Technical Article

How 3D Printing Continues to Be a Driver in Digital Transformation

April 14, 2020 by Jeff Kerns

The following article looks at technology within digital transformation and other drivers to gain perspective on what the future of manufacturing might look like. 

As electronics have decreased in cost, connecting things digitally has been brought to new heights. With more data companies are able to run simulations, digital twins, and more that are disrupting manufacturing and business strategies around the world.

Like many early adopters, it can be expensive, hard to predict an ROI, and easy to fail. As connected devices hit the market some marketers hyped connected technology as the fourth industrial revolution and companies not on the cutting edge would be left behind.


3D Printing: A Driver in Digital Transformation

Many companies invested in some type of new technology, it had many names: the IoT, Industry 4.0, machine to machine, big data, machine learning, and more. 

3D printing has continually been a driver in digital transformation. It has also provided some good examples of how some companies use new technology for hype and/or add value to operations.

Early adopters hyped up the concept of 3D printing, but there were few case studies published to show results and how the process was being used in different applications successfully. 

However, the lack of published results from companies might have been a way to conceal how a company might be trying to hide early success to keep the technologies cutting edge.  


The Cutting Edge 

A machine shop CEO told me he was using 3D printing for years without clients knowing. Machine shops have a blueprint to follow. Generally, shops aren’t told how to build something.

Parts just need to fit the specifications of what the customer ordered. The CEO continued saying that he has been selecting parts with specifications able to be 3D printed faster than traditional methods or to reduce the workload on his machinist. 


3d printing

The print head of 3D printer machine printing plastic model. 


3D printing is not known for speed. There is a tolerance difference between CNC machines and 3D printers. He said engineers use digital CAD models to scale a part up by about 1%. The oversized part with loose tolerances can be printed faster.

Then, to get needed tolerances, technicians and engineers use the same CAD model or G-code at size to finish the part in a CNC machine. 

The combination of 3D printing and CNC machining helped the facility produce small, complex, and/or custom low-volume part with a faster turn around. However, the CEO said he doesn’t tell people how he is able to offer such a fast turn around times and lower costs to clients unless they ask. Most clients didn’t seem concerned, they just wanted lower-costs and turnaround times.   

Some 3D printers are connected to a network or the internet that are monitored and operated remotely. This innovative process serves as an example of the future of manufacturing, as many companies are moving towards a full digital thread.

This would provide data throughout the entire company and production, which could be used to enable advanced automation to expand digital transformation further. 3D printing is a driver of digital transformation as it supports trends associated with the future of manufacturing such as, increasing automation, providing feedback, operating remotely, and supporting decentralization. 


Flexibility and Time to Market

Another driver of digital transformations is flexibility and time to market. Witchita State University started an innovation campus with big goals to get a normal design cycle that would normally take years, and reduce it to 90 days. This tight timeline is only possible through digital testing, tooling, and experimentation need to bring a product to market.

To work effectively, simulation and digital twin technologies need real-world data from connected devices, and automated processes to increase improvements and decrease the time between iterations. 

3D printing provides some good examples of how companies use the process to drive digital transformation. 

Other drivers this series will cover are data, dashboards, and cloud services. Additionally, part three of this series will discuss societal drivers that seem to be forcing manufacturing into a digital world such as population, war, and disease.