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Additive Manufacturing Adds up in Many Ways

Rapid prototyping using technologies that build parts layer by layer, aka additive manufacturing or 3D printing, has been around for a couple of decades. It is a standard means of nimbly designing and checking parts against customer needs.

Though there are more technologies now than there were in the early days, the practice of using any of them to produce prototypes in rapid, iterative cycles is not new. The technologies have also been used in final production of custom parts. For example, orthodontia, prosthetics, and aerospace components are high-value products that lend themselves to custom-friendly 3D-printing technologies.

Additive manufacturing (AM) technologies are also being used throughout the product development lifecycle. Through conversations with our MEP Centers, I learned that engineers at the Centers have been helping small and medium-sized manufacturers tackle some very interesting problems using AM technologies.

Products that will be fabricated by traditional or even advanced manufacturing techniques can be represented for a variety of purposes using AM. For example, a microscopic product can be zoomed out into one that folks can demonstrate and fiddle with to imagine how it can interact with other parts. Likewise, AM can help to shrink a very large, clumsy product into one that can fit in your hand, so you can again demonstrate, fiddle with, and imagine. Such scaled up or down models can support sales and marketing, and other non-engineering purposes such as attracting investors.

Products to be fabricated using conventional techniques will need tooling that sometimes is tough to imagine with only a 2D image from a design software. AM printed tools created for specific molds, spools, dies, feeders can help engineers more cost-effectively and quickly arrive at the best tool geometry for the job. It can also help test out the overall manufacturing process that the tool fits within.

An unexpected application for AM came up when an MEP Center engineer was trying to convince a manufacturer that a piece of an assembly could be made from plastic instead of a more expensive metal and still be acceptable to the customer. By quickly fashioning the substitute using AM, he demonstrated that plastic wasn’t as flimsy as expected and the customer would have not only the right feel, but a more affordable product. The manufacturer was able to confidently shift to plastic using old-school injection molding which otherwise would have been cost-prohibitive to demonstrate to the customer.

It is great to know that our MEP Centers are leveraging AM in many ways for unconventional purposes, including ways that fit within a conventional manufacturing environment. From testing for usability and functionality, to figuring out how products will be assembled, AM is a versatile, exciting technology that can help a smaller manufacturer creatively improve their products and their processes, while building their bottom line.

About the author

Clara Asmail

Clara Asmail develops new approaches to support small R&D and manufacturing businesses with resources to commercialize technologies. Her 25+ year career at NIST includes managing the SBIR Program and Technology Transfer, and leader of optical scatterometry research projects. One of her inventions is the highest royalty bearing license at the NIST Labs.

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You wrote an article dated April 30, 2013 that appears in the Manufacturing Innovation Blog regarding This is not your child's paper mache. I've read, and re-read your first paragraph searching for where I might go to a Staples store in Arizona, California, or Washington (state) to have them print a paper 3D item for our 501(c)(3) public charity, named School Author Visits, Inc. Our item should be simple to make, it is rectangular in shape with only one side having an outward, gentle curve (convex), all other surfaces are simply flat and straight. Dimensions: 10.25" x 13.375" x 3.375" in depth. Depending on cost we'd like to have hundreds made and ask for donations to help us carry on our mission: "We inspire students to read, write, and create" Sincerely, Larry W. James President/Founder Author/Artist Singer/Songwriter 480.823.KIDS (5437)
Great article, found it informative. Looking forward to read more.
Thanks for this very informative article Clara! I think there is huge potential here, especially for small manufacturers eager to get into 3D printing technology – primarily from a production engineering angle. Most of the interest in 3D Printing has focused around prototyping and the manufacture of components during product development. However for small manufacturing businesses their true value may be better represented with the less obvious production of jigs, fixtures and other manufacturing tooling. Importantly in terms of justifying the cost of a printer, if you can show the (costed) time reduction 3D printed jigs and fixtures can deliver, you are far more likely to convince more hard headed senior managers. I explain some practical help for small manufacturers eager to progress, as there isn't really huge amounts available on-line for engineers who want to hit the ground running Hope you enjoy it! Mark Lynch Advice Manufacturing

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