The digital factory has many names: smart factory, the factory of the future and the industry 4.0. To John Dulchinos, Jabil’s Vice President of Digital Manufacturing, “these definitions speak to an environment where data is pervasive and actionable. They allow people and machines to work together and seamlessly use the same information.”

With the rising digital economy, the correlation between time-to-market and profitability is more apparent: companies first to market capture the majority of the margin pools. For companies wanting to get their products to market faster and better match consumer expectations, traditional manufacturing technologies no longer suffice. It’s time to go digital – and digital technologies like 3D Printing (additive manufacturing) and automation are key to bringing your products to market faster, whether they are existing or new.

What is 3D Printing?
3D printing, technically referred to as additive manufacturing, is a process in which three-dimensional objects are created by successive layering of material using a digital file that contains a computer aided design (CAD) drawing. The CAD contains a virtual representation of the object to be made, stored as a series of thin slices, which are created layer by layer until the intended shape is achieved.

How 3D Printing Disrupts Traditional Manufacturing
3D printing is set for explosive growth over the next decade – rising from being a $5.8 billion industry in 2016 to an expected $55.8 billion by 2027, per a recent report by Smithers Pira. The industry is transitioning into a maturing business environment and has been positioned as an important manufacturing tool.

But with so many industries looking to incorporate 3D printing into their manufacturing processes (and their different needs), it is wise to think about the practice from three different perspectives.

Prototyping
Prototyping is perhaps the most popular manufacturing process (and the most mature) when discussing 3D printing. Additive manufacturing enables rapid prototyping and, in many cases, can produce a working prototype in less than 48 hours. This speed has multiple benefits including shortened time-to-market, but also the ability to undertake multiple design iterations resulting in products that better meet customer requirements.

The technology has found wide-spread use as an accelerator in the design stage of the New Product Introduction (NPI) process. Jabil’s Radius innovation and design division and digital prototyping lab at the Blue Sky Center in San Jose, California use 3D printing to compress design cycles and consequently reduce time-to-market.

While expediting the design stage of the NPI process certainly adds value for product brands obsessed with speed, that was never the intended ceiling for this technology. In fact, the digital thread relies on the growth and maturation of 3D printing to the point where it can be used in production.

“Additive manufacturing provides the opportunity to re-imagine the entire NPI process. It has already transformed the way we prototype, and as it moves through tooling and end-use-parts it will revolutionize the way business is done,” said Rush LaSelle, Director of Digital Manufacturing at Jabil.

Tooling and Fixtures
Whether your company manufactures basic or complex products, “your output and productivity are dependent upon the efficiency of your workforce’s access to tools and production routine,” says Engineering.com. In many cases, tooling and fixtures can be an easy solution to speed these up.

Traditional manufacturing requires significant tooling and fixturing; work holding and placement guides are two examples used through various production processes. 3D printed tools and fixtures reduce concerns around budget constraints, complexity and speed. Manufacturers using additive manufacturing for tooling, fixtures and manufacturing aids can build complex components quickly and significantly cheaper compared to traditional methods. But the efficiencies don’t end there.

The benefits can also be realized in the final product quality. As parts progress down an assembly line, 3D printed tools and fixtures can be “built to support an evolving set of operations that focus employees’ attention on simple, easily repeatable tasks,” according to Engineering.com.

“3D printed tools and fixtures are an area most manufacturers can benefit from when applying 3D printing into their existing processes,” says Tim DeRosett, director of marketing for additive manufacturing at Jabil. In fact, production of parts and designs that could not have been manufactured through traditional means are finding their way to reality with 3D printing.

Functional Production Parts
The fastest growing application of additive manufacturing is final part manufacturing. While 3D printing is far from replacing conventional processes for most parts, according to Wohlers Associates, for some product categories it is very competitive.

Additive manufacturing has already been transforming some industries. For example, the hearing market began transitioning into 3D printing as far back as 2000 in the creation of hearing aid products. In fact, additive manufacturing is used to produce approximately half of the world’s hearing aid products today. As competition in additive manufacturing increases and capabilities improve with new processes, materials and technology, 3D printing will penetrate more niche markets.

While it is too early to tell if additive manufacturing will lead to a new industrial revolution, some indicators suggest that it might, according to Wohlers. These include:

  • removal of barriers to entry for product development
  • reduction of transaction costs and
  • decentralization of some types of production
  • reduction of delivery costs due to the proximity of the customer
  • increase in customized products.

While we intrinsically understand that 3D printing will eventually change what we know about manufacturing, labor and supply chains, the arrival of that future state has proven to be elusive. Within the last year, new technological advances have product brands mobilizing to usher in the first wave of high volume, high quality 3D printing production — a development that promises staggering implications across many sectors.


Are we there yet?
To date, the adoption of additive technologies in manufacturing has been limited due to incorrect stigmas such as:

  • “It takes too long”
  • “Material choices are limited”
  • “Performance pales in comparison to other manufacturing techniques”
  • “Printed parts are mechanically weak”
  • “It’s too expensive”

These sentiments have confined the technology to applications within the broader manufacturing spectrum that can deliver sufficient value to overcome the historical cost hurdles.

“With 3D printing, there have historically been significant trade-offs. If the finish was good, the mechanical integrity wasn’t up to par.” said Dulchinos. “A gap has always existed where we couldn’t produce high quality, high integrity parts at scale and at cost.”

So, what’s changed? A big factor has been the emergence of a new class of open source, low-cost fused filament fabrication (FFF) machines. These new machines can produce production tooling at a lower cost point and utilize a variety of materials. This higher degree of flexibility at a much lower capital expenditure opens the floodgates in terms of how frequently engineers can develop tooling and make design changes. With 3D printing approaching parity with milling, injection molding and other established capabilities, the digital thread is strengthening, and enabling a connected end-to-end production processes.

Another game changing factor has been the release of new printing solutions with the capability to produce high integrity parts at a speed and cost point that starts to rival traditional manufacturing methods for low to mid-volume production. The Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) by HP, for example, produces parts up to 10 times faster and at half the cost of other solutions.

Don’t get the wrong impression. No one will be 3D printing millions of game consoles, toasters or phones any time soon. The first wave of production quality 3D printing will feel incremental, with small improvements leading to big results in terms of time-to-market, customer satisfaction, design quality and cost efficiency.

As we discussed, the practice has progressed from a prototyping system to a manufacturing system, and is increasingly becoming a highly flexible option across numerous industries. Today’s printers can create fully functional components out of materials ranging from human cartilage to industrial metal to full color sandstone and can render the most complex design for almost any application.

Jabil has qualified and produced 100+ end-use (or functional) parts for transportation equipment, industrial machines and medical diagnostic machines. “It’s critical to think beyond the printing of the parts and consider the end-to-end process.” said LaSelle.  “From design, to printing and through multiple post-processing steps (finishing, coating, etc.) and part qualification and QA, to be successful we have brought proven manufacturing rigor to additive manufacturing.