3D printing in manufacturing: the best guide for 2023

September 2, 2023

By Jeff wei

3D printing in manufacturing has seen tremendous growth recently as the technology has evolved from solely prototyping to enabling end-use production across diverse industries. Aerospace, automotive, medical device sectors are increasingly adopting 3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM) for short-run and high-volume manufacturing applications.

Compared to subtractive techniques like machining that remove material, 3D printing builds up components layer-by-layer directly from digital CAD models without the need for hard tooling. This unlocks game-changing advantages including greater design freedom, rapid prototyping, economical short runs, supply chain flexibility and minimized waste. However, scaling up rapidly and cost-effectively remains a key challenge.

With exponential growth predicted over the next decade, 3D printing promises to fundamentally transform manufacturing as technologies continue maturing. From early roots in prototyping, additive techniques have the potential to truly revolutionize production across applications ranging from concept modeling to full-scale end-use part manufacturing. With numerous benefits in design flexibility, supply chain resilience and accessible production, 3D printing is forging the future of manufacturing.

Traditional casting is a very common manufacturing method, the advent of 3D printing technology has taken the traditional casting industry to a new level, and the following diagram will help you understand it at once.

casting method with 3D printing technology
Traditional casting method vs. casting method with 3D printing technology

Evolution of 3D Printing Technology

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), refers to processes used to synthesize three-dimensional objects by depositing materials layer-by-layer based on digital 3D model data. The technology has evolved significantly over the past decades:

  • 1980s: Stereolithography (SLA) developed using photopolymers cured by ultraviolet lasers to build objects. Focus on rapid prototyping applications.
  • 1990s: Introduction of fused deposition modeling (FDM) extrusion-based system and binder jetting for coloring 3D printed parts. Materials expanded beyond polymers.
  • 2000s: Powder-bed selective laser sintering/melting (SLS/SLM) and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) processes commercialized for printing functional metal parts. Bioprinting emerges.
  • 2010s: High-speed multi-laser metal 3D printers developed for production applications. Hybrid manufacturing combining 3D printing and CNC machining. Growth of online 3D printing services.
  • 2020s: Ongoing innovation in new materials like high-temperature alloys, multi-material printing, and integrating automation, AI, robotics and IoT for smart digital manufacturing using 3D printing.

3D printing has graduated from solely prototyping to enabling end-use production across aerospace, medical, automotive, and consumer industries today.

3D Printing in Production

3D printing is no longer restricted to prototyping and continues expanding into end-use short-run and high-volume production:

Small batch Manufacturing 

For lower volume production of up to 1000s of end-use parts, 3D printing enables:

  • Eliminating high tooling costs for short production runs
  • Economically producing customized and complex geometries
  • On-demand manufacturing driven by orders rather than forecasting
  • Simplifying and consolidating components through part integration
  • Supply chain flexibility and lean inventories

Mass produce

For mass production of over 10,000s of parts, 3D printing offers:

  • Cost-effective rapid tooling like molds, jigs and fixtures without delays of traditional tooling
  • Continuous self-optimized production through closed-loop monitoring and adaptive control
  • Easy part customization by modifying digital files
  • Production line flexibility by switching part designs digitally
  • Digital warehousing and inventory tracking of print files rather than physical storage

For both low and high volume contexts, 3D printing provides advantages over conventional subtractive techniques.

3D printing in manufacturing: sand moulds for small batch casting

What are the advantages of using 3D printing in manufacturing?

Numerous benefits offered by 3D printing include:

1. Reduced Costs

  • Eliminates high tooling expenses for short production runs
  • Optimized geometries with less material use lowers costs
  • Cost-effectively produces customized and complex parts

2. Reduced Risk

  • Modifiable designs without tooling lock-in reduces risk of design changes
  • Digital inventory reduces risk of demand fluctuations and overproduction

3. Lower Cost of Failure and Faster Speeds

  • Failed prints incur material loss only unlike scrap tooling. New iterations printable rapidly without re-tooling.

4. Reduced Time-to-Market

  • 3D printable prototypes shorten concept-to-market cycles from years to months
  • Simplifies and speeds up tooling processes like jigs, fixtures, inspection gauges

5. Rapidly Go from Concept to Object

  • CAD models are directly printable eliminating delays of tooling fabrication and assembly lines
  • Allows rapid design validation through functional 3D printed prototypes

6. Unlimited Part Complexity

  • Intricate geometries like lattices, internal voids are producible without manufacturability constraints

7. Reduced Material Waste

  • Additive approach deposits material only where needed unlike wasteful subtractive machining

8. On-Demand Production Without Large Inventories

  • Enables just-in-time printing of parts based on orders rather than forecast-driven tooling
  • Digitally storable and transmittable design files instead of physical warehousing
  • In summary, 3D printing transforms design, tooling, inventory and economic feasibility paradigms for manufacturing.
3D printing technology simplifies the production process.
3D printing technology simplifies the production process.

The table below is a comparison and analysis of application cases, from which you can understand the difference between traditional manufacturing methods and those that incorporate 3D printing technology, both in terms of cost and efficiency, the benefits of 3D printing technology are obvious.

Automotive CylinderWater Jacket Sand MoldDiesel Engine Block
TechnologyTraditional TechnologyDesign → Metal mold → Casting → Machining → Assembly → Bench test verificationIt needs to make separate metal molds for water jacket and air duct, and then cast them separately.Design → Wooden mold → Sanding → Casting → Machining → Assembly → Bench test verification
3D Printing Design → 3D printing sand mold → Casting → Machining → Assembly → Bench test verificationWater jacket and airway can be formed in one pieceDesign → 3D printing sand mold → Casting → Machining → Assembly → Bench test verification
Advantages3D printing technology saves the process steps of opening molds and shortens the process flow.Breakthrough the traditional process limit, realize the sand mold integrated molding, optimize the process flow.3D printing technology saves the process steps of opening molds and shortens the process flow.
EfficiencyTraditional Manufacturing3-4 months1 month3 months
3D Printing Combined with Manufacturing1 month (2 weeks for the first one)7-10 days (2 days pre-design+2 days printing+1 day assembly +5 days casting)1 month
Advantages3D printing can significantly reduce the production cycle time and save about 60% of the time cost.3D printing can significantly reduce the production cycle time and save about 60% of the time cost.3D printing can significantly reduce the production cycle time and save about 70% of the time cost.
CostAdvantagesCompared with the traditional production process, “3D printing + casting” process, the cost can save more than 10%.
QualityAdvantagesCan meet the quality requirements of small batch trial production1. Traditional manufacturing, manual molding accuracy is generally ±1-2mm, casting accuracy can reach CT8-9 casting standards.
2. 3D printing technology to produce sand mold printing accuracy of ± 0.3-0.5mm, the accuracy of its castings can reach CT7-8 standards.
3. 3D printing + casting, the accuracy of the castings obtained is higher.
Comparison and analysis of application cases

What are the current challenges of using 3D printing for mass production?

While promising, scaling up 3D printing faces challenges:

  • Printer build speed and reliability must improve significantly for high volume production
  • Materials property consistency and certification lags conventional processes currently
  • Limitations exist on object size and unprintable geometries depending on technology used
  • Lack of design standards for additive manufacturing requires workforce re-skilling
  • Upfront printer investment costs deter adoption for small businesses without assured volumes
  • Post-processing bottlenecks like depowdering and surface finishing need automation

How can 3D printing meet the challenges and benefit manufacturing industry?

The technology limitations can be overcome through focused efforts:

  • Novel multi-laser and multi-material printing systems to enhance speed and capabilities
  • Advanced fusion and extrusion techniques to improve consistency and accuracy
  • New generations of 3D printing machines with larger build platforms
  • Expanding material options through alloy development and materials science
  • Stronger industry-academia linkages and training programs to develop additive manufacturing expertise
  • Digitally-integrated modular micro-factories to de-risk volume commitments for SMEs
  • End-to-end digital integration using IoT, analytics and automation for smart additive manufacturing
  • With ongoing innovation and convergence, 3D printing will become faster, cost-effective and reliable at scale.

What problems does 3D printing solve that traditional manufacturing can’t or is difficult to solve?

Here are some key problems that 3D printing can solve that are difficult with traditional manufacturing:

  • Complex geometries:3D printing facilitates intricate organic shapes, lattices, hollow/conformal channels easily versus limited geometries using machining or molding.
  • Customized/small batch production – Economical short runs of customized parts are feasible with 3D printing by avoiding high tooling costs of traditional processes.
  • Faster design iterations:New design versions are 3D printable within hours or days rather than waiting weeks or months for retooling.
  • Just-in-time production:3D printing enables on-demand manufacturing driven by orders rather than forecast-dependent tooling.
  • Part consolidation:Assemblies can be optimized by consolidating components into one 3D printed part, eliminating assembly.
  • Zero tooling:3D printing constructs objects directly from digital files without needing physical tools like jigs, fixtures, molds etc.
  • Distributed production:Compact 3D printers allow localized production near demand without centralized mass manufacturing.
  • Supply chain resilience:Digital part transmission and on-site printing provides flexibility to supply chain disruptions.
  • Sustainability:Optimized lightweight designs, minimal waste from additive process and digital inventories provide sustainability benefits.

In summary, 3D printing facilitates designs, economics, speed, flexibility and capabilities difficult to achieve with conventional subtractive and formative manufacturing processes.

Typical applications of 3D printing in the manufacturing industry

3D printing solves several pain points in manufacturing:

  • Producing intricate functional prototypes weeks faster than CNC machining
  • On-demand production of service and replacement parts without tooling costs
  • Economical custom devices like dental aligners tailored to individual patient anatomy
  • Direct manufacturing of complex heat exchangers, lattice structures completely by additive printing
  • Just-in-time printing of tools like jigs, fixtures, gauges accelerating production ramp-up
  • On-site repair of damaged equipment by printing spare parts rapidly from digital scans
  • Flexible mass customization by economically printing varied designs suited to regional needs
  • Manufacturing specialized components on-demand for aerospace, defense, medical sectors
  • Distributed manufacturing with minimal tooling by locating compact 3D printers closer to demand

What are the future development trends of 3D printing and the prospect analysis?

Future opportunities for additive manufacturing include:

  • High-speed multi-laser and multi-material systems combined with robotic post-processing for volume production
  • New specialized alloys, polymers and composites will expand printable materials
  • Automation, IoT and analytics will tightly integrate 3D printing with digital supply chains
  • Hybrid manufacturing combining 3D printing, CNC machining, robotics in one platform
  • Democratized access to advanced manufacturing capabilities through cloud-based digital micro-factories
  • More sustainable production with optimally designed lightweight parts, minimal waste and energy use
  • Mainstream design thinking and curriculum adapted for additive manufacturing principles
  • Customized and distributed manufacturing integrated using AI, ML and blockchain technologies

With exponential growth predicted over the next decade, 3D printing promises to fundamentally transform manufacturing as technologies continue maturing.

Conclusion

From early roots in prototyping, 3D printing is evolving into a disruptive digital manufacturing paradigm enabling on-demand, customized and distributed production. As hardware, materials and processing limitations are overcome through convergent innovation, additive techniques will transform business models across the global manufacturing landscape. 3D printing will accelerate the transition towards flexible, resilient and democratized Industry 4.0 manufacturing ecosystems.

Despite its shortcomings, it is an indisputable fact that 3D printing continues to drive the development of the manufacturing industry, and all we can do is to embrace the new technology, learn from it, and make it work for us to improve productivity and reduce production costs.

In addition, you can pay attention to the process of “binder jetting 3D printing”, which will play a very important role in manufacturing, as we will discuss later. Meanwhile, the casting sand 3DP printing technology has been widely used in industrial production, especially in the small batch and multi-variety production mode, you can click here to learn more about our sand 3D printers.

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Longyuan AFS Co., Ltd. is a leading provider of 3D printing equipment and manufacturing services in China, providing high-quality R&D pilot production and rapid manufacturing services for small-lot, multi-species and complex structure metal products based on the integrated technology of "3D printing, casting, machining and inspection".

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