If you've visited an electronics manufacturing or engineering trade show in the past year or so, then you'll almost certainly have seen the diverse array of new technology designed to support additive manufacturing applications.
Additive manufacturing - or the process of using 3D data to make objects, layer by layer - is revolutionising the way in which organisations design and manufacture their products.
Within the context of the electronics manufacturing industry, for example, we're now seeing the creation of circuits and components that use a special conductive ink, built up over multiple minuscule layers, to create incredibly complex parts.
But while additive manufacturing processes such as 3D-printing can offer many advantages (flexibility of design, increased speed, waste reduction etc), there are also some limitations which may affect its suitability for your product.
In this blog post we'll take a closer look at the history of additive manufacturing applications, we'll explore the pros and cons of the process - and we'll consider the key questions to ask before you decide to dive into this new technology
The development of additive manufacturing
While additive manufacturing is often considered to still be in its infancy, the technology behind it has actually been around for more than forty years.
In 1981, Japanese researcher Hideo Kodama from the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute shared his findings on the development of a 'functional rapid-prototyping system' that enabled a solid printed model to be built up in layers.
And by the mid 1980s, the process of 3D-printing had taken another huge step forward with US inventor Charles Hull's invention of stereolithography.
This groundbreaking technology provided a way for digital data to be used to create tangible objects, by "slicing" a 3D blueprint model into literally thousands of digital cross-sections.
At the time, Hull was looking for a way to speed up the process of creating prototype parts, to aid the testing of new product designs. But it quickly became clear that this same technology could also be harnessed in the manufacture of final products.
So what benefits (and potential limitations) could there be for the application of 3D-printing within the electronics manufacturing industry?
The pros of 3D-printing
Flexibility of design
On the plus side there is the design freedom that 3D-printing can offer. And the more complicated the better. While many traditional manufacturing methods can often struggle with intricate designs or complex geometries, additive manufacturing is ideally suited to producing virtually any geometric configuration.
3D printing can greatly speed up the design process - giving you the ability to produce new prototypes in a matter of hours. And when modifications to a design are needed, it's possible to quickly and easily make the necessary changes.
Just in time capability
Additive manufacturing technology means you can print only what you need - which means you avoid being overstocked and you free up your inventory space.
Thermoplastics, or polymers are commonly used within the additive manufacturing process and weigh significantly less than their steel or aluminium counterparts.
The nature of additive manufacturing means that you're only ever using (and paying for) the material that you need to produce the part - which means not only less waste but also reduced material costs.
3D-printing - the cons
The need for additional assembly
Most industrial grade 3D printers have comparatively small build chambers, which means larger parts may need to be divided into sections and glued together in post-processing.
Many 3D parts will need to undergo some element of post-processing to clean up the surface finish - whether it's sanding, chemical rinsing, water-jetting or drying.
Risk of breakage
Additive manufacturing relies on printing in layers that adhere to one another, however this can also increase the risk of the layers separating or breaking when placed under certain stresses or orientations.
So could 3D-printing be the right choice for your product?
With that in mind, here are a few final questions to consider...
1. How complicated is your product or part?
Additive manufacturing is ideally suited to complex parts - and in many cases can provide a more cost effective option than conventional CNC printing methods.
2. Are you producing in low volume?
If you're looking to produce parts infrequently or in low volumes then 3D-printing could be an ideal solution.
3. Is your product high value?
If your product or part is a high value item, where the emphasis is on performance rather than cost then 3D-printing, could be a viable option.
4. Are you after a shorter manufacturing lead time?
Additive manufacturing removes the need for the creation of complex tooling - ensuring shorter lead times, reduced time getting products to market and lower costs.
5. Could your product benefit from customisation?
If it's important for you to be able to create new product offerings, or to customise for certain industries, then the flexible nature of 3D-printing could provide the answer.
6. Are you looking to reduce the number of parts?
Consolidating the number of parts in your design could offer sizeable savings in terms of tooling, manufacture and assembly costs. And the fewer the parts, the fewer things you have with the potential to go wrong.
There is no doubt that additive manufacturing applications offer some exciting opportunities when compared with conventional production methods.
However you will want to be sure that you're using the technology for the right reasons - and that it is truly offering you something different.
If in doubt, speak with your electronics manufacturing partner who will be able to advise you on the best plan of action for your product.