For a time, the idea of 3D printing captured the imagination, leading some to believe that eventually we would 3D print anything and everything. While that hasn’t come to fruition and won’t for a long time, the practical applications for additive manufacturing continue to mount, making it a technology that manufacturers can’t ignore.
Companies are using additive manufacturing in powerful ways. At a recent NEW Manufacturing Alliance Industry 4.0 task force meeting, team members from Oshkosh Corp. described how the manufacturer uses 3D printing to create parts that help decrease the weight of trucks, reducing the amount of fuel used.
A business that in the past might have had to pay $2,000 for a part and wait two months for it to arrive could use 3D printing to create it over the weekend for a fraction of the cost.
“That’s a huge savings, both in time and money, and now you can really build up an ROI pretty quickly,” says Nick Schmidtke, a 3D printing applications engineer at Germantown-based GSC, a 3D engineering software and hardware solutions provider.
GSC, which sells 3D printers under the Markforged and HP brands, saw interest in additive manufacturing wane at the beginning of the pandemic as many manufacturers focused on the basics and cut costs. This year, as companies recover and begin to refocus on growth, more businesses are reaching out to discuss creating an additive strategy.
A lot of companies that hadn’t considered additive manufacturing in the past are starting to adopt industrial 3D printing technology, Schmidtke says, and it’s imperative for businesses to look at the time and cost savings the tool could offer. If another business can make something for a customer faster, it provides a competitive advantage, even if the cost is the same, he says.
Jim Broennimann, director of marketing for GSC, says manufacturers from foundries to automotive suppliers are turning to additive manufacturing to improve throughput in their production lines. With 3D printing, companies can print a part overnight and put it in a production line to avoid disruptions and keep product flowing.
“Once people get that into their system or they start to use it, it quickly accelerates into many ways they can use that in their production lines,” he says.
Prototyping emerged as one of the first practical applications of 3D printing and has grown more sophisticated over the past five years, especially with the introduction of more materials. Prototypes become more valuable in the design process because they allow for testing in a production environment, Broennimann says.
Additive manufacturing also offers advantages in the production of parts. For example, it can be used to create parts with geometries that are difficult or impossible to create with traditional machining. Additive also is faster, cheaper and requires fewer man hours, Schmidtke says. Think, for example, of the time and money saved in being able to send a file to a customer to 3D print on their end.
“We’re seeing a lot more end-use part production or those manufacturing aids to basically offset what typically would have been made subtractively with CNC machines,” he says.
While additive manufacturing can’t singlehandedly solve manufacturers’ biggest problems such as supply chain disruptions or labor shortages, it can offer some solutions. In the case of the former, GSC worked with the Milwaukee Police Department to 3D print a needed part for ventilators that was hard to come by during the height of the pandemic.
In the area of talent, Schmidtke says no technology will offer a panacea, and the industry will always need tool-and-die makers and CNC operators. However, using additive manufacturing can allow for “offloading easy jobs to a machine that’s quietly sitting in the corner,” meaning machinists can put their talents to better use.
Educational programming expands
Northeast Wisconsin Technical College has had additive manufacturing equipment at the college for several years and offers two associate degree programs with additive components — mechanical design and prototype and design. This fall, the school will launch an additive manufacturing certificate program.
“It’s not just about the physical printing, it’s also about the new design techniques that you can use when you start moving to additive manufacturing,” says Jill Thiede, associate dean of trades and engineering technologies for NWTC.
The new certificate program could offer an exciting opportunity to incumbent workers who want to add to their skill sets, Thiede says. Ideally, those workers could gain experience making and printing designs and then take those skills to their company and show them how they fit into the parts they’re trying to build, allowing the business to identify new opportunities, markets and customers.
Amy Kox, dean of trades and engineering technologies at NWTC, says perceptions of the manufacturing industry have improved over the years, but it’s still not seen as a “sexy career.” Additive manufacturing helps build the cool, digital factor and is exciting for many young students, she says. That’s part of the reason NWTC President Jeff Rafn came to Kox and Thiede 18 months ago and told them he wanted the school to become a center of excellence for additive manufacturing.
“It’s that balancing act of what is our program that we’ve built and that we know creates these successful employees, and then what is the newer technology … that we want to infuse in there so that it excites those students, and it’s a benefit to the employers in our region when they have those skills and have that inspiration that they can bring with them,” Kox says.
Fox Valley Technical College also uses additive manufacturing as part of its course work in its manufacturing engineering technology program. The school has a design lab that has 3D printers ranging from basic to a liquid printing machine to a laser engraver.
This fall, FVTC will offer two one-credit courses — one on how to build your own 3D printer and one on troubleshooting and improving 3D printing. The classes are designed to be community outreach offerings at campuses throughout FVTC’s district.
Within FVTC’s programs, the learning goes deeper. Janet Braun, manufacturing operations department chair, says students in her program learn the Japanese technique of poka-yoke, which means mistake proofing, and 3D printing offers a valuable tool. “Being able to actually design that and print it and then try it to see if it works is a really great experience for them,” she says.
FVTC mechanical design instructor Dana Timm says the employers FVTC works with want students who are confident working with 3D printing. “Our advisory board is really looking for students that have the comfort, have the ability, have the understanding (to work with these technologies).”