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Making things a new 3D printing transforms the economics of manufacturing

Typically, a new manufacturing company begins by making small numbers of high-value items for niche markets before tooling up to produce stuff in large volumes for mass consumption. But Domin Fluid Power, a five-year-old firm based near Bristol, in England, has used 3D printing to go about things rather differently.

Domin began as a design service working in the aerospace industry, but after two years its bosses decided it should make its own products. Those they picked were high-performance hydraulic pumps and powered servo-valves, both of which control fluids in mechanisms found in machines ranging from aircraft to processing plant in factories. The question was which market they should concentrate on.

Aerospace offers good profit margins. But it is a low-volume business and one in which new devices often take time to be accepted, delaying return on investment. The market for factory and general industrial equipment is broader, easier and quicker to enter, and can absorb large volumes. But it is price-sensitive. So, unless those volumes can actually be sold, and economies of scale achieved, bankruptcy looms. At least, it does with conventional manufacturing methods.

Domin, however, acquired a 3D metal printer from EOS, a German firm. And that, says Marcus Pont, the company’s general manager, overturned the calculations. For a start, economies of scale hardly matter with a 3D printer. Changing designs requires merely a tweak of the software, rather than the retooling of a factory. This means, at the operating level, the unit cost of making one thing or many things is about the same.

Moreover, a 3D printer can create sophisticated designs that require less material to make, which lets products be lighter. Usually, removing material from a product to lighten it makes it more expensive. Cutting, drilling and machining require extra work and thus incur extra cost. That would normally push a supplier into a market that values weight-saving. At one end of the scale, Formula 1 motor racing, a kilogram saved may be the difference between winning and losing a race. In this business such a kilogram is worth more than $120,000. At the other end, saving a kilogram on equipment which sits on a factory floor is worth only a few dollars.

But with a 3D printer hardly any additional work is needed. Indeed, contrary to accepted wisdom, the lighter a part gets the cheaper it becomes to make, because of the materials saved. So Domin decided to enter the market for factory and general equipment first, with a competitively priced lightweight servo-valve. This valve is, though, identical to the one they will offer for mobile hydraulics in tractors, diggers and trucks, and also to the one they hope will qualify for aerospace use. With a little modification, they think it will also crack the racing-car market, opening a way to reach the entire automotive industry.

Mr Pont believes Domin is at the head of a trend. As 3D printers get faster and the quality of their output improves, the market for manufactured goods will, he reckons, change dramatically. “Industry needs to rethink the value of additive manufacturing,” he says. “It is not just a weight reducer but a cost reducer as far as we are concerned.”

Read the full article in The Economist.