Working Together: 3D Printing Expands Efficiencies in Traditional Manufacturing

For thousands of years, parts have largely been built in two ways: formative manufacturing, which includes processes like injection molding and casting, and subtractive manufacturing, like CNC machining.

The rise of 3D printing, also referred to as additive manufacturing, offers a new way to create parts, allowing engineers to rethink how they design and even prototype parts and products faster. Some even argue 3D printing technology will eventually replace traditional manufacturing technologies altogether.
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But it doesn’t have to be an either-or approach. What most people aren’t aware of is the many ways to effectively use both additive and traditional methods in tandem:

Building better patterns: Many traditional processes like investment or urethane casting require a master pattern that is typically CNC-machined. Additive processes like Stereolithography (SL) and even Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) in some cases can be used as an alternative, resulting in complex patterns that do not require time for multiple setups or the cost of secondary operations common for those that are machined. Additive manufacturing can also be used to consolidate multiple components into a single design, cutting down on the total number of patterns needed.

Improving tool production:

Additive manufacturing allows you to build complex tools on demand, with designs based on functionality, not on cost or lead time. In addition to design flexibility and lower costs, you can amass a digital inventory and print new tools on demand instead of holding on to expensive, outdated parts and equipment. This virtual catalog reduces inventory, freeing up storage space and lowering overhead costs.

Making product development more efficient:

The sooner you finalize a product’s design, the faster you can make it en masse using a traditional manufacturing method like injection molding. Functional testing is required for most prototypes, and industries like medical device manufacturing require clinical trials to determine a product’s efficacy. Using 3D printing for testing prototypes helps to validate designs faster. When using injection molding during the prototyping phase, often times tooling modifications are required before establishing the final design. With 3D printing, there are no tools to redesign and modify, saving time and money early on. Just update the design file and a new prototype can be printed immediately.

Creating a bridge to tooling:

Injection molding tools take time—weeks to months—to build, delaying when a product gets to market. 3D printed parts are available in a matter of days. Relying on additive manufacturing for the first run of production parts allows companies to bring products to the market faster and create revenue while waiting for molding steel or aluminum tools for injection molding. Small companies can also employ 3D printing to create and sell their first products to raise the capital to invest in tooling later and eventually make items in larger quantities.

Increasing functionality of additive-manufactured parts:

Just as traditionally manufactured parts are improved when paired with additive manufacturing, 3D printed parts also benefit from the combination. Inserts such as magnets, nuts and bolts can be machined into FDM parts that are components of a larger assembly. CNC machining 3D printed parts can also enable you to achieve tight tolerances of certain features, resulting in highly precise parts that are still built in less time when compared with injection molding. Stratasys Direct Manufacturing recently used FDM to build large fuel tanks for Lockheed Martin. After the parts were completed, they were machined to meet the design’s critical dimensions.

While additive manufacturing has distinct advantages over traditional methods for certain applications, injection molding and machining aren’t going anywhere and are still viable and often the best choices for larger volume production. By knowing how and when to combine the new processes with the old ones, you will lower costs and improve your parts.

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