The new business case for 3D Printing

October 10, 2019

3D printing is no longer the manufacture of the future; it is the manufacture of now. But with so many technology innovations – from Artificial Intelligence to Augmented Reality – competing for investment, how do you make the business case for 3D?

Long term, 3D printing heralds a new era of extraordinary supply chain transformation, with local, print on demand solutions radically reducing both costs and time to market. But this is a journey and, as Paul Croft, Director, Ultimaker GB explains; any company with additive manufacture can explore 3D printing to achieve incremental gains today.

Complementary Model

3D printing was never designed to replace traditional manufacturing processes – whatever the handful of hype-mongers may have insisted. 3D is a complementary technology that can work in tandem with existing manufacturing methods to drive new efficiencies at every stage of the process.

Print on demand spare parts, for example, can transform uptime – especially in remote areas; while the inherent customisation enabled by iterative design opens the door to improvements both in ergonomic manufacturing equipment and in employee well-being. Companies can minimise transport and warehouse costs, cut production downtime, and optimise processes.

The accessibility of the complete 3D print solution model is now compelling. While there are very significant opportunities for end to end supply chain transformation, the essential combination of hardware, software and materials maturity is now enabling organisations of every size to evaluate the potential use of 3D within a blended manufacturing model with a small, up-front investment.

The key question for organisations, therefore, is just where could 3D printing be explored to support essential business objectives?

Uptime & Time to Market

For any manufacturing organisation, minimising production line downtime is a critical Key Performance Indicator. Improving uptime reduces costs, improves time to market and supports strong customer relationships. Yet while many companies have amazingly slick processes for managing production – from highly efficient component sourcing onwards – it can be the failure of simple pieces of equipment that can jeopardise uptime KPIs.

For global brewer Heineken, a decision by its Seville operation to explore 3D printing has unleashed an extraordinary range of benefits, not least in the decision to print difficult to source spare parts. Rather than enduring the down time and cost associated with sourcing, often importing, discontinued parts, the brewer’s team proved that 3D printing these parts saved time and money. They also demonstrated that printed plastic parts could function effectively as replacement for metal parts.

For automotive manufacturer Volkswagen Autoeuropa, 3D printing is delivering new levels of control over the supply chain. The company, which builds such as the Scirocco and Sharan, is 3D printing manufacturing aids that are used daily on an assembly line that produces 100,000 vehicles a year. By removing reliance on external suppliers for tools, jigs and fixtures, the company has cut costs and reduced lead times from several weeks to just a few days.

Enhancing Operations

3D printing has also enabled these companies to create highly complex designs and make rapid revisions and amendments, without cost penalties or long lead times. The tools can be tailored to match exact requirements, making function and performance the main drivers of design rather than cost or time. At VW, for example, a new tool can be printed overnight, and the next morning it is tested on the assembly line by the operators. Their feedback can be incorporated in consecutive design iterations until the perfect tool is made.

Heineken has also use of iterative design has also resulted in the replacement of various redesigned parts with an optimised design. For example, a metal part used with a quality sensor on a conveyor belt would often knock bottles over, creating a blockage, or ejecting good bottles onto the ground. Redesigned 3D printed parts prevented this problem, saving bottles, money, and time; furthermore, by adjusting the design of functional machine parts, Heineken has increased line efficiency.

Employee Well-Being

There are also significant health and safety benefits that can be attained from 3D printing. For example, the workforce will find 3D printed plastic tools or guides are far easier to work with than traditional rough metal tools. Plastic parts will also be lighter, introduces the chance to reconsider the ergonomic aspect of the design. Indeed, the iterative nature of Additive Manufacturing enables organisations to continually improve the usability of such equipment, transforming worker experience, with the clear knock in impact on worker morale and wellbeing.

Heineken has taken a step further, leveraging the ability to use colour to improve safety. The company has not only designed improved safety latches, which are used during machine maintenance to prevent machines being accidentally started during the maintenance process, but these latches are printed in bright red to ensure visibility. This application was not only useful, but the extra safety feature created awareness and appreciation of 3D printing among employees.

The speed with which these innovations can be expanded across these multinational businesses is also important. With designs and solutions easily shared online, global deployment of new applications is accelerated. Parts can be sent digitally rather than physically, providing vital solutions in areas that struggle with poor transport links. Heineken, for example, is using this technology to localise part of the production process in Africa, where the lead time for importing parts can be challenging. By printing these parts in or close to the breweries, the company will avoid global shipping – hence reducing international freight costs – while also improving control and uptime and ensuring safety features are also deployed globally.


For any business considering the role of 3D printing within a blended model, it is the ease with which these benefits can be achieved which is compelling. After a short validation exercise, Volkswagen Autoeuropa has turned an investment in just seven 3D printers into a very significant business benefit: 93% of all externally manufactured tools are now produced in-house, saving 91% in tool development costs and reducing development time by 95%. At Heineken, the delivery of all the required parts is on average 80% faster than external sourcing. The costs of a printed part versus a historically sourced part are also on average 80% lower.

The key is to focus on specific business objectives. Whether improving health & safety, transforming uptime or reducing reliance on third party suppliers to minimise risk, by focusing 3D printing on these core business objectives an organisation can rapidly build a strong business case. The challenge, however, is that while awareness is undoubtedly on the rise, organisations remain perplexed as to how to move forward.

Skills and understanding are incredibly important, but so is confidence. Confidence can only be derived from experience. Get started; explore low cost desktop 3D printers and look for good local support. Tap into the amazingly collaborative 3D community – from immediate access to a raft of materials to willingness to share experiences. The 3D business case is there; and confidence will come from picking the right piece of kit with a low technical threshold, accessing the right materials, exploring the right software interfaces from design to preparation and, critically, getting involved with the right people who are willing to share their knowledge and support as and when it is required.

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