High Volume Manufacturing Process with 3D Printing: Pros and Cons

Brand owners and manufacturers across industries want to increase throughput and productivity while decreasing costs. New cloud-connected 3D printers are simplifying manufacturing by making it easier to integrate additive manufacturing processes into traditional environments or outsource to a smart factory. 

There are multiple ways to take advantage of 3D printing, such as leveraging a smart factory for on-demand production, augmenting traditional processes, and building dedicated 3D printing lines for an agile manufacturing model. With advantages and disadvantages for each option, companies need to consider several factors when using 3D printing for high-volume manufacturing processes.

A tray filled with 3D-printed parts in a high-volume manufacturing process

How Does 3D Printing Fit Into a High-Volume Manufacturing Process?

There are three common ways 3D printing is leveraged within a traditional manufacturing operation:

  • Complete replacement of a traditional process: Some products are perfect candidates for 3D printing as conventional processes are too complex or costly. Examples include customized and some medical products.
  • Supporting a traditional process: Traditionally manufactured products are often produced as multiple parts. 3D printing can fabricate more complex parts enabling new strategies like part consolidation. The modern manufacturing method can also support better designs that achieve higher performance and a unique aesthetic.
  • On-demand, agile production: 3D printing does not require tooling and can work with a range of materials allowing on-demand manufacturing.

Companies can outsource to a smart factory or bring advanced 3D printing systems in-house. The best 3D printing solutions enable both approaches, where an in-house printer can connect to a set of identical printers in a local or a smart overseas factory for on-demand production.

Bringing 3D Printing In-house

Today’s advanced industrial 3D printing systems, such as digital light projection (DLP) and stereolithography (SLA), have a large volume and rapid printing for high-throughput and are very accurate. 

Bringing an industrial 3D printer in-house gives manufacturers control over the orientation, location of structural supports, and other printing parameters that can impact the quality or performance of the part. In-house 3D printing solutions can be used for prototyping and low-volume printing. Once designs are finalized, the same machine can be used for high-volume production or connected to a smart factory for outsourced manufacturing. Access to on-demand production in a smart factory can help companies scale more quickly.

Outsource to a Smart Factory

Smart factories using 3D printing enable an on-demand production model, supporting outsourcing of one-off parts, high-mix with low-volume production runs, or customizable products. As long as a product has been proven on a smaller scale with an in-house printer and a qualified resin, it can be sent off to a smart factory for high volume production on-demand. Outsourcing to a smart factory can provide competitive costs and allow companies to implement innovative production strategies, such as low-volume, high-mix manufacturing, without significant equipment investment.

3D printing companies that provide integrated solutions of printers, materials, and software as well as 3D printing smart factories, can better guide customers through the process of transitioning from prototyping to full-scale production. Success involves selecting the best industrial-grade 3D printer and materials that will yield the desired mechanical properties in the final product. Initial print runs can start in-house, and once approved, companies can send out the part for production to a smart factory. A typical workflow, which begins with selecting a Smart Factory-connected 3D printer, is shown in the chart shown below:

Starting with an in-house industrial-grade printer helps manufacturers ensure their products can reliably transition into high-volume 3D printing. Not all products are ideal for 3D printing. There are some characteristics of 3D printing that will limit which products are fabricated with 3D printing. Companies interested in 3D printing for high volume manufacturing should consider factors in addition to costs such as build volume, part complexity, performance requirements, and the end-to-end manufacturing process.

Pros and Cons of 3D Printing in High-Volume Manufacturing

Using 3D printing for scalable or on-demand production can derisk manufacturing operations and make complex products more cost-competitive. The following considerations are essential to determining if 3D printing is viable for a product:

Build volumeBuild volumes have increased significantly and will vary based on the 3D printing technology. Industrial 3D printers can make large parts or many small parts in a single batch.Limited by the total volume of the 3D printing solution. The University of Maine has developed the world’s largest 3D printer that can print whole boats and large wind blades.
Build OrientationParts can be printed with specific orientation to meet performance requirements and easily adjusted and re-printed. Legacy 3D printers had limitations on orientation for certain designs, such as the orientation of holes in surgical guides. Modern DLP 3D printers support any orientation printing.
Build speedAdvanced 3D printing technologies provide integrated solutions – tuning hardware, software, and material to maximize printing speed while enabling high-performing materials such as high-viscosity resins. With DLP 3D printers, an entire layer can be printed at once instead of tracing with traditional FDM 3D printing. Speed is highly dependent on 3D printing technology. For example, DLP 3D printing speed is dependent on the z-axis speed, FDM is dependent on how fast filament is deposited on the printing bed, etc. The introduction of industrial 3D printers across many 3D printing technologies has significantly increased speed. 
ThroughputBatch 3D printing can be very competitive when products traditionally made with multiple parts are amalgamated as one part in the 3D printing high-volume manufacturing process. As more of the manufacturing process is digitalized, companies can retain high throughput even when there are design modifications. Companies just digitally modify the design and send it to the 3D printer for printing. Getting to high speed requires a larger build area or volume. Innovations in 3D printing processes like DLP enable wide-area or larger volume printing for high throughput.
Material or part properties – strength, rebound, cushioning, etc.The generative design allows the creation of different lattice structures that can customize performance properties such as part strength, rebound, cushioning, etc. Performance can be localized to specific areas of the part or easily tweaked between prints. A combination of orientation, resin, and lattice structure provides greater design flexibility to meet performance requirements.The range of materials is still expanding. Recent advancements in photosensitive resins provide the broadest range of materials, including high-performance elastomers that are comparable or better than Pebax.
Post-processing and assemblyPart consolidation enables fewer or no assembly steps and makes more complex designs cost-effectiveSome unique post-processing steps are required, depending on the design requirements and printing material
Cost structureFixed based on the total weight of printed raw materials, high-mix does not increase the price per part.Difficult to compete with high-volume processes (e.g., millions of units)
Production locationFlexible: companies can set up multiple locations closer to customersFixed: only large overseas factories are cost-competitive

Modern 3D printers give manufacturers more options to produce products at high volume. 3D printing is simplifying manufacturing by enabling unique or customized designs and on-demand outsourcing for easier scaling. To successfully implement 3D printing in a high-volume manufacturing process, companies need an integrated industrial 3D printing solution – a combination of printers, software, and a portfolio of materials – that meets operational and product requirements. 

To maximize the impact of 3D printing, manufacturing teams need to re-evaluate product designs and change their approach from traditional dedicated manufacturing lines to agile manufacturing sites that can easily switch production from one product to another as well as produce multiple different products in a single batch on a single machine. 

The Right 3D Printer Complements High-Volume Manufacturing

3D printing won’t replace every traditional manufacturing process. However, it does enable greater agility and significant productivity for complex or customized products. Companies that want to complement or replace existing traditional high-volume manufacturing processes with 3D printing should explore industrial-grade 3D printers like the Lux 3L. The innovative printer provides a large build volume with high resolution, making it ideal for customizable products, high-mix production, or one-off prototyping. 

If you want to transform your high-volume manufacturing process or make manufacturing sites more agile, LuxCreo provides a range of 3D printing solutions, including smart factory-connected 3D printers, and 3D printing smart factories. Their patented LEAP™ (Light Enabled Additive Production) technology provides rapid printing with high-performance materials and accuracy. With smart factory-connected 3D printers, LuxCreo eases the transition from prototyping to production as well as enables rapid scaling with on-demand production. For more information on how our services can improve your supply chain and manufacturing operations, visit our contact page or call 1 (650) 336-0888.

Smart Factory Team