The top challenges in additive manufacturing and how to overcome them
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a relatively new technology, but it has already come a long way. Since its invention in the 1980s, 3D printing has become increasingly prevalent in the manufacturing industry, so much so that, in 2021, the global 3D printing market was valued at $12.6 billion, and expected to grow to $34.8 billion by 2026.
Although companies like Adidas and Rawlings have used 3D printing technology to create innovative new products, additive manufacturing continues to face adoption challenges at the industrial scale. Research suggests that 63% of enterprises that use additive manufacturing only use the technology for prototyping purposes, and just 21% use it to produce items that can’t be manufactured via other methods.
While additive manufacturing has clear benefits, including helping ease some of the COVID-19 supply chain strain by enabling companies to manufacture parts closer to end-users, many of the technology’s pre-pandemic challenges remain.
Common challenges in additive manufacturing
Production-grade 3D printers are much cheaper than industrial CNC machines or injection molding machines, but additive manufacturing equipment can still be costly. In fact, in a survey by Stratasys, 25% of respondents identified equipment costs as the top challenge when using additive manufacturing. That response is hardly surprising: saving up for the upfront cost of a 3D printer can take time, and most businesses need more than one to handle the volume of orders they receive, which means investing even more money. Some companies simply cannot justify the capital expenditure.
Then, there are the manufacturing and processing costs themselves. In the same Stratasys survey, 16% of respondents said the manufacturing costs associated with additive manufacturing were a top concern. While 3D printers are very autonomous, they still need someone to send the digital file to the printer, ensure the printer is configured correctly, and start the printing process. With multi-material fused deposition modeling (FDM) prints, someone may need to be on hand to swap filaments mid-print and, depending on the materials and printer being used, adjust the nozzle, print speed, retraction settings, and bed temperature. Finally, once a print is done, someone will need to remove any support structures and process the part to achieve a quality surface finish.
Beyond manufacturing and processing costs are additive equipment maintenance costs. 3D printers can break down without proper maintenance, leaving companies without new parts for days (or even weeks) as they wait for replacement parts to arrive. For FDM printers, maintenance can take the form of routinely adjusting belt tension and removing any accumulated plastic from the nozzle. Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) printers require regular printhead and heating lamp maintenance, which can cost thousands of dollars per year, and stereolithography (SLA) printers require regular resin tank maintenance or even replacement. Over time, these maintenance costs can certainly add up.
Additive manufacturing also presents challenges when prints are complete. Most 3D printed parts require some form of post-processing, which takes time and increases the overall labor and overhead costs per unit. For example, SLA parts are covered with viscous excess resin straight out of the printer, and need to be washed in a solvent. FDM parts often require sanding or vapor smoothing due to prominent layer lines or surface blemishes left behind by support structures. With those issues in mind, it’s hardly surprising that 9% of survey respondents named post-processing requirements as a top challenge to additive manufacturing.
It’s also worth noting that additive manufacturing is a much younger technology than traditional manufacturing methods. While injection molding and CNC machining have been used for decades, and already have a large database of compatible materials as well as globally-accepted material standards, additive manufacturing has a more limited selection of materials and fewer established material standards.
Fortunately, additive manufacturing is becoming more popular, and more businesses are investing in developing, standardizing, and qualifying additive materials. In fact, one of the major trends in additive manufacturing in 2021 was the introduction of novel additive materials. Eventually, this research will enable manufacturers to close the gap between additive manufacturing and other technologies. The establishment of globally accepted standards in various industries will also help additive manufacturing gain a stronger foothold in the manufacturing landscape.
Technical challenges to additive manufacturing
Compared to injection molding and CNC machining, additive manufacturing may have lower process predictability and repeatability. For example, additively manufactured parts often go through post-processing to improve their surface finish which, when not controlled properly, is prone to human error and can result in components that can’t meet tight tolerance requirements. This issue represents a challenge when it comes to using additive manufacturing within industries that require extremely high levels of accuracy, such as the aerospace or automotive sectors.
Even though additive manufacturing enables companies to print complex objects without additional assembly, post-processing techniques can lengthen turnaround times and stretch budgets. Furthermore, companies would likely need to invest in inspection and quality control resources to ensure that 3D printed parts comply with any required specifications.
Operational and organizational challenges with additive manufacturing
As a relatively new technology, additive manufacturing also faces operational and organizational challenges. Not only is there no precedent for adopting additive manufacturing at the operational level, but there are a lack of business- and cost-calculation models based on the technology. Many businesses are also wary of using 3D printing because they are uncertain about the ownership of digital designs.
Adding to those challenges, there are few dedicated educational tracks specifically for careers in additive manufacturing, which has resulted in a shortage of skilled personnel with deep knowledge of the technologies and processes. Those factors, combined with the typically limited knowledge of additive technologies in companies that do not specialize specifically in additive manufacturing, mean that many customers aren’t sure where it can add value to their business, so — often to their own detriment — they avoid it altogether.
Solving challenges by working with an experienced additive manufacturing partner
If you aren’t quite sure how to incorporate additive manufacturing into your business, can’t figure out how to design for 3D printing, or aren’t ready for the investments and technical challenges that come with having 3D printers of your own, it’s best to work with a manufacturing partner. An experienced 3D printing partner can help you overcome many of the top challenges associated with additive manufacturing, including upfront equipment costs, inconsistent results, and a lack of 3D printing knowledge. Working with a partner can also give you access to more additive materials and a more comprehensive range of post-processing options.
When you work with Fast Radius, we can provide insight into the design and material selection processes for additive manufacturing technologies, and even identify cost-saving opportunities to help you maximize your savings and profits. And with Fast Radius’ cloud-based software, you can detect design pitfalls with automated design for manufacturability (DFM) analysis, making it easier to iterate on your designs, bring them to life, and realize the benefits of additive manufacturing within your organization. How can you get started? Simply create an account and upload your part files or contact us to speak with an additive manufacturing expert today.
Check out our resource center to learn more about additive manufacturing, including 3D printing layer height, how additive manufacturing can help solve supply chain woes, and more.