The use of 3D printers is creating an opportunity for Australian manufacturers to bounce back in a market that is predicted to be worth over $5.2bn by 2020, writes Paul Goepfert, Marketing Manager, Pronto Software

An innovative new environment has emerged for manufacturers due to the transition of 3D printing into mainstream technology. With the cost of 3D printers continuing to decrease and the technology becoming more widespread, it’s drawing escalating attention from the industry. According to Deloitte, additive manufacturing, a process that’s been steadily developed since 1984, allows businesses to innovate products from the inside out, a process that can’t be obtained through traditional manufacturing techniques.

A common perception is that 3D printing is optimum for the creation of small, compound and unique objects. While this was certainly the case historically, it’s not the case today. The capabilities of 3D printing move far beyond the creation of simple objects, allowing manufacturers to design and create objects that are complex and challenging in nature – all in a cost-effective way that’s providing immense opportunities for the manufacturing sector.

Now, we are even seeing projects to build standalone houses using 3D technology. From manufacturing concrete wall structures to doorframes, 3D printing is overwriting traditional construction methods, and providing real cost- and time-saving benefits. Additive manufacturing can be used to print a wide range of materials – including titanium, clay, food, ceramics, composites and even solar panels and organic cells – making the possibilities endless.

With the emergence of 3D printing, businesses can save costs by implementing a Lean manufacturing environment. Previously, I worked as a Manufacturing Manager in the automotive industry. Presses and machines were running the same batch for hours, and over time we introduced Lean manufacturing processes to reduce the work in progress (WIP) stock wherever we could by developing manufacturing cells, reducing setup time and batch sizes.

All manufacturers know that a Lean approach is less productive when you look at the work order level. However, at a company level, the reduction of capital immobilised in WIP stock, the significant reduction of manufacturing cycle times, as well as the improved product quality and enhanced employee satisfaction, far outweighed the lower cost of producing thousands of items in a single batch and then storing them long-term, waiting for final assembly.

Designing products in new, innovative ways

Additive manufacturing is revolutionising the way businesses design products. With 3D printing, the product design process can be accelerated and developers can create objects that can’t be made by traditional manufacturing methods.

Traditionally, an engineer would often be constricted and limited in product design as he or she would be forced to take into account manufacturing process limitations. This is no longer the case, as design engineers can now print parts with less manufacturing and design constraints. 3D printing has allowed almost any idea or design to become a possibility, and because of the capability of seeing a product outcome before it is physically created – without having to build a prototype – concepts and designs can be pushed beyond previously accepted boundaries.

From my perspective, the greatest challenge around the growth of 3D printing is educating design engineers around this new technology, prodding them to apply it where makes sense. 3D printing is an exciting technology, and it is critical for businesses today to assess where additive manufacturing is going to create opportunity and growth, or negatively impact activities. Change can be difficult, and it is important that businesses educate engineers on the new possibilities and flexibility brought by 3D printing, fostering creativity and innovation.

The companies that will look at 3D printing as an opportunity will create better, more ground-breaking products. They’ll innovate in ways that we can’t even imagine. There are undeniable benefits associated with 3D printing, and as the technology continues to grow and improve, so do the prospects for the Australian manufacturing industry.