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A New Age for Products: 3D Printing Practices for Manufacturing in Central and Eastern Europe

January 23, 2017 by Martin Kuban and Zdenek Krouzel

A New Age for Products: 3D Printing Practices for Manufacturing in Central and Eastern Europe

Manufacturing represents a key vertical for innovation accelerators, particularly 3D printing, advanced robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT). Even though manufacturing spending on 3D printing amounts less than that spent on robotics or IoT, 3D printing has already transformed the way products are designed in some discrete manufacturing industries. Based on our observations of what lies in development pipelines of major 3D printing vendors (e.g., machines presented at Formnext exhibition in Frankfurt in fall 2016) we believe that the adoption of 3D printing is going to accelerate dramatically in the manufacturing industry and will have serious repercussions, not only for the process itself, but also for how we connect design to manufacture.

In our research for the upcoming IDC PeerScape: 3D Printing Practices for Manufacturing in Central and Eastern Europe, IDC has found some good examples among Central and Eastern European (CEE) manufacturers. Although the use of 3D printing is less mature in CEE than in developed markets, we were able to collect interesting insights in major use cases for 3D printing of CEE manufacturers, the 3D printing technologies they purchase, and implications for product lifecycle management (PLM), including increased demands on staff. The following article reveals challenges mentioned by CEE manufacturers when interviewed on their current 3D print practices, together with advice based on their real experiences in the 3D printing area.

Make a 3D printing roadmap by defining use cases relevant for your industry

3D printing is becoming a challenge for a growing number of CEE manufacturing companies, as it clearly has the potential to transform entire industries. The portfolio of 3D printing use cases has grown significantly in recent years; moreover, it differs industry by industry. Leveraging this technology is about continuous learning and gaining experience over time, not about just buying 3D printers or some ready-to-implement solutions. Some traditional manufacturing companies that are locked into old ways of doing things are likely to be very reluctant to experiment with new technologies like 3D printing, possibly because they will not spend much time researching emerging use cases that could disrupt their markets. This approach could prove risky, or even disastrous, as competitive gaps in 3D printing experience will be difficult or impossible to close once market transformation is over. In short, the future of manufacturing will not favor those that forestall innovation.

Furthermore, companies should approach 3D printing with the notion that they will not get things right the first time. Success starts at proof-of-concept projects and requires continuous experimenting and testing of the technology, including materials. The typical practice of CEE manufacturers has indeed been to start small. According to our research, manufacturers often give preference to local 3D printing companies, spending in the thousands-of-dollars range on their first 3D printing project/use case.

Assess the applicability of 3D printing technologies and the advantages provided by various machine types

Manufacturers still find multiple challenges when confronted with current 3D printing technologies. There are various machine types available on the market, as well as a wide selection of printing materials at different price ranges and quality. However, affordable 3D printing machines are still quite slow, and they are unable to compete with traditional production methods in terms of quality, variety of materials, and price per unit. Due to the dynamic nature of market development, it is difficult to decide — in a timely yet conclusive way ¬¬— on the most suitable printing technology, device build size, or materials to be used.

Based on the 3D printers they currently use, we categorized CEE manufacturers into three major groups:

  • Entry to mid-level 3D printers that print objects from thermoplastics or resins. The prevalent use of these machines is for product prototyping.
  • Specialized 3D printing machines that can print from a variety of materials. The prevalent use is to produce high-quality functional models (not just prototypes) or basic final products.
  • High-end printers designed for use in production. Metal printing is the most demanded type among manufacturers. Such printers complement production operations by reducing lead time and production costs for some complex products.

Owners of entry to mid-level 3D printers typically find many new uses for them over time. IDC has noted a tendency to upgrade to a more powerful 3D printer after several years. Cheaper machines are definitely suitable for gaining 3D print experience, providing a reasonable insight into whether and when to invest in more sophisticated equipment. This evolution can take place without completely “retiring” the old 3D printer; Some manufacturers still effectively use their first “rusty” 3D printers and simply add new, more sophisticated machines to the production over time.

If higher-quality prototypes are required, CEE manufacturers often seek solutions based on stereolytography (SLA). SLA is an additive manufacturing technology that can print an end product layer by layer using liquid resin (photopolymer) and ultraviolet laser. Owing to its precision, this technology is suitable for the final production of dentures (for example) and has become popular in the jewelry industry, as well. When taking the current generation of desktop SLA 3D printers into account, this category seems to be ready for wider adoption, due to two key attributes: The machines seem to be much more user friendly, and their price is quickly falling. Some new SLA models are available for less than $5,000.

When printing from advanced materials is required (metal and plastic powders, bio-compatible materials or a combination of multiple materials), a high-end 3D printer is needed. Presently in CEE, only a limited group of the most advanced manufacturers will demand such solutions. In this case, the initial investment into hardware and materials becomes more of a strategic decision. The prices of these 3D printers range from tens of thousands to millions of dollars, depending on technology and the printer’s build size.

Manufacturers should carefully deliberate and build a complete business case to prove the viability of the purchase of a high-end 3D printer. Besides the initial cost of the device (hardware), there are also software, integration services, and running material costs to be considered. An estimation of the machine’s planned workload is critical for calculating ROI. Don’t forget to check on 3D printing outsourcing models offered by providers in your proximity, as these could prove to be a better fit for your goals with a reasonably lower risk.

Adjust your PLM practices and make your staff “think 3D”

The 3D printing process starts well before a 3D printer is actually used. Product designers face increased demands in terms of their knowledge of 3D digital technologies (CAD/CAM/CAE, 3D scanners, simulation tools, etc). In fact, the whole product lifecycle management (PLM) domain is challenged by the new possibilities that 3D digital technologies and 3D print offer for design, manufacturing, and servicing products. In the early stages of 3D printing adoption, this could be a source of new tensions between different departments (perhaps most importantly between product design and manufacturing). The painpoint of CEE companies is that they are unable to expand the number of people with corresponding 3D experience, especially designers who can not only use 3D tools, but also “think 3D”. Unfortunately, educational institutions in CEE have not joined the 3D technology trend at its nascent phase. It will take schools at least another five years to close the gap by supplying graduates with digital/3D skills relevant to the CEE labor market.

For now, CEE manufacturers will need to find an optimal mix of 3D digital capabilities by combining internal and external resources. This can help them to accelerate adoption of 3D print, support innovation, or test new products coming to the market. The services area has been a fast-growing aspect of 3D printing business in CEE, with manufacturers expressing no serious barriers to finding a suitable partner. Nevertheless, 3D digital technologies are quickly becoming a technology standard in product design, a domain that has a critical impact on competitive advantage. The high level of IP protection applied on products will likely involve unique 3D digital practices developed to innovate products. Manufacturers should refrain from long-term outsourcing in areas that are critical to their business model.

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International Data Corporation (IDC) is the premier global provider of market intelligence, advisory services, and events for the information technology, telecommunications, and consumer technology markets. With more than 1,100 analysts worldwide, IDC offers global, regional, and local expertise on technology and industry opportunities and trends in over 110 countries. IDC's analysis and insight helps IT professionals, business executives, and the investment community to make fact-based technology decisions and to achieve their key business objectives. Founded in 1964, IDC is a wholly-owned subsidiary of International Data Group (IDG), the world's leading media, data and marketing services company. To learn more about IDC, please visit www.idc.com.

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