Reinventing manufacturing with advances in 3D printing

Australian door manufacturer, Centor, uses Markforged printers to print strong, functional prototypes.

Andrew de Geofroy, vice president of application engineering at Markforged, spoke to Manufacturers’ Monthly about the new opportunities emerging from advancements in the 3D printing sphere.

In recent years, 3D printers have proven themselves as viable solutions for rapid prototyping for product designers. But, Markforged believes that with the advancements in the technology, the scope for industrial 3D printing goes far beyond that.

As Markforged’s vice president of application engineering, Andrew de Geofroy, told Manufacturers’ Monthly, advancements in 3D printing technologies have opened up new manufacturing opportunities in at least two distinct areas.

“The first one is the ability for existing manufacturers to positively disrupt the way they’ve traditionally brought products to market – from prototyping to tooling up their assembly lines or producing end-use parts for final products or service/replacement parts.

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“The second big opportunity is for startups and new players to enter manufacturing. With 3D printing in general, and Markforged technology in particular, it has never been cheaper to start a manufacturing company. I come from a software background and see a lot of parallels to what cloud storage and computing has done to ‘democratise’ software development. Today, anyone with a laptop, an internet connection, and a few hundred dollars can start a  software company. We’re seeing a similar transformative effect in manufacturing with accessible, safe technologies like 3D printing,” he said.

Markforged is the force behind the world’s first 3D printers that allow users to print with continuous carbon fibres. According to de Geofroy, the ability to print with continuous carbon fibre has opened new possibilities for leveraging the technology for real manufacturing use cases outside of prototyping.

Having been a pioneer in production of composite 3D printers, Markforged recently entered the metal 3D printing market with the introduction of Metal X. This 3D printing machine prints metal parts without the need for hazmat suits or the concern of safety risks.

Seeking solutions

de Geofroy said the team of designers and engineers at Markforged constantly interact with their customers to delve into new potential applications and materials.

“My focus at Markforged is to educate customers on the broad range of applications they can accomplish using 3D printing and our unique technology, and I believe that is representative of our focus.

“As we continue to bring new products and materials to market, one of the driving questions is ‘does this help our customers innovate in ways they can’t today?’ Finding that intersection of what material or feature we can release with maximum impact across our customer base and the manufacturing industry at large is critical,” he said.

Also, de Geofroy said the discussion with customers often lead to finding new strategic solutions to their traditional processes.

“Customers often come to us with a particular challenge that they are facing, such as printing a specific part. But, when they see what’s possible with our technology, our conversations usually move away from the tactical, part-per-part replacement to more strategic business discussions. These include discussions around how we can help them bring their products to market faster, reduce overall manufacturing costs and improve their manufacturing and supply chain efficiency,” he said.

Process efficiency is another reason customers choose to deploy 3D printers, Geofroy said. “Many of our customers love having the ability to design, slice, and reinforce parts and then send them to a remote printer at one of their facilities around the world. Instead of having to ship a physical part, they can start the print, and an engineer or technician on the factory floor can go grab that part off the print bed and use it, all within hours.”

As with any disruptive technology, there’s an adoption bell curve and de Geofroy believes the manufacturing sector is just starting to climb the hill, especially when it comes to using additive technology for applications beyond prototyping.

“I expect to see more and more traditional manufacturers adopting 3D printing as a means to transform their business and remain agile enough to compete with startups, and to retain and grow market share. The skill gap will be the biggest limiting factor in that adoption, and the companies that solve for that early will be best positioned to excel in the next five years and beyond,” he said.

The Australian scenario

While globally Germany, Japan, and the US are leading the industry uptake, de Geofroy said the Australian companies are also catching up and adopting the Markforged technology for industrial uses.

“Australian manufacturers are printing functional prototypes, tooling and fixtures, and end use parts. Markforged and its local partners engage with Australian manufacturers to help them reduce cost and deliver products and services faster by reviewing the manufacturing process. In many cases, Markforged has enabled them to replace machine parts with 3D printed carbon fibre parts that are one tenth of the cost,” he said.

One example of functional rapid prototyping in Australia was demonstrated by Centor.

The company develops custom integrated doors for residential and commercial buildings. Each unique design requires a proof of concept. Three in-house machinists used to spend all their time fabricating components in low volumes, with additional components being outsourced. This approach led to inconsistent quality, lengthy production times, and excess costs.

Seeking an alternative, group manager of product and engineering David Chappell took a chance on Markforged and was immediately impressed: “It’s the first time I’ve ever actually seen a 3D printer do what it promised in a real-life design studio factory like ours. It just runs.”

While his team of experienced manufacturers initially expressed doubt about integrating 3D printing in their workflow, they now run the printer almost 24/7. It enabled them to redirect machining bandwidth, iterate on designs, learn quickly from printed parts, and present compelling proofs of concepts to customers. Centor further optimised their production by printing jigs and weatherproof end-use parts. They will soon have a Markforged printer in each of their four factories across Australia, China, Poland, and the US.

Intellidesign is another Australian company that has successfully adopted Markforged‘s continuous fibre 3D printer. The company produces smart electronic devices for various applications, offering a one-stop approach to clients from concept to design and manufacture.

Callum Heron, product support engineer at Intellidesign, said his team uses a Markforged Two printer for both prototyping as well as occasionally producing equipment for their devices.

Heron said the team of seven designers and two engineers at Intellidesign use the printer nearly 24/7 to print prototypes for their designs.

“It has helped us drastically reduce the time that it would otherwise take us to print the prototypes through external service providers. In the time that it would take us to print one prototype, we can now get at least six done,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“I haven’t done the math yet, but if we consider the considerable time saving, I’m confident that we have already seen a return on our investment,” he said.