Optimizing High-Mix, Low-Volume Manufacturing with 3D Printing

Highly efficient, cost-effective manufacturing technologies and supply chains have improved production cost and/or quality for many high-volume products that are made of simple parts. For advanced or customized products, companies find it challenging to produce in a traditional high-volume manufacturing environment. Obstacles like tooling costs, assembly steps, post-processing, and minimum order quantities (MOQs) can hinder the production of complex, customized, and personalized products, forcing companies to look beyond traditional high-volume manufacturing.

Products with low volume, multiple materials, or requiring customization, like dental appliances and apparel, require high-mix, low-volume manufacturing solutions to ensure costs and lead times meet market needs. 3D printing systems enable a high-mix, low-volume manufacturing approach for a broad range of products, including fully customizable products. For companies considering 3D printing for a high-mix, low-volume manufacturing business model, there are many benefits over traditional production processes.

high mix low volume manufacturing

What is High-Mix, Low-Volume Manufacturing?

High-mix, low-volume manufacturing is a strategy involving the production of multiple variants of a single product or multiple products in a single batch. Each unit can have minor or major functional or aesthetic differences. Traditional factories design production lines to generate a single variant or a small mix of products to maximize production efficiency and minimize tooling cost.. With dedicated production lines in traditional manufacturing, it is challenging and expensive to produce new products or variations.

Value of 3D Printing for High-Mix, Low-Volume Manufacturing

3D printing is key to making high-mix, low-volume manufacturing competitive with traditional high-volume processes. Some primary characteristics in 3D printing that make it a viable alternative strategy include:

  • No tooling enables a single printer to produce multiple products or variants
  •  Supporting a wide range of materials on a single printer
  • On-demand production and easily scaling as needed with additional machines or connected smart factory
  • Distribution of CAPEX and risk over a larger product portfolio
  • Rapidly producing multiple small parts in a single batch for high-throughput
  • Lower skill requirements than CNC milling or injection molding

These characteristics allow leading manufacturers to develop new business models leveraging 3D printing for greater agility, lower risk, and similar or better quality. 3D printing makes high-mix, low-volume manufacturing cost-competitive with high-volume processes like injection molding and allows companies to quickly pivot to new products or modify them without incurring additional costs to change product lines. 

Comparing 3D Printing With Other Manufacturing Processes

CNC milling, casting, and injection molding are traditional manufacturing processes for many products. Rapidly adopted across many industries, 3D printing or additive manufacturing is producing many products – midsoles, flip flops, or complete shoes for footwear; dental devices such as night guards, surgical guides, and aligners; a range of medical devices; and support structures to create complex, unique, and high-end jewelry. Companies might want to consider 3D printing beyond just tooling costs and compare the innovative technology against traditional manufacturing processes:

3D printingCastingInjection moldingCNC milling
CustomizationEasily enable custom productsRequires die inserts, increasing tooling costsRequires mold inserts, increasing tooling costsIncurs high reprogramming costs and time
Investment and Cost Range of low to high-end 3D printers. Production costs depend on the material used. Better material pricing for higher volumes is similar to traditional processes. Industrial casting machines can be very expensive. Production costs depend on tooling, assembly, and material costs. Industrial injection molding machines can be very expensive. Production costs depend on tooling, assembly, and material costs. Range of low to high-end CNC machines. Production costs are very expensive due to high labor, machine, and tooling costs
Worker skillLow for setup and productionHigh for tooling, low for productionHigh for tooling, low for productionVery high as CNC programming is complex and specialized
Lead timeHours to daysSeveral weeks to monthsSeveral weeks to monthsMultiple weeks
Cost driversRaw material input costsTooling and raw material input costsTooling and raw material input costsProgramming and tooling costs

3D printing production costs are dependent on the amount of material used to produce a given product. 3D printing is ideal for low-volume manufacturing strategies as costs are only dependent on the material used, eliminating high MOQs in traditional manufacturing to amortize tooling costs. Additive manufacturing also enables more predictable product costs as they are tied to weight or amount of material used if it can be printed as a single piece. 

Manufacturers can use modern 3D printing systems to produce a range of low-volume products at very competitive costs. 3D printing can print a single piece with localized performance or features, eliminating manufacturing and assembling of multiple parts for a single product required with traditional manufacturing processes. With greater flexibility and design freedom, there are many applications for high-mix, low volume manufacturing.

Applications of High-Mix, Low-Volume Manufacturing With 3D Printing

3D printing is adaptable to many products with no tooling requirement and ease of design and print process. Companies can implement a high-mix, low-volume strategy for mass customization or templatized products. Some examples include:

  • Eyewear
    • Companies can print custom eyewear or a range of designs with different colors.
  • Medical insoles
    • Replacing the traditional artisanal method, 3D printers can use a single material to print an insole with localized performance or features. The conventional method is labor-intensive and involves multiple materials, carving, shaving, and grinding to produce a pair of insoles. Once a customer is satisfied with the insoles, additional pairs can be rapidly produced with 3D printing to a pair per shoe or to replace lost ones.
  • Dental appliances
    • A practitioner or lab can use digital models to directly print dental appliances to fit a patient’s mouth without using thermoforming, grinding, or polishing.
  • Sports equipment and goods
    • Companies can print customized apparel or equipment as per customer specifications or fit.
    • Customized footwear includes 3D-printed midsoles, flip flops, and shoes with unique structures.

As 3D printing improves and there are more 3D-printable materials, there will be an increasing number of products that will be produced with a high-mix, low-volume manufacturing model. Innovative 3D printing technology companies are helping companies implement new production and design strategies with advanced 3D printing systems and materials, and cloud-connected smart factories for on-demand or to enable high volume production.

LuxCreo’s patented LEAP™ (Light Enabled Additive Production) process enables high-mix, low-volume manufacturing of complex products from a range of advanced materials. We offer smart factory-connected 3D printers that allow on-demand production in a Smart Factory for rapid prototyping or full-scale production. For more information on how our services can improve your supply chain and manufacturing processes, visit our contact page or call (650) 336-0888.

Smart Factory Team