Sebastián Romo
CEO and Founder

A Long Way to Go but 3D Printing on Its Way

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 14:59

In Mexico, 3D printing is still in its infancy. “Automotive companies in other countries have been using 3D printing for manufacturing for over 20 years,” said Sebastián Romo, CEO and Founder of Tridi, “but this practice is new in Mexico.” Mexican SMEs find it hard to acquire US$5 million equipment, he says, and OEMs are often interested in manufacturing a great number of pieces so it is hard for smaller companies to work with them. Romo says that one of the greatest challenges in Mexico is communicating the added value this technique can offer the automotive sector, as many decision-makers struggle to grasp the advantages of the process.

Additive manufacturing, known as 3D printing, is growing at an accelerated rate globally and is increasingly permeating traditional manufacturing practices. The global 3D printing industry surpassed US$5.17 billion in 2015, according to Wohlers Associates, and has enjoyed an average CAGR of 26.2 percent for the past 27 years. Advanced 3D printing is increasingly used in prototyping and product development in a wide range of sectors, from dental and medical products to the automotive industry. Audi, for instance, is incorporating metal 3D printing to manufacture spare parts. The company has described it as “faster and more cost effective” for their purposes.

The practice of 3D printing is not recommended for all steps of the manufacturing process. Romo explains that 3D printing becomes advantageous when pieces cannot be manufactured through regular processes due to their specifications. While it can be used to print molds for other parts, its use is limited to 20 pieces because, to date, 3D printing is mostly performed with plastics and resins. But that is changing as advances in materials widen the possibilities that can be used.

Last year, polycarbonate was the most resistant polymer material for the automotive industry because at the time it was too complex to print with fiberglass. Now, some 3D printers can print exclusively with fiberglass, creating extremely light and resistant pieces comparable to those made of metal and industrial plastic.

While there is potential for the use of 3D printing in mass production, Romo says, “there is still a long way to go.” This is feasible for other sectors such as aerospace, as an OEM may manufacture an aircraft every two weeks, allowing enough time to use additive manufacturing. It stops being feasible when 7,000 or 8,000 pieces are required per month. A simple piece may take an hour to be manufactured through 3D printing, while plastic injection allows thousands of pieces to be manufactured in that same hour. Because of this, the process is also too expensive.

To integrate 3D printing into the manufacturing chain the process needs to be faster. A piece that costs MX$150 to manufacture through 3D printing may cost a few US cents through plastic injection. While additive manufacturing still needs to improve before being incorporated into regular manufacturing processes, the technique has successfully improved design processes by reducing time and costs.

Additive manufacturing will play a significant role in the automotive sector in coming years but applications will come gradually, Romo says. He expects the process to gain relevance in optimizing final components, for vehicle part specialization, to test and validate automotive components and to manufacture tools. “The automotive sector is constantly on the lookout for cost-sustainable practices. For this purpose, 3D printing is an attractive alternative.”

Romo has not seen an overpowering need for this practice in Mexico yet, as many Mexican companies receive their designs from offices abroad. But he predicts local market demand will grow as an increasing number of companies bring their R&D divisions to Mexico. Companies of this type now represent between 30 and 40 percent of Tridi’s clients for prototype creation. Tridi sees potential clients in Tier 1 and 2 companies. “OEMs have a sufficiently large infrastructure to house printing equipment and are already incorporating these process,” said Romo, “but there is plenty of potential in Tier 1, 2 and 3 companies, especially those that specialize in plastic injection and manual assemblies.”