It's no coincidence that 3-D printing is making a splash just as the conversation is turning toward lean. Lean manufacturing and 3-D printing go together naturally. While 3-D printing isn't a new technology, it is getting more attention lately because of the potential cost implications for everyone involved. The leaner you are, the more you save and the more you create. The catalyst is 3-D printing.
Below are a few reasons why 3-D printing and lean manufacturing go hand in hand.
Prototypes are expensive. Traditionally, prototypes are made with drilling, cutting and removing materials. It's a potentially wasteful process that is prone to errors. Additionally, prototyping is often a process that is outsourced to a third party, which results in marked up prices and delays. You can use 3-D printing to get around all of that. As the technology is becoming less expensive, a business can create a prototype at a relatively low cost, do it all in-house and ultimately reduce wasted products.
Today's customers are pickier. The days of one-size-fits-all bulk are largely behind us, and that has complicated manufacturing. Because 3-D printing does not require the same molding and cutting as traditional manufacturing, each product can vary as needed. The ability to customize allows you to diversify and keep customers happy while running a leaner operation.
The prospect of leaner manufacturing is emboldening manufacturers to take more risks, as the stakes are much lower. What 3-D printing gives manufacturers is the creative freedom to design while still in the concept stage, before a prototype even enters the equation. As a result, they are wasting less time with trial and error, which is traditionally associated with prototyping. They also reduce the amount of materials that fall by the wayside, and they make much more efficient use of their time.
A crucial advantage of 3-D printing is consistency. Once properly programmed, a 3-D printer will create exactly what you want, every single time. It not only keeps customers pleased, but it helps you run a lean shop. You aren't wasting materials on production runs that go awry, and you are no longer wasting valuable time on inconsistent products. For that reason alone, 3-D printing is revolutionizing the idea of lean manufacturing.
Exorbitant lead times are anything but lean. Wasted time is never good for lean operations, and putting an unfeasible rush on a production run will almost always result in wasteful mistakes. Because 3-D printing is consistent, you know what to expect and can set more reasonable lead times. It's good for business and good for lean manufacturing.
As mentioned above, customers like the ability to have customized products, and they like knowing that it won't take forever to get them. Local 3-D printing gives customers the close oversight they prefer and increases their ability to customize and tweak a product. The more they can be a part of the process, the more likely a manufacturer is to get it right. That means less wasted product and more happy customers.
At the end of the day, it's about keeping customers happy, and nothing makes them smile more than lower prices. With 3-D printing, it is possible to reduce the number of steps required to see a product through from concept to production as well as the amount of material that gets scrapped during production. Those savings of both time and material mean that customers will ultimately pay less and will return for new projects.
It's all a cycle. Customers and businesses are becoming aware of the efficiencies being made possible with 3-D printing. They are excited by the idea of customized products and the potential cost savings. With that excitement comes innovation, and with innovation comes new ways to be lean in manufacturing. One way to jumpstart lean manufacturing is with 3-D printing. It also will likely lead to new, leaner processes.
Steve Erickson is the vice president of sales and engineering at First American Plastic, one of the leading manufacturers and assemblers of custom plastic injection molding and 3-D printing services for the medical, industrial and automotive market.