If you’re the owner of a small to medium-sized machine shop, you may be feeling curious—and, let’s face it, even a little nervous—about how additive manufacturing technology like 3D printing will impact the future of your business.
NTMA was lucky to hear Todd Grimm, president of T.A. Grimm & Associates, speak on this topic at our summer conference—and he assuaged many of these concerns.
He assured our members that additive manufacturing isn’t going to put any of them out of business. In fact, this innovative technology poses opportunities for shops of any size if they play their cards right.
What Opportunities Does Additive Manufacturing Pose for the Modern Machine Shop?
When leveraged strategically, additive manufacturing methods like 3D printing can be a boon to part production. Whether you’re investing in a 3D printer for your modern machine shop or partnering with an existing additive manufacturing supplier, here are a few benefits to consider:
- Endless possibilities. There are so many different technologies and materials (polymers, metals, ceramics) available in the additive manufacturing space that you’re sure to find a way to incorporate this manufacturing method into your shop. In fact, you’re best off doing your research and creating a unique additive strategy for yourself rather than simply investing in the same technology your competitors are using.
- Fast turnaround. Since 3D printing requires minimal setup and no specialized fixtures or tooling, it’s possible to print parts in just a few days that would otherwise take several weeks to machine. Just think: if you get an order late on Friday, you could potentially set up the printer, leave the shop, and have the part ready Monday morning.
- Distributed manufacturing. Distributed manufacturing prioritizes local production to mitigate supply chain vulnerabilities and blunt the high cost and environmental effects of long-distance shipping. Additive manufacturing is key to this decentralized approach because it provides opportunities for digitized processes and on-demand production that can significantly consolidate global supply chains. Even if your shop doesn’t offer additive manufacturing in-house, working with an additive manufacturing supplier allows you to create distributed manufacturing systems. Incorporating additive manufacturing somewhere in your supply chain is one potential solution to a volatile manufacturing landscape.
Considerations for Offering Additive Manufacturing Services
While there are many benefits to additive manufacturing, it’s important to keep in mind that this technology will never be a one-size-fits-all solution to your problems. In fact, without the right preparation, it can actually be a huge drain on your resources.
3D printing is a relatively new technology dating back to just 1987. Although it has evolved significantly in recent years, it’s still developing—and there’s no well-established playbook for using it. If you attempt to offer additive manufacturing without fully understanding it, you could end up losing money instead of saving it.
So if you’re interested in adding this manufacturing method to your list of capabilities, plan for upfront investments in technology, learning, and training.
How to Successfully Incorporate Additive Manufacturing into Your Shop
It’s hard to generalize when talking about additive manufacturing, but there are a few concrete ways to ensure that your machine shop takes the right steps toward incorporating it. Here’s how to run a machine shop that leverages additive manufacturing:
- Get informed. The more information you have, the better off you’ll be. Typically, news about additive manufacturing booms in the spring and fall during major conferences, and it recedes in the summer and winter during vacations and holidays. If you want to incorporate additive manufacturing into your shop, enlist a trusted colleague to get informed on all of the latest information and trends. They can help you properly assess emerging news about machines, materials, production processes, and more.
- Dig deeper into the machines. 3D printers are a huge investment, and simply reading the data on a spec sheet isn’t going to give you enough information about a particular machine. If a spec sheet tells you a machine has 12 lasers, what does that even mean? What’s important about the 12 lasers? What’s the average maintenance cost of the machine? These answers won’t be in the manuals. Talk to peers, partner up with suppliers, and ask the people who have real experience with the machines everything you want to know.
- Prepare to invest time and money. To make this technology work for you, you’ll need to have your team research and work on practices and protocol so you’re ready to produce quality output. Additive manufacturing is much different from CNC machining, as you’re well aware. You can’t rely on what you’ve always done or what you already know to lead the way. Prepare to learn a lot and invest time in becoming experts at this innovative technology.
- Start small. It can be hard to break through in the additive manufacturing space. Most companies still aren’t leveraging this technology for production, and the ones that are likely already have connections with much larger suppliers. Instead of trying to compete at that level right away, assess the needs of your current target customers and ask yourself how additive manufacturing can solve their immediate problems.
Additive manufacturing is here to stay—but you don’t need to feel threatened by it! There are so many opportunities for leveraging this technology, if only you’re willing to put in the initial effort to get started with it.
With your NTMA membership, we can connect you with other shop owners who have made the jump to additive manufacturing. Join NTMA today to make important connections that will help you grow your business.