2010

Is It Time to Try Direct Digital Manufacturing?

altWhichever technology is chosen, DDM offers unique and powerful advantages that distinguish it from traditional manufacturing methods. The advantages cited most often are:

  • Eliminating investment in tooling.
  • Eliminating lag time between design and production.
  • Eliminating design constraints.
  • Eliminating penalty for redesign.
  • Eliminating lot size minimums.

Collectively, these benefits translate to efficiency, flexibility, responsiveness, and affordability. DDM is a manufacturing process that introduces alternatives in product design, manufacturing methodology, and business operations. As an added benefit, many additive manufacturing technologies are fairly “green” processes. They have very little waste material compared with milling processes because only the needed material is used. No unnecessary inventory is produced because there is no benefit to building more than you need at any time. Most additive processes require no harmful chemicals and vent no harmful fumes into the environment. Among other green benefits is the relatively small amount of electricity that is required to produce parts via additive manufacturing.

DDM essentially rewrites the rulebook for making manufacturing decisions. In many instances, it is a polar opposite to conventional production methods. This makes it a disruptive technology, and makes it more difficult to appreciate and comprehend.

Application Diversity

altIn the manufacturing environment, DDM often performs one of two roles. Companies will use the process to manufacture the products it sells, or to make the devices that aid in the manufacturing of the products.

When first introduced to DDM, the application most people envision is the production of finished goods. The word manufacturing conjures images of high-volume production of consumer products. People often jump to the definition “the making of goods on a large scale,” even though manufacturing also means “the making or producing of anything.”

DDM is suited for low-volume manufacturing, not mass production, but before you think, “We can’t use it because we do mass-production,” keep in mind every manufacturer has low-volume needs in the production of manufacturing tools, such as jigs, fixtures, gages, and hand tools.

Producing manufacturing tools presents the ideal opportunity to try DDM. These tools are deployed to make manufacturing and assembly fast, efficient, repeatable, and cost effective. In this manufacturing context, DDM becomes a low-risk, high-return alternative to standard practices. Because the tools are used by the company rather than the customer, and the time and cost to produce them is small, an unsuccessful attempt has little consequence. But when successful, DDM has a major impact on productivity, quality, and the cost of producing parts. Performing DDM of manufacturing tools is currently more popular than DDM for end-use parts. That’s partly because it’s such a low-risk opportunity, and partly because every manufacturer has a need for such tools.

Manufacturing can also be a bit of a misnomer when the entire spectrum of industries using DDM is considered. Some of the greatest successes are not in the manufacturing industry. Because of the inherent need for custom-fit devices, the medical and dental professions have been early adopters of DDM. Orthotics, prosthetics, hearing aids, and dental bridges have all benefitted from DDM. Companies have discovered that DDM is a powerful alternative, rather than a direct replacement, to the conventional manufacturing processes.

DDM is a fundamental shift in the approach to making parts. It is a process that employs additive manufacturing to make end-use parts directly from CAD data. DDM is a promising manufacturing alternative that accelerates production and reduces costs while creating new possibilities, and permits new business models. It is unique because it avoids molding, machining, and forming, and it eliminates the constraints that these conventional manufacturing methods impose.

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