When to use 3D printing for mass production

12 May 2022 | IZZY DE LA GUARDIA

Additive manufacturing has come a long way since the 1980s. Though many believe the value of 3D printing lies in its prototyping capabilities, designers and engineers know that it can be helpful in other situations, notably mass production. 3D printing for mass manufacturing can unlock new products, cut costs, and accelerate production, but you must make sure it’s the best choice for your project.

When is 3D printing good for mass production?

You should consider using 3D printing for mass production if:

1. You need to produce customised goods

Recent studies show that 50 percent of consumers are interested in buying customised products, and many companies are scrambling to adopt a customisation business model to meet demand. Unfortunately, mass customisation isn’t easy with a manufacturing method like injection moulding, which requires expensive tooling and a new mould for each product design.

With 3D printing, creating a personalised part is simply a matter of transferring the design data to the printer and printing it — no extra steps or new tooling required. As a result, mass-producing a customised product won’t necessarily take more time, energy, material, or money than printing a standard, non-custom product.

2.You need to start or shift production quickly

Traditional injection moulding tooling makes starting and shifting production slow and expensive. Tooling time increases lead times, whereas 3D printers can start production immediately. Plus, when shifting production, not only will your manufacturing partner need to invest more money towards creating new tooling, but you'll also have to wait for the new tooling before they can start production.

If you use 3D printing for your mass production needs, your partner can simply stop current prints, upload a different digital file, and continue production quickly instead of waiting several weeks for a new mould. Either way, you’ll be able to stay on top of changes in consumer demand and quickly rectify any design or manufacturing errors.

3. You need to meet variable demand

When faced with surges in demand, your 3D printing partner can use more printers to mass produce your parts and seamlessly accommodate higher-volume needs. Similarly, it’s easy to reduce production as demand falls or a product reaches its end of life by using fewer printers.

This also means you won’t be left with a stash of unused products whenever demand dies down, eliminating the fuel, costs, energy, and labor associated with transporting and storing products in warehouses. You can even continue to provide consumers with spare parts after a product has reached the end of its life, which wouldn’t be cost-effective with a manufacturing method like injection moulding.

4. You’re planning a low-volume production run

Executing low-volume production runs with a manufacturing method like injection moulding results in a high cost-per-part, a lower profit margin, and long lead times. 3D printing can help you bring a product to market faster, and you can produce parts cost-effectively no matter the size of your production run. When 3D printing, you won’t need to create hundreds or thousands of parts to achieve a reasonable cost-per-part, so you can start turning a profit with fewer parts.

5. You have a complex part that would be otherwise unmakeable

Since 3D printing technology isn’t restricted by tool access, undercuts, or draft angle, additive allows you to mass-produce parts that would otherwise be impossible to make due to their geometry. For example, you can 3D print complex lattice structures to create parts with high strength-to-weight ratios, excellent shock absorption, high impact resistance, and vibration dampening. You can even create moving assemblies; hollow, walled objects; and fractals.

Plus, you can consolidate complex parts into a single design with 3D printing and eliminate the need for assembly later on. Part consolidation is less expensive, uses less material, and lowers your risk of project or supply chain delays.

Obstacles to 3D printing for mass production

3D printing has the potential to revolutionise mass production, but there are still some challenges to overcome. Mass-producing products using 3D printing can be difficult for some parts because the tolerances are not as tight as can be achieved with traditional methods like CNC machining and injection moulding. 3D printing also offers more limited material options compared to traditional manufacturing processes, though many 3D printing companies have expanded their selections of cost-competitive and high-performing engineering materials over the past decade to better fit industry applications.

While many engineers know design for manufacturing (DFM) best practices for older technologies like injection moulding and CNC machining, they may not be as familiar with DFM for specific 3D printing technologies. Taking the time to develop optimised designs and manufacturing processes can improve part consistency and accuracy, as you’ll be able to reduce defects and standardise print conditions as much as possible. You’ll also want to have monitoring capabilities to identify precision problems and better control product quality.

Luckily, you don’t have to go it alone. An experienced additive manufacturing partner will have all of these tools at their disposal to ensure you get the best possible part each and every time.

Starting high-volume production with 3D printing

Although 3D printing has become more mainstream in recent years, many product teams lack the expertise required to get the most out of these technologies. After all, the idea of using 3D printing for mass production is relatively new, so many companies hit a few roadblocks when navigating high-volume 3D printing for the first time.

A knowledgeable 3D printing partner can help you get started on the right foot. Not only will they be able to answer any questions you have, but they can help minimise errors, increase part consistency, accelerate production, and design your parts for additive. As you evaluate production partners, look for a manufacturer with a wide range of 3D printing capabilities and deep expertise in order to ensure you’re selecting the right technology for your project and fully harnessing the benefits 3D printing has to offer.

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