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No new technology comes without its hype – from self-driving cars to chatbots. Of course, this can lead to feelings of frustration when investments don't live up to the promises.  

That’s why Claire Scott, Made Smarter’s additive manufacturing (AM) specialist, has decided to bust some of the myths surrounding this technology – and show you the tangible benefits it can bring to your business.

What is AM? 

Before Claire dives in, let’s briefly explain what AM actually is. It’s also known as 3D printing, and is the process of adding materials together to make physical objects from digital 3D models. Layers are added on top of each other until the product is finished. 

It’s one of several transformative technologies that are used to great effect in manufacturing. AM can create objects that are impossible to make with any other manufacturing process, and it can also reduce material waste and deliver products in different materials. 

Given its potential, AM is an incredibly topical subject. And, naturally, with a lot of talk and speculation comes plenty of myths. So, what are they and is there any truth to them? 

Myth busting: Top 5 additive manufacturing myths
  • Myth #1: AM is a fast process 

    People often believe that they can use AM to churn out lots of parts within a few days. Whilst lead times are shortening as the tech evolves, two of the main AM technologies used by SMEs – fused filament fabrication (FFF) and stereolithography (SLA) – can produce small batches of parts in varying time ranges. This could be anything from a couple of hours to a couple of days due to the limited size of the print area.  

    However, AMcan help reduce design life cycle times. Instead of going through several drawing reviews with customers, you can use a 3D printer to turn around the parts ready for feedback within a day or so. And, if you opt for a more advanced printer that can use more robust, engineering-grade materials, then functional prototypes can be producedtoo. This allows for rapid testing and gives you more confidence that the part will be fit for purpose.  

    What’s more, AM can be used for tooling – whether that’s jigs and fixtures or tooling forlow volume production. If you want to make something that will be injection moulded, for instance, you could print the forming tool once you’ve designed your product.  A good example of this in practice can be viewed here.  

    AM can additionally cut lead times in other ways. Providing temporary spare parts on-demand is something that will save a significant amount of money, getting you back up and running until a more permanent solution arrives.  

  • Myth #2: You can make anything you like

    When AM started hitting the headlines, manufacturers were given the impression that it would solve all their challenges. This is not true. However, AM is certainly a powerful tool in the manufacturer’s toolset – and one of many that can help you to make products.  

    Each AM technology has its own set of design rules. To use it effectively, you should learn how to design for additive manufacture (DfAM)  just as you would to make parts using injection moulding or CNC machining.  

    With over 40 different types of AM technologies, spanning five material types (metals, composites, bio-inks, polymers, and ceramics or cements), you need to follow specific design rules to attain a successful print time after time.   

  • Myth #3: It will replace your workers

    This myth plays on the fear that any technology will deskill employees and make certain jobs redundant. I think you’ll be pleased to know that this isn’t true at all. AM can empower your people, allowing them to solve their problems quicky – for example, they will have the ability to print a spare part for the production line, meaning things are back up and running promptly. The time saving benefits are huge here, and employee motivation and morale can also see a positive impact.  

    They do often need to be upskilled though. Specifically, they need to be able to use the technology, willing to learn how to take the concept or idea to generate the design models, and understand the post-processing requirements. 

    This workflow diagram demonstrates this perfectly. 

  • Myth #4: AM is only for large manufacturers 

    Perhaps you’ve read about a business that has saved millions via AM, or theyve released a new product that brings multiple parts together into one single component. Doesn’t feel relevant for your small business, does it? Well, there are actually many ways in which an SME can adopt AM – it’s not just for large manufacturers or big businesses. 

    If you’re a startup or micro business, investing in an entry-level printer could set you back only a few hundred pounds, and is an excellent way to begin exploring the technology. It can also be fairly intuitive to use, so may not require too much training investment. A more advanced machine which can be used for prototyping and tooling currently start at costs around £10,000. Support and guidance from Made Smarter can help with this kind of investment, from deciding on the right option for your business, to grant funding when you are ready to make a purchase.  

    As you can see, its still perfectly possible to take advantage of some of the benefits of AM until your business is in a position to invest further.  

  • Myth #5: The technology isn’t mature enough

    This one, I admit, might not actually be a myth – it depends on your application. Having said this, the technology has moved beyond ‘just for prototyping and it can also be used for final-use parts. 

    Take the example of stop motion model makers Mackinnon and Saunders. They’re looking at using the technology to rapidly manufacture puppets for Hollywood films. This would make it possible to easily export the moulds online to clients all over the world, who can then print them out locally – cutting out transport costs and delays.  

    “Being an early adopter of these new technologies could put the company in pole position to capitalise on new products and markets. The use of AM will ensure that the company does not lose ground to major competitors overseas, such as those in the US.” – Peter Saunders, Co-Founder of Mackinnon and Saunders  

    As the technology matures even further, the use of AM for end-use parts will only grow. So I suggest keeping an ear out for any advancements, and establishing links with universities that are developing the technology.

  • How to avoid falling into these myths 

    Now we’ve busted all the myths, it’s just a case of ensuring you don’t fall into any of them. To help you avoid the rabbit hole, we recommend: 

    Effective planning and preparation  

    Identify a suitable application for AM, and confirm that it addresses some of your key business challenges. The Made Smarter team can give you an idea of costs and help determine the best applications for your needs. Then, create an adoption plan with all the necessary steps – from appointing a digital champion to having regular discussions with your team – as well as pinpoint what’s needed to facilitate change, ultimately supporting you through your adoption journey.   

    Develop your employees 

    Invest in staff training and development so that your team will be familiar with both the advantages and limitations of AM. This enables your business to recognise potential applications sooner. 

    Take a ‘trial and error’ approach 

    Don’t be afraid to test out the technology. Remember, you can’t expect premium results from a low-cost machine – so don’t immediately write it off as a waste either. Tweak, refine, and find the right fit for your business. 

    Reach out  

    Find a suitable research or manufacturing partner who can work with you to perform small-scale trials and confirm that you’re on the right track for adoption. These include: 

  • Speak to Made Smarter

    If youre interested in exploring AM, or any other industrial digital technology solution, but you’re not sure where to start, turn to Made Smarter. Seeking our impartial technology advice and funding support is the ideal first step.  

    Register your business and one of our advisers will be in touch to discuss the digital solutions to meet your specific needs.  

    Claire Scott is an AM specialist at Made Smarter. She works with SMEs to identify the right AM solutions for their business, and supports them through the adoption process. Claire has worked with AM and engineering simulation for over 12 years, chiefly within the aerospace industry.

     

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