As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced business leaders to navigate unfamiliar waters, the organizations that are surviving (and even thriving) are those that are innovating. According to reports from analysts such as McKinsey & Co., scalability — the ability to launch innovations in the right markets at the right magnitude — is crucial to postcrisis growth.
Scalability is where 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing, or AM), excels.
The scalability that manufacturers can achieve with AM enables them to streamline the manufacturing process in several ways.
1. Small-batch production
Today’s economy and markets are evolving at a dizzying rate — not only when it comes to technological advancements, but also in consumer trends and demands. Brands and companies must constantly launch new products or release updates to keep pace with consumers and stay ahead of the competition.
Since traditional manufacturing does not always allow for economical limited production runs, here’s where small-batch production, one of the many benefits of industrial 3D printing, comes in. Small-batch production represents AM’s bread and butter, outside of customized prototypes, and opens the door for many brands and companies to test products without the financial risks associated with investing in custom tooling for products that are new to the marketplace.
2. Testing capabilities
Scalability of a particular product allows companies to conduct testing— their use as well as consumer response — before printing or producing at scale, allowing them to project how the item will be received in a target market. Companies can also produce limited runs of a product (such as for seasonal or promotional needs).
Not only can brands and companies test consumer response, but they can also test product use and functionality — all without risking time, money, and other resources on large-scale manufacturing.
What’s more, the competitive cost of AM empowers companies to create varying iterations of designs. Rather than incurring the costs to create several thousand parts of different designs to determine which part design is best suited for the job at hand, AM allows companies to create multiple iterations to test before committing to mass production.
3. Short production times
The production times of AM facilitate rapid innovation, as companies can quickly test multiple designs before producing nonviable products on a large scale.
These accelerated production (and testing) schedules also shorten go-to-market times and improve bottom-line financials.
In fact, during one of the high-demand phases of the pandemic — between March and August 2020 — one-third of the nearly 48 million units of emergency medical supplies and personal protective equipment manufactured for health-care providers were produced using 3D printing. To help meet the global demand for PPE, additive manufacturers employed powder-bed fusion technologies capable of producing prototypes and end-use products in as little as one day.
Both scenarios demonstrate just how powerful and valuable AM can be, especially in terms of design flexibility and speed to market. Of course, a team of highly skilled individuals — including engineers, materials experts, and designers — is vital to successfully executing this disruptive technology. Such expertise is what maximizes AM’s capabilities in streamlining manufacturing processes.
What’s next: disruption
Although AM has become an increasingly popular choice for prototyping and small-batch production, the industry aims to become an even larger part of mass-scale projects. And as more and more manufacturers leverage AM for prototyping and small-batch production, 3D printing’s transition into mass production seems like a natural evolution.
Because of its agility, which is unmatched by traditional manufacturing methods, AM is proving to be a disruptive force — not just during the pandemic, but far beyond.