Pros and cons of 3D printing, additive manufacturing in contract electronics


There is great potential for 3D printing to disrupt the $12 trillion manufacturing market. Additive manufacturing (AM) or 3D printing (for private use systems) creates 3D objects layer by layer from a 3D design file (typically in STL, stereolithography format) with a 3D printer and has only penetrated 18% of its $40 billion available AM market.

For many contract electronics solutions providers in industry seeking for ways to remain relevant, additive manufacturing is becoming increasingly more important for attracting and retaining customers as products becomes more complex, lead times become increasingly shorter, and EMS/ODM industry absorbs more of the OEM supply chain while customers demand more customization.

Below, pros and cons in the current 3D printing/additive manufacturing market today as prepared by John Roy with investment bank UBS.


Mass customization: No re-tooling required to make different products

Lower wastage: Additive manufacturing uses less raw material than the subtractive method, which wastes up to 95%

Design freedom: Hardly any limitations in the design process and hence no need for design for production

Time to market (prototyping): No need for complex tooling to produce prototypes, more design freedom and flexibility

Part consolidation: No need for complex joining and soldering of individual products

Tooling reduction: Reduction or potential elimination of tooling

Inventory and logistics: Just-in-time production and less product complexity reduces inventory and complex logistics

Packing efficiencies: Different products can be printed in same batch

Weight savings: Additive manufacturing allows for different geometries

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Lack of economies of scale: Cost for printing first article remains similar to cost for printing of the n-th item

Raw material cost and availability: Individual raw materials still limited and expensive; lack of combinability of different raw materials with different melting points

Equipment cost and availability: High equipment prices, limited size of 3D products (up to 30 cm edge length), printing equipment production capacity and service

Low speed (production): Ultra-thin layers (0.001” to 0.010”) and up to 1,000 layers needed for a single inch; a single inch might take up to 3 hours to print

IP and warranty issues: Plagiarism is potentially easier, with files sent around for printing; product warranty issues severed by interim design changes

Availability of 3D software: Lack of software to translate developer ideas into 3D printer parameters; easier-to-use software and web-based software needed

Product finishing: Product finishing for 3D printed products is often not ready to market and needs to be fine-tuned using other techniques

Design rules, certification process: Common industry standards are still scarce and processes need to be certified

Process reliability and integration: Today’s CNC machines tend to be fully integrated into production processes while AM is still mostly stand- alone machines

Source: Wohlers Report 2013, GE, UBS

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