Thursday, November 21, 2013

Small advantage: 3-D printing brings short-run manufacturing back homes

The Industrial Revolution overturned thousands of years of cottage industry by mass-producing goods at a lower price. The current advanced manufacturing revolution defies conventional wisdom by delivering smaller production runs at lower cost than larger orders.

The technology at the centre of the revolution is a suite of techniques known collectively as 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing. One such process, selective laser sintering (SLS), employs a laser to “sinter” together molecules of raw material — usually plastic or metal — to create three-dimensional objects.

“SLS is a micro-welding process in which material cools off quickly to form crystals that have higher strength than you would traditionally create with those materials,” says Tharwat Fouad, president and owner of Anubis 3D in Mississauga, Ont. “Quality control is better as well. If you don’t like the prototype, change the digital model for the next unit. Face-to-face communication between designer and manufacturer makes the process very easy.”

Mass production runs traditionally incur substantial setup costs, which must be averaged out over large orders. Additive manufacturing, on the other hand, requires little more than introducing a digital model for the printer to follow and virtually eliminates the cost of labour.

“The first item can be produced at the same cost as the last one,” says Fouad. “We’re seeing considerable interest from tool and die makers. If you can produce a prototype directly from digital models, you can make moulds much more cost-effectively.”

SLS produces little waste and unused raw material is recycled. The process also reduces transportation costs, since a digital model can be transmitted to 3-D printers anywhere in the world.

Anubis 3D has developed its own prototype for a particulate flowmeter for which plastic parts were produced entirely in-house. A recent order, however, demonstrates just how much of a game-changer 3-D printing has become.

“We manufactured an order of iPhone covers, to be shipped and sold in China,” Fouad says. “When a Canadian company can manufacture iPhone covers at a price that allows them to be sold profitably in China, you know that the technology has arrived.”

Source: Financial Post

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