Additive Manufacturing is Already HereBy Alejandro Enríquez | Thu, 09/30/2021 - 15:41
Q: How did the pandemic shift the industry’s perspective of 3D printing?
A: The past two years brought interesting changes for the 3D printing market, both in Mexico and abroad. While Mexico is not leading the development of 3D printing technologies, the process is permeating the country. Globally, new technologies have been developed but one of the main changes was the massification of the existing technologies to make them more affordable, helping companies to access these tools. Developers have also built faster, bigger technologies that allow the construction of new parts and the use of novel materials. For instance, developers have built metal 3D printers for materials that are 1m in size and plastic 3D printers that are steadily becoming faster and more competitive.
The COVID-19 pandemic also accelerated the adoption of 3D technology. Given the medical equipment shortages, 3D printing increased in popularity due to its ability to produce protective masks while tools and molds where ready to mass production of this parts. The pandemic served as a case study for 3D printing, proving its value when supply chains are broken or when companies are relaunching or rethinking a product.
Q: In what areas is 3D printing innovating and what are the main challenges?
A: Among the largest constraints in technology are materials. Companies are competing to develop the least expensive but most resistant and functional materials. 3D printing companies are developing, and currently producing, materials that can be used in final products, such as auto parts, rather than only for prototypes and for engineering pieces.
During the past two years, 3D materials that resistant to high temperatures and deliver strong mechanical performance became more popular because they provide, not only better visual finishing for the automotive and aerospace industries, but real strength and functionality as a end use part.
Investment is growing. Now, companies can produce pieces that can be put directly into vehicles with the full certainty that they will work properly. For example, we use resins that are resistant to UV light, temperatures as high as 200 degrees Celsius and are non-flammable. Advances in materials are breaking barriers and misconceptions of technology. Today, we have thousands of companies manufacturing 3D-printed parts for final use in plastic or metal materials.
Q: What alliances has Tridi built with other players in the 3D printing industry?
A: Tridi forged a commercial partnership with US-based 3D printing company Stratasys, which is one of the worldwide leaders in this market. With this alliance, we have access to an infrastructure of over 300 3D printers in the US for building parts that are not possible to manufacture in Mexico. When our customers projects become bigger, we can bring the equipment to Mexico and produce for them.
This business model enables our clients to test those materials without making large investments. Tridi has focused on helping its clients test and experiment with materials, accompanying them as they come to understand 3D printing.
Q: How does Tridi’s client portfolio look? How has the company’s business model changed in the past two years?
A: Tridi can help development prototypes for teams. For example, Tridi prints headlight lenses that are fully transparent and have all required details for a client that produces vehicle headlights. Technology already enables companies to produce highly-detailed prototypes. However, often investing in this technology inhouse, does not make sense for them so we provide them our infrastructure for this type of production.
We also help manufacturers produce validation testing and procure “bridge manufacturing,” which involves providing temporary pieces while the client readies the molds for mass production. Tridi produced 2,000 to 3,000 pieces in a two-month span for a client that manufactures for a large EV company in the US, which allowed them to start manufacturing while they finished their own molds. Our pieces may be later replaced or kept since they are fully functional.
While we continue offering prototyping and tools, Tridi is strengthening its bridge manufacturing service to penetrate the automotive and aerospace industries. For the auto sector, we produce recalls, which are small pieces to correct vehicle products that experienced a safety-related defect. This usually represent about 15,000 to 20,000 pieces in a 1 to 3 year period.
Q: In what scenarios does 3D printing become cost-effective and attractive for potential clients?
A: We focus on clients for whom 3D printing will make the most sense. When it comes to manufacturing, production volume dictates if 3D printing is economically viable. For the automotive industry, which demands hundreds of thousands of parts every year, it will not always make sense.
However, when volumes approach 1,000 units per month or 10,000 to 20,000 units per year, 3D printing makes complete sense. This technology works when the cost of manufacturing the entire production is lower than ordering a mold and starting to inject plastic. It is necessary to analyze the total cost of production. The more pieces produced with the plastic injection method, the lower the unitary cost will be.
For example, if a mold costs US$1,000 and injection costs US$1, then manufacturing one unit will cost US$1,001 per part and manufacturing 1,000 units will cost US$2 per part. If a printed part cost between US$20 and US$30, you will have to balance the total cost depending on the expected volume. If the unit cost with plastic injection is over US$30, then 3D printing is the best solution in this case.
Q: How does 3D printing’s carbon footprint differ from injection molding’s environmental impact?
A: In industries such as aerospace and automotive, 3D printing could make a clear impact. While you can recycle and re-use 3D-printed pieces, the major potential of this technology lies in its ability to optimize the design of parts. However, it is not only about the carbon footprint during production but also about the impact that the piece will produce. For instance, the BMW i8 Roadster has some 3D-printed aluminum pieces. Each of those parts replaced three or four components assembled, that now are integrated under the same printed part, which additionally consumes less raw material and are more resistant and lighter. Lightweighting then leads to fuel savings.
The main impact 3D printing has in terms of carbon footprint and the environment is that it allows for the redesign of pieces, making them easier to manufacture and lighter. This technology generates little waste while optimizing material, workforce and machinery use.
Tridi provides additive manufacturing services and “bridge manufacturing” for companies in the automotive and aerospace sectors, using its own equipment and through alliances with global companies like Stratasys.