Rethinking Manufacturing with the Digital Factory
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Rethinking Manufacturing with the Digital Factory

By Menno Ellis, Senior Vice President & General Manager, Plastics, 3D Systems

With the advent of 3D printing, the manufacturing industry embarked on another industrial revolution. We’ve seen tremendous opportunities for additive technologies to complement traditional technologies, enabling manufacturers to transform their workflows and produce parts that were either not achievable before, or not economical. Innovations in 3D printing hardware have enabled greater precision, repeatability, and productivity. Combine this with material innovations that yield a broader set of properties, and you have the necessary ingredients allowing 3D printing to address a range of applications in the product development cycle – from prototyping to production.

"Using 3D printing, UNYQ has been able to redefine not only how these devices are created, but also to create an aesthetically beautiful yet practical end product"

In that respect, you can look at these innovations as the next step of traditional factories becoming increasingly digital; cost-effectively turning out single-use and durable parts in a more agile and efficient operating environment. The decision made by UNYQ, Invest Cast and Metro Aerospace to include additive manufacturing (AM) in their workflows make them forerunners of plastics additive manufacturing industrialization.

UNYQ Pioneers Mass Customization of Medical Devices with 3D Printing

UNYQ (“unique”) is a pioneer in 3D printed medical wearables. The company creates innovative mass customized orthopedic devices to help manage spinal conditions. Using 3D printing, UNYQ has been able to redefine not only how these devices are designed, but also to create an aesthetically beautiful yet practical end product. In close collaboration with 3D Systems and Studio Bitonti, UNYQ developed Spine Wears, an award-winning stylish brace primarily used to treat adolescent scoliosis. The process is fully digital, from the initial comprehensive patient scan to modeled anatomical corrections to the 3D printing using approved biocompatible plastic, all printed on the 3D Systems SLS thermoplastics additive production system.

Encouraged by the strong reception from the medical community, UNYQ recently introduced a next-generation 3D printed prosthetic leg socket. Each custom socket combines a perfect fit with designer-inspired exterior and integrated sensors for monitoring the wearer’s activity.

Invest Cast Redefines their Digital Foundry with Wax 3D Printing

Founded in 1981, Invest Cast, Inc. has steadily grown its casting, machining and fabrication business with an emphasis on innovation. Using the latest technologies, training, and techniques, Invest Cast now has three U.S. locations where it produces superior quality investment castings and delivers unmatched industry and technical experience.

In the company’s ongoing mission to deliver exceptional projects with unmatched customer service, Invest Cast recently purchased two 3D Systems ProJet® MJP 2500 IC 3D printers to provide fast and cost-effective, tool-less wax pattern production. By eliminating tooling, 3D printing helps them reduce the time and expense of transitioning from a design to a cast part.

Invest Cast reports exceptional surface finish, dimensional stability and castability with the help of AM, and is now able to serve more customers with greater efficiency. The ability to make final cast parts without tooling a mold has given Invest Cast’s customers the freedom to test multiple iterations quickly and cost-effectively, ultimately enabling them to arrive at better final parts.

Metro Aerospace Creates 3D Printed Part for Fuel Efficiency in Aerospace

Metro Aerospace, a Dallas, Texas-based business, used 3D printing to design, test and manufacture 3D printed Microvanes™, a drag-reduction and performance enhancement technology for large cargo aircraft. Developed initially for the C-130/L-100 Hercules aircraft, Microvanes are adhesively fastened on both sides of an aircraft’s fuselage and are designed to reduce drag by reshaping airflow around the aft cargo door.

Microvanes are produced using 3D Systems’ selective laser sintering (SLS) technology and DuraForm® GF, glass-filled nylon. Delivered in shipsets containing 20 unique parts, the 3D printed Microvanes range up to 20 inches in length and 3 inches in height. For both commercial and military aircraft, the SLS printed Microvanes mean a desirable improvement in fuel economy and significantly diminished engine wear, with the added benefit of reducing thousands of pounds of harmful carbon emissions.

For Metro Aerospace, using 3D printing for production has enabled a compelling business model of just-in-time manufacturing, eliminating the need for inventory while still allowing quick and high-quality order fulfillment.

These three manufacturers are just a few of the many that are discovering groundbreaking possibilities and achieving extraordinary results from the digital design and manufacturing freedom enabled by 3D printing. These companies are disrupting supply chains, inventing new products faster, opening new markets, and driving new use cases.

While each example of factory transformation has its nuances, we can see a handful of common themes play out across most high profile case studies. Careful consideration of these elements should read like a highly implementable playbook for those ready to take the next step in their own business. Key elements include:

Unconstrained design: Instead of allowing traditional manufacturing limitations to determine end-part designs, embrace the design freedom that is possible with AM. Additive enables the creation of geometries previously thought impossible to deliver innovative designs and products.

Penalty-free complexity and customization: No manufacturing approach is as accommodating to complexity and customization as additive manufacturing. By rapidly producing each part individually without the use of physical tooling, AM enables manufacturers to profitably pursue market segments demanding complex or custom parts with minimal-to-no incremental cost or time delays on the production line.

Implementation of highly repeatable (six sigma level), productive (24/7) AM production cells: Deployment of AM cells can be accomplished with a stronger cost advantage than is possible with manufacturing lines in several scenarios. The nuance here is that successful manufacturers don’t look at optimizing for one production asset vs. another. Instead, they take a holistic view and strategically arrange their AM and other assets in a way that optimizes the efficiency of the entire line.

Speed and agility across the entire supply chain: While design and productivity often steal the headlines, the benefits of a streamlined supply chain (i.e., minimal tooling requirements, virtual versus physical inventory, instant changeovers, record times to first part in hand, etc.) extend well beyond what people think about in terms of the core production processes.

The currently available 3D printing solutions enable a myriad of opportunities waiting for the creative thinker that can come up with innovative ways to apply them. The rapid pace of innovation in AM is truly incredible, with the advent of almost daily reported advancements in materials, hardware, or software. These innovations are creating an environment where yesterday’s constraints are today’s opportunities for the forward-thinking manufacturer.

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