I’ve learned of another advantage to manufacturing using 3D printing that I hadn’t considered.
Low volume manufacturing is the process of making smaller quantities of parts for less than it would cost to produce using traditional mass manufacturing approaches. Mass manufacturing typically requires a tooling step, where molds are created. These are quite expensive, but once made can be re-used to make, theoretically, millions of parts.
The financial result of that equation means there is a manufacturing quantity below which it doesn’t make sense to make the parts. In the past producers were basically out of luck in such scenarios.
However, 3D printing allows production of parts without tooling. It’s more expensive per piece, but far less expensive than using traditional manufacturing, which often makes sense only when the quantities are very high.
Thus we now have many companies and even individuals making smaller runs of production parts using a variety of efficient desktop 3D printers. Some of these include mechanisms for automated printing, like belt 3D printers or 3DQue’s VAAPR system (seen at top).
If that wasn’t enough of an advantage, it turns out there is another one: reducing intellectual property theft, according to supermaker Naomi Wu.
Recently, Wu posted a thought regarding low volume production using desktop 3D printers, saying:
“While it’s still more costly than injection molding, you have a far, far lower risk of the factory running off their own parts using your molds and selling your product on Aliexpress, you can do short runs without warehousing, and you can iterate and upgrade your product faster.”
The iteration and upgrade benefits I understood previously, but the “risk of the factory running off their own parts using your molds” was something I hadn’t considered.
Evidently this is a thing that happens, and I presume that’s the result of lax intellectual property regulations and enforcement, particularly across international borders. For western firms looking for Asian manufacturing, this could indeed be a problem, especially for smaller operations that aren’t familiar with how things are done overseas.
In the recent past overseas manufacturing was routinely done, as that was often the only financially feasible approach for getting smaller batches of parts produced, but accompanied with the risks Wu describes above.
Now with the advent of inexpensive desktop 3D printers that are designed for continuous production, there is an easy alternative that effectively eliminates the intellectual property risk. If implemented properly, the designs might never leave the possession of the designer and manufacturer.
My suspicion is that many in the low volume production market are new to manufacturing and may not be fully aware of the risks involved in overseas manufacturing. If they were, then perhaps they’d give local 3D printing options a bit more consideration.
For the future, it’s very likely the throughput and print quality of these machines will continue to increase. This means the “line of feasibility” for low volume production applications will continue to rise, enabling more players to benefit from the advantages of using 3D printing.