6th January 2021
As recently as a decade ago, with technology, software and material developments still in their infancy, 3D printing was considered a mere plaything by many.
Though its potential for market disruption was much vaunted by early converts, the technology certainly had its limitations.
In those early days, 3D printing was very much aimed at product designers – a new weapon in the fight to help them better visualise, test and develop their latest ideas.
While rapid prototyping capabilities remain a key advantage and major focus, huge advancements have forced businesses to rethink what they want to get from their 3D printers and the wider implications on their operations.
3D printing was once considered at best a gimmick and at worst a threat to the future of skilled UK engineering and manufacturing.
Ironically, though, it is the companies with the foresight to embrace the technology who are now reaping the sort of rewards that have taken their production operations to a superior level.
SYS Systems Sales Manager Rob Thompson, who has more than 13 years’ experience in the 3D-printing industry, said: “Driven by 3D-printing capabilities, we are witnessing the dawn of a new age of agile production – and no-one wants to get left behind.
“A lot of engineering companies are being peddled the line that they can use 3D printing to produce their end-use parts, but such examples are few and far between in my opinion.
“The key benefit of having additive manufacturing equipment on site is that it’s enabling engineering businesses to improve their processes.
“So, the quickest route to a return on investment is for a company to use 3D printing as a tool to improve its current processes, such as reducing the need to use machine tools to produce metrology fixtures or workholdings. CNC machines are then left alone to create parts chargeable to the customer.
“We’re working more and more with engineers and manufacturers who are doing just that, leading to shorter lead times, reduced costs, major efficiencies and increased profit margins.”
Today, using incredibly advanced additive materials, it is possible to create CNC workholdings and soft jaws for production machine tools, as well as press brake tooling able to bear pressures of up to 18 tonnes per square inch – all via a polymer-based system and directly from CAD data, with minimal training requirements.
Engineering companies that once felt threatened by the advancement of additive manufacturing are now embracing it – and it’s they who are seeing the real returns.
One example is Swiftool Precision Engineering, a global supplier of high-integrity, safety-critical precision machined parts to companies in the nuclear, defence, petrochemical, aerospace and medical markets.
It uses a Stratasys Fortus 450mc 3D printer, creating bespoke machine and CMM jigs, fixtures and workholdings in high-strength Nylon Carbon Fiber materials. Incredibly, it’s saved eight hours over a batch of 50 fixtures – the equivalent of a full shift.
Mr Thompson said: “The two key machines suited to the precision engineering arena are the Stratasys Fortus 450mc and Fortus 380mc Carbon Fiber edition. They’re affordable and accessible, with no major training requirements, meaning they suit businesses of all sizes and will give a demonstrable return on investment in a very short period of time.
“We’re seeing time and again how businesses flourish and grow thanks to the efficiencies and quality that 3D printing delivers to their production process.”
With 3D printing, prototypes are created quickly and easily without the need for specialised tooling or highly skilled engineers. A physical model in the hands not only makes the communication of design concepts more efficient, but enables instant form and function testing.
Digitalising critical inventory items like fixtures, workholdings and custom tooling not only saves time, space and money, but logistically means you’re never far away from a replacement part should you need one.
Jigs and fixtures can be 3D printed more quickly and cost-effectively than with traditional methods. This boosts productivity and bring flexibility to production, raising the bar for modern manufacturers.
Traditional cross-departmental manufacturing processes are labour intensive, involving multiple phases and long lead times. 3D printing removes the need to source raw material, raise internal orders and trawl through the complicated chain of approval.
In the push towards lean manufacturing, 3D printing will play a pivotal role in reducing waste, minimising lead times and substantially reducing costs. This is vital at a time when pressure is mounting on UK manufacturers to offer a diverse, high-quality and value-for-money service.
Read the brochure: 3D Printing In Engineering: A digital solution for modern manufacturing