and collaboration. This is an industry rich with resources, so take advantage of them. Watch a TED Talk about 3D printing; join one of the many free webinars available online, likethese or these. There are a number of books on the power and specifics of 3D printing to be read; this list offers a helpful rundown of some of the best.
Most importantly, however, remember that the additive manufacturing community is warm, welcoming and thrives on mentorship. We are a cohort committed to the free exchange of ideas and obsessed with the opportunities provided by information exchange and creative fusion. So don’t let your education operate in a vacuum. Reach out to mentors in the field - few things delight us more than to talk about our passion and share it with those eager to learn.
3. Look for the most solid foundation, then place your building blocks
When adding 3D printing to your manufacturing strategy, you want to start with the simplest and most rational implementation. So think about how 3D printing, with its exponential growth potential and its speed and acuity, can bring the most benefit to your product line. And also think about where you might encounter pitfalls.
A good place to start is by considering cost. There are many variables to consider that go beyond raw product — what will the price tag be for implementing 3D printing in terms of machinery, floor space, inspection and design? How does that line up to traditional manufacturing? Identify some of the most cost-effective pieces of your production in terms of all of these variables, and target those for early adoption as you scale up.
4. Get your team on board
Finally, remember that you work as part of a team, and when you change one aspect of your production line, all the other aspects that depend on the chain are going to be affected. That means your supply chain needs to be fortified; your business partners need to be fully briefed and firmly on the 3D printing bandwagon, and your customers, crucially, need to know what to expect if any deliverables are changing.
Ensure that the technology you are adopting has been fully vetted and tested, and err on the side of caution by having an alternative technology or solution in the wings just in case there are bumps along the way.
Treat the transition to 3D printing exactly as you would any other shift in production or manufacturing, and you will vastly improve your chances of success. Move gradually and with determined caution, a clear goal in sight and small-scale, logical micro-goals along the way. Stay slow and steady, just like the tortoise. You will very likely win the race.