Additive manufacturing: a sourcing solution

Picture of John Denslinger
John Denslinger is a former executive VP Murata, president SyChip Wireless, and president/CEO ECIA, the industry’s trade association. His career spans 40 years in electronics

This month John Denslinger looks at the growing influence of 3D printed components in the manufacturing supply chain.

Across the industrial spectrum, sourcing 3D printed components is on an upward trend. Once relegated to single-use jigs, fixtures and the occasional prototype builds, it’s now a viable sourcing option for end-use functionality.

From the beginning, the pandemic created troublesome gaps in supply lines. That same unpredictability continues today as a Delta variant rages on in many parts of the industrialised world. Indiscriminate closures and labour shortages are surfacing once again. Given this uncertainty, procurement should consider 3D printing solutions as a supplement to current production shortages or perhaps replacing chronic delivery problem suppliers altogether.

The picture keeps getting better and better for 3D printing. Perhaps it’s time to make the argument 3D printing is merely the tool, while it’s sparsely used alter-ego—additive manufacturing—more aptly describes the current adoption and coverage reality from product concept through EoL.

The role of additive manufacturing can be expanded within most production systems. However, the key to optimal adoption begins with proven 3D printable materials. While research continues on more exotic options, a variety of polymers, plastics, composites, metals, ceramics and glass already have successful track records. The material scope is bound to explode as application technology, equipment, and production expertise catch up.

If your company is not ready to establish in-house 3D printing design and support systems, out-sourcing is available, and not surprisingly, there are multiple pathways. The most obvious path is contract manufacturing. Jabil and Flex have done a great job highlighting their additive manufacturing expertise, scale, finishing services and range of material capabilities on their websites. Other CMs likely have similar capabilities, so it’s worth checking around. This avenue also offers a distributed manufacturing platform and global services if that is a need as well. If not, another viable path are companies that strictly specialise in additive manufacturing. A few like ProtoLabs, Fictiv and Rapidmade offer both synthetic and metal 3D printing in prototype and production quantities.

So, how do I choose the right supplier for my situation? First, check the supplier’s design capability, knowledge of materials and record of successful applications. Next, understand their scale and experience in additive manufacturing especially if you seek production level quantities. Some secondary operations may be necessary to finish a 3D printed part for end use, such as, machining, plating, polishing and/or painting. If that is a need, confirm that capability and explore your own in-house resources. Lastly, map their supply chain. The last thing you need is to source 3D printing as a solution to your own supply line gap only to experience another disaster.

The value of 3D printed parts is projected to grow at a compound annual rate of 15 per cent through 2030 to $51B according to Boston-based, Lux Research, and that number may be conservative if we add the eco-friendly/sustainability benefits of 3D printing recycled materials.

Given the flexibility, customisation and potential cost savings of 3D printing over conventional injection molding, casting and machining, additive manufacturing is an indispensable sourcing solution.