Effective Tooling or Alluring Parts – What’s More Attractive for Additive Manufacturing?


Lee-Bath Nelson  

AM tooling cw-20-blog-aes-am-facade-molds-one-south-web

In the Additive Manufacturing (AM) industry, one of the most sought-after applications, if not “The Holy Grail”, is spare parts. Production of parts with AM, especially for automotive or aerospace, has gotten a lot of attention and is undoubtedly an alluring, some may even say sexy, application for AM. However, there are other potentially more mundane applications out there that are gaining more traction and are deserving of exposure and spotlight. As we see it, the frontrunner of these applications is tooling: jigs, fixtures, aids, guides, molds, etc. For a brief period of time during the first wave of COVID-19, some add ons for door handles or supermarket carts received some press but these are not the aids we are talking about. They are jigs for an assembly process, tooling for a manufacturing line, guides to help proper maintenance, etc etc. Undoubtedly a drabber area so why is it worth concentrating on? There are 2 main reasons: the scale and composition of the market as well as the criticality and immediacy of need of the items. Each of these 2 characteristics is a “trigger” for AM, together they form an extra powerful motivator for AM use. In a previous post we looked into various tooling applications in AM, in this post I want to analyze this market with these AM-bent characteristics and see what other seemingly drab markets might be similar candidates for AM.

Seizing the Sizing

It is difficult to size the tooling market as it highly depends on the definition of tooling. Most analysts used to estimate the market for tooling at over $200Bn a year with over half of it attributed to the Automotive industry. However, some analysts restrict themselves to the somewhat smaller machine tooling market. Furthermore, in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, one analyst report predicts that this market will decline to under $90Bn annually by 2027. This is due to the effect COVID-19 is having on manufacturers. The global manufacturing PMI (Purchasing Managers Index) which was at 53.8 in 2019 is declining and predicted, according to the ReportLinker analyst, to decline to an all-time low of 35.4 in 2020. [A short explanation on PMI: this index shows expansion if it is above 50 and contraction if it is below 50; it is comprised of several indices including New orders, Delivery Times, and Stock of Items Purchased]. The latest US PMI was at 49.8 for June 2020.


The Sum of the Parts

The PMI indicates that demand for tooling might be decreasing but another component to market sizing is the price of the items. An ongoing trend, which AM contributes to, is the lowering of tooling costs per given tooling item, like tooling Tacalum produces on BCN3D printers (clamp example above). This is expected to further shrink the annual spending over time. One of the reasons AM lowers cost is that tools are highly varied and each tool is produced in relatively low volume. One exception are Michelin’s metal sipes – over 1 million produced each year – but exceptions only highlight the rule. This means that the tooling market is comprised of a large number of different tools, each one typically produced in low volume either at once or more likely over time. In addition, a specific tool may be needed in different locations. Again, well suited for AM, and this fit is even tighter when we consider the expediency of tools.

Wait for Elmo

Some industry experts estimate that $2Bn of tools are produced with AM and while the total market may be expected to decline, this number is expected to grow at a healthy rate. The cost effectiveness of tooling is one reason but another is the quick turnaround time. When a tool is broken a line is still. An automotive assembly line that is stopped famously costs $22,000 per minute. In other industries, such as food, a stopped manufacturing line (waiting for a broken jig replacement, for example) can cost several tens of thousands of dollars a day and occasionally more. Every minute, every hour, and certainly every day the line is idle waiting for a replacement is an economic loss for the company. Therefore, when companies such as Markforged claim 75% time reduction when adjusting a malfunctioning jig, thanks to AM, it makes a difference in this market (below some copper parts from Markforged).

markforged copper additive manufacturing-1920x1080

If we look at molds in construction, Gate Precast, checked a wood based mold against an AM mold for a concrete façade of windows (up top). A wood mold took 40 man hours to complete while an AM mold took 8-10 hours of printing (machine hours) plus 4-8 hours of machining and finishing (machine and man hours). The wood mold lasted for 15-20 concrete pours before it needed refurbishment, the AM mold was poured 200 times (and then the project ended) and didn’t need refurbishment. These might be extreme numbers but there is margin for more moderate superiority that still justifies AM in tooling.

Altogether Now

Each of the cost savings, time savings, and versatility is a great reason to produce tooling with additive manufacturing. The combination of all 3 makes AM highly effective and therefore most attractive for tooling. If we consider these attributes, there are other applications where this combination exists. In our #AMapplication series, we’ve covered several industries where the timeliness of replacement parts is crucial, we called them working horses. Farm equipment during harvest season, construction, mining, oil and gas equipment all fall under this category. When added to the cost issue – oil and gas (which tends to be produced in remote locations that are costly to get to) emerges as a front runner. Indeed, we have seen quite a lot of activity in this area especially recently. Another sector where cost, speed and versatility are key is the defense industry. Carrying a mountain of metal with every deployment of army, navy, air force, and marines is a huge cost and yet a decommissioned plane or armored vehicle is also critical. Both cost and timeliness play a factor here. In addition, often bespoke tools or parts are needed (e.g., the US air force developed a cover bracket for the drive decouple switch on board the B2 fighter, below). We will dedicate a separate post to military and defense needs soon, as part of the #AMneeds series.

US air force 3d printed B2 cover - additive manufacturing

The AM ecosystem as a whole has been exploring many highly appropriate applications for AM. Some are more alluring but other more mundane applications may prove to be more attractive at the moment. Just using 3D printers for these applications is, of course, not the full solution, repeatability, reliability, tracking and secure digital supply chains are all needed as well but that is a parallel lane and not part of this post… Other applications, that combine the need for many different low volume items and a need for timely supply that might be distributed, are always of interest. Let me know if you think of any I overlooked. For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates.

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