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Is now the time to try direct digital manufacturing?

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article image Oreck uses direct digital manufacturing to create production aids, such as this fixture, which secures a component during CMM inspection

Additive manufacturing technology has evolved over the past 20 years from use in rapid prototyping applications into a full-fledged manufacturing solution, called ‘direct digital manufacturing’ or rapid manufacturing. Companies are increasingly applying it to manufacturing applications, and also proving its viability with each successful application.

Additive manufacturing concepts remain the same as they were 20 years ago; only their intended use has changed from mere prototyping to full-scale production.

Additive manufacturing

Additive manufacturing is the generic name given to processes that create a part by building it up in layers as opposed to subtractive processes such as milling or machining. Originally known as rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing was developed as a way to automate the creation of prototypes. This technology also goes by various other names, including 3D printing, which is one of the most popular.

Digital manufacturing is the process of using CAD or other data to drive an additive manufacturing machine that makes usable parts. Examples include components that go into sellable products, pieces of production machinery, replacement parts or manufacturing tools, such as jigs and fixtures. In addition to CAD, other types of data may be used to drive additive manufacturing machines including 3D scan data (for reverse engineering) and DICOM data (for making a physical representation of 3D medical imagery).

Digital manufacturing eliminates moulding, machining, casting and forming processes. Instead of material removal or shaping, finished goods are produced by adding material one layer at a time. Other than a few minutes of pre-processing to prepare a production run and some light post-processing to clean up a part, digital manufacturing progresses directly from CAD data to final part. By excluding upfront and backend operations common to traditional methods, digital manufacturing eliminates extraneous time, cost and labour.

One process, many technologies

Digital manufacturing is a process that is performed using various additive manufacturing technologies with diverse capabilities. To determine the suitability of digital manufacturing for any project, the user must first evaluate the project against their chosen technology. Digital manufacturing offers powerful advantages over traditional manufacturing methods including eliminating investment in tooling; speeding up design cycle and time to market; expanded design possibilities; quicker, less expensive redesigns; and custom parts and low-volume production. All these benefits translate to efficiency, flexibility, responsiveness and affordability for the manufacturer.

Digital manufacturing is a manufacturing process that introduces alternatives in product design, manufacturing methodology and business operations. Moreover, many additive manufacturing technologies are fairly environment-friendly processes, producing very little waste compared to milling processes because they use only the material needed. Unnecessary inventory is also not produced because there is no benefit to building more than what’s needed at any time. Most additive processes require no harmful chemicals and vent no harmful fumes into the environment. Energy savings are also significant because additive manufacturing requires a relatively small amount of electricity to produce parts.

Completely opposite to conventional production methods, digital manufacturing is quite a disruptive technology.

Application diversity

In the manufacturing environment, digital manufacturing is utilised by companies to manufacture the products they sell or to make the devices that aid in the manufacturing of the products. Best suited for low-volume manufacturing, this technology can be used for mass production to save time and costs, especially for items such as hand tools, gauges and jigs and fixtures.

Producing manufacturing tools presents the ideal opportunity to try digital manufacturing. These tools are deployed to make manufacturing and assembly fast, efficient, repeatable and cost-effective. In this manufacturing context, digital manufacturing becomes a low-risk, high-return alternative to standard practices.

Since the time and cost to produce these tools are small, a company can afford to make repeat attempts to perfect them. When successful, digital manufacturing greatly improves productivity, quality and the cost of producing parts. Digitally manufacturing tools is currently more popular than using digital manufacturing for end-use parts because it’s such a low-risk opportunity, and every manufacturer has a need for such tools.

Various industries also benefit from digital manufacturing processes. For instance, the medical and dental professions have been early adopters of digital manufacturing due to the inherent need for custom fitting devices such as orthotics, prostheses, hearing aids and dental bridges. Companies have discovered that it can be a powerful alternative, rather than a direct replacement, to the conventional manufacturing processes.


Digital manufacturing represents a fundamental shift in the approach to making parts, using additive manufacturing to make end-use parts directly from CAD data. Digital manufacturing is a promising manufacturing alternative that accelerates production and reduces costs while creating new possibilities and new business models. Its uniqueness comes from its ability to avoid moulding, machining and forming, while also eliminating the constraints imposed by conventional manufacturing methods.

Companies that have an in-house additive manufacturing system for rapid prototyping or outsource prototypes to a service that uses additive manufacturing can discuss with their design engineers in product development about building a simple manufacturing tool such as a small jig, fixture or gauge. Compare the cost of the digitally manufactured tool to the cost of producing it via traditional means, and discover how this cost-effectiveness can benefit the company.

Scott Crump is Chairman and Chief Innovation Officer of Stratasys Ltd ., a manufacturer of additive manufacturing systems for prototyping and production.

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