The Holy Grail for Enterprise Adoption: Reducing Part Count Through 3D Printing


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One of the major advantages of 3D printing is in the ability to reduce part count. I’ve always felt that this advantage doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It is hardly mentioned in the media and its implications and advantages seem to not be understood. Therefore here is my attempt at a hopefully convincing article on reducing part count through 3D printing.

By reducing part count, we mean that a complex thing such as a rocket engine consists of a 100 parts when made with conventional manufacturing. When we redesign that rocket engine for 3D printing we can then perhaps reduce the total number of parts to three. NASA and other aerospace companies have already found this out by reducing parts from 115 to one or

How do we do that? In some cases, a very complex shape can only be made out of a lot of parts in conventional manufacturing. Think of the AEC ducting used on board Boeing passenger aircraft. Crinkly complex winding pipes. How would you manufacture these kinds of things conventionally? Out of lots of smaller parts. This complex geometry can be made out of one part through 3D printing, however. This is one significant benefit of the oft-touted “complexity is free” slogan for 3D printing. Another way to reduce part count is through integrating functionality. We can take a sprout, a connector and a valve and print all of these things in one go by designing a kind of mash-up sproutconnectorvalve part. Or a wall of something could also be a nozzle and also be a heatsink at the same time. Parts can do double or triple duty. So when we get excited about 3D printing batteries and conductive materials, this is not just because its cool. Importantly, it also not only so that we can then print the entire phone in one go. Crucially it will enable designers and engineers to think very differently about what a phone is and what happens when your battery can also be a housing that at the same time comes with holes for screws and places for chips. This kind of thing may all of a sudden mean that through design for manufacturing we can come up with a completely different form factor phone or a completely different way of making phones or completely different economics of making phones. So, in this case, the reduction of part count through ever cascading new technologies will see continual impacts by 3D printing on assembly and manufacturing technologies in some industries. Only those industries where low volume, customization or low weight will rise to adopt 3D printing because for them the benefits will outweigh higher costs. Once they have all of the same geometries however with the same materials can also be industrialized, eg if we print almost all of the In The Ear hearing aids, we should also eventually 3D print all of the custom headphones. Besides critical weight industries like aviation and cases such as orthopedic implants that work because of the texture, many will ultimately look to part count reduction as an adoption logic for 3D printing.

Now people are still thinking conventionally in terms of housings and connectors. Your engineer will think in screws and things that cover as separate things. Unless her thinking doesn’t change our technology will indeed be spielerei. Expensive spielerei as well because we meanwhile only target high margin things because we could make Happy Meal toys but that will hasten this race to the bottom thing we all fear. So once she, our mythical engineer, starts looking at a blender and instead of seeing this blender as a thing of screws, housings, motors and the like but sees it as a potentially fluid object then things will really change for 3D printing. Once she notices that 60% of the parts are redundant, then everything will turn for her and us. Once she sees that all the washers, nuts and bolts plus their holes are not needed while the form factor of the thing completely needs to be rethought then, we are going to be on a roll. Once she sees that she could increase the performance by making a hereto impossible blade shape and changing the texture of the jar while saving money by changing how the motor works then she can go to management to consider 3D printing. Not because it is cute and sexy and cool but because it reduces part count and improves the performance of everything.

Rocketdyne and NASA testing of 3D printed chambers.

Its been frustrating for me trying to explain 3D printing for so many years and not having people get it. We are the new way to make all things better. If you had to make all of your letters using a stencil and I showed you that you could also write freehand, then you wouldn’t shrug and say “we’ll wait until the costs come down.” I’m trying to lead you out of the cave, and all they want to do is sit in their allegories. No you dolt were selling ourselves for the highest amount per build for as long as we can because we know that low volume and a high margin is keeping the barbarians at the gate. The logical thing for us is to grab as much cash we can before we have to compete with Toyota. Jesus when all those OE guys pile in we’re in for a world of hurt. Best to group hug with the Business Development folks and stave them off a bit longer. part count. All of the other 3D printing stuff is just hope or old hope in new jackets. Why part count works and is working as a decisive argument is because the cost savings can be easily quantified. There are real tangible benefits to part count reduction that have wide-reaching implications.

Weight reduction. Fewer parts can also mean less weight (additionally you can, of course, save weight through design as well). This adds up in transport and transport charges.

Form factor reduction also saves you transport costs and storage ones as well and may mean that you are able to radically change your product or category or have more products on a shelf.

Reducing part count means fewer parts and also fewer parts to store throughout the lifetime of the product. This is why some consumer electronics groups are excited about trying out spare parts now and then figuring out how to redesign for 3D printing later. They see that spare part storage and printing on demand can make sense especially in MRO, automotive and some high-end stuff because of the millions of parts total.

NASA rocket firing test.

Reducing part count will make your company tie up less cash in warehousing and spare parts. How much money have automotive companies got that is tied up in spares? We’re talking about millions of parts some in transit, some waiting at a dock somewhere, some in a factory somewhere, some at further distribution waiting to go to dealers, some waiting years to be used. Reducing these counts ever so slightly will have huge impacts on the billions that automotive companies have tied up in spares in their supply chain. Wait ‘till the McExcel folks power point that out for someone.
Each spare part has tooling, molds, boxes, forms and many other components that support it. Reducing just a small number of parts can have a significant effect because of the many follow-on parts that are needed for this part.

Parts increase the upfront costs needed to get a new product, or a more original version of something started. More time and money is required to make a newer product with more parts. Reducing parts will tie up less capital and in and of itself make product development faster.

By integrating functionality radically different products can emerge to outcompete in a crowded space of products that all increasingly look the same and are made by the same people.

By integrating functionality, new patents can be explored that will perhaps carve out new monopolies on specific shapes of functionalities.

By integrating functionality companies can use engineering and design to create competitive advantage in products that are far too similar.

By reducing part count, one has less assembly risk because less assembly is required making this ideal for Six Sigma folks.

By reducing part count, there is less part risk overall because you eliminate fasteners, glues and separate steps that lead to bonding the part which could cause failures.

Instead, you are concentrating your manufacturing risk on an automated process that potentially in the future may lead to you making that part in a completely automated way which will dramatically reduce your costs.

The more you do this, the more you can scale a modular manufacturing technology that can produce variable amounts of whatever you need whenever it is required.

By reducing part count, you can radically reduce the capital tied up in your supply chain and product development process while becoming more agile in the design, development, and manufacturing of parts.

By not using the same Lego blocks as everyone else one can make more rapid and radical changes to designs and parts while also making standardized things that are highly customizable for niches.

In short, it is reducing part count that will be the holy grail of getting 3D printing adopted by many corporates.


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