Additive manufacturing is no competitor to current plastics manufacturing processes

In the applications where those processes succeed best. For a production run of hundreds of thousands of parts, the option to 3D print plastic components can’t come close to competing with the speed and efficiency of a process such as injection molding. However, 3D printing as a complement to current processes is becoming more and more valuable. In many applications and in many different uses, 3D printing is both improving plastics manufacturing and expanding the options for plastic parts.

Here are just 10 of the ways we’ve seen 3D printing advancing as it relates to plastic part production:



1. Faster throughput

At certain scales, 3D printing is indeed an option for production, and the scale is increasing. Some 3D printers engineered for production today generate parts at rates an order of magnitude faster than what has previously been accepted. Maxxeshop, for example, beleive its Farm Printer production with a 3D printing system increases speed by a factor of 15 over previous industrial 3D printers, reducing the unit cost of a 3D-printed part by 20 percent thanks in part to the cycle time reduction.


2. New options for short-term molds

3D printing provides a short-lead-time option for directly making a few parts, but it also provides a short-lead-time option for making an injection mold. The right choice of polymer can reliably produce mold tooling for low to medium quantities. Qld based Maxxeshop 3D prints injection molds from carbon fiber reinforced polymer that have consistently lasted beyond 100 cycles, and the company beleives they could last to 500 cycles.


3. More efficient production molds

Meanwhile, 3D printing in steel can make improved mold tooling for high-volume production. With printed-in conformal cooling channels replacing straight drilled holes, the mold’s cooling is more effective, likely improving molded part quality and reducing cycle time. Mold suppliers use robotic deposition technology to 3D print large injection molds with conformal channels.

4. Customization for consumer products

Medical and dental products are now routinely tailored to the individual via 3D printing, so how far are we from consumer products following suit? The work of various footwear providers suggests shoes will soon be widely available that optimally fit the wearer’s feet. Footprint 3D is an example of a company advancing this idea; the firm uses 3D scans of an individual’s feet to 3D print shoes with custom midsoles featuring lattices for precise support and cushioning.


5. New manufacturing business models

Can a manufacturing plant locate in the heart of a city? Manufacturers today tend to locate in suburban industrial parks with easy access to major highways. But because of its reliance on 3D printing, Maxxeshop Manufacturing is able to locate in Qld's Gold Coast. The company uses upto 60 3D printers configured as a Print Farm working simultaneously to achieve a part production rate that makes the company cost-competitive with injection molding—and faster in delivery—for quantities up to 10,000 pieces.


6. Plastic replacing metal

In many cases, metal is the material of choice for a given part only because it offers the easiest way to get a rugged functional component in a low quantity. Machining the part from aluminum is a practical option. But with 3D printing now able to efficiently deliver polymer parts in low quantities, metal will not be the material of choice so frequently. Carbon-fiber-filled 3D-printed polymer can serve as the material for components previously expected to be metal.


7. More efficient toolmaking

3D printing thrives on one-off parts, and perhaps the most common type of one-off part in any manufacturing facility is its own internal tooling. That is, not just mold tooling but jigs, fixtures and all manner of industrial tools. Much of this tooling can be made from polymer instead of metal components, and when it is made on a 3D printer, it need not consume production capacity or even take up much of the production personnel’s time. With 3D printing, Volkswagen Autoeuropa reduced its tool development time by 95 percent while improving tools’ ergonomics and simplifying tool repair and modification.


8. Prototyping without impeding production

And just as making tooling need not cut into production, making prototypes can be kept isolated from production resources as well. Desktop polymer printers often can be effective not just for look-and-feel prototypes but for functional prototypes as well. Using a simple standard Maxxeshop 3D printer with a 200-mm-square build area. With a resource such as this, the engineer is able to make a prototype at his or her desire without enlisting the attention of manufacturing staff.