post-processingConcerns about the high cost of additive manufacturing are prompting some companies to look at relocating their 3D print operations overseas, negating one of the technology’s main benefits – localised production. However, there is a way to cut costs and keep production closer to home, as Carlos Zwikker, CCO at AM-Flow, explains.

Imagine a production line that becomes less profitable the busier it gets. This is absolutely the last thing any business would want, or expect, and yet it is a situation that a growing number of additive manufacturing (AM) service providers and internal AM facilities are forced to contend with as they look to scale up the use of AM technology within their organisations.

Predictions for global manufacturing in 2021 and beyond

What may come as a surprise is that it is not the printing process that is the cause of the problem. In fact, quite the opposite: as businesses increase their print volumes,  write-off their machines and negotiate cheaper material prices based on increased volumes, the cost per part typically begins to fall. The issue arises a little further down the line, where parts leave the printer and enter the post-processing stage.

Regardless of whether it is a prototype, piece of tooling or an end-use product, most AM parts require some level of post-processing. This may be as simple as removing support material and sanding down the join, but can also include sorting, dying, polishing, as well as other processes, before the final product is ultimately bagged and sent to the customer. Ironically, considering that AM is generally acknowledged to be a wholly ‘digital’ technology, the post-processing workflow is almost entirely reliant on manual labour – and therein lies the problem.

Labour costs set to accelerate

Today, it is estimated that 80 per cent of manual labour costs relating to AM production are attributable to post-processing. This presents a major barrier for companies who are looking to scale AM production. The market for AM products and services is predicted to almost triple between 2020 and 2028[1>, which is of course great news. However, we know that labour costs will increase at a far greater rate. As a general rule, the addition of a single 3D printer will require two to three additional people to route objects through the various post-processing steps. It is not hard to see that the current way of working is therefore simply not sustainable for high-volume production.

Faced with this challenge, we have begun to see some businesses opting to relocate their AM production to lower wage countries. However, while this may help to reduce labour costs, it negates one of the main benefits of AM – localised production.

Think about it. One of the key advantages of AM is the ability to print parts on-site and on-demand, eliminating the need for costly physical inventories and enabling companies to respond rapidly, whether to a customer order or to production equipment or tooling breakages. However, that crucial advantage is lost if they have to wait for days or even weeks for the required part to arrive from another country.

The good news is there is now another option – an automated process.

AM FLOW Industry 4.0 in 3D printing post production (Image: AM-FLOW)

New challenges, new solutions

Thanks to recent advances in machine learning and post-processing hardware and software, it is now possible to automate almost every part of AM post-processing, reducing labour costs and significantly improving process efficiency.

This is achieved with the arrival of modular solutions that offer rapid and accurate automated AM part identification in as little as 0.2 seconds, along with sorting, picking, bagging and transportation. The next stage of this revolution will include the arrival of ID tagging, which will pave the way for full track and trace capability for AM parts across a seamless, end-to-end digitalised workflow.

Working with the right partners

Companies who are only now starting to move into AM have the advantage here, as they can implement a fully-integrated AM workflow – one that encompasses post-processing – from the outset. For companies who already have established AM processes, it is more of a challenge. The last thing they want to do is have to stop production and redesign systems from scratch.

For these operators, it is essential to work with the right partners. To enable a swift and smooth transition to full automation, it is imperative that any post-processing solution is able to ‘plug in’ to whatever systems are in use. This means it should be compatible with all existing MES and ERP software and easily integrated with external systems such as cleaning and part quality-enhancing post-processing hardware.

Automated AM post-processing workflow solutions promise to deliver game-changing benefits for organisations looking to scale AM production. By working with the right partner, these companies can continue to enjoy the many advantages of AM, including localised production, while keeping costs tightly under control.

To find out more, read our white paper.

Carlos Zwikker, CCO at AM-Flow