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How Is 3D Printing Disrupting Lean Manufacturing?

Today’s lean manufacturing is changing dramatically with the introduction of 3D printing. Processes that once required substantial amounts of time and effort and produced excessive waste can now be accomplished faster and cheaper. If you haven’t considered 3D printing for your shop yet, discover how well it can fit into your lean manufacturing business.

Cheaper Prototypes

With 3D printing, it’s easier than ever to create a prototype. No longer do you need to machine a prototype. 3D printers can create smaller prototypes of anything in minutes. Additionally, if you discover something that needs changing, you can model the change in the computer and see what it looks like before printing out a new prototype.

In other words, for less time and money, you can print out multiple prototypes of a new product. One company found that the cost per mold, when made conventionally, would be about $179.90 — versus 3D-printed molds priced at $57.90 each.

Improved Consistency

With machined parts, each part is individually created. That means if a human is working on them, each one could be slightly different. Printed parts, however, are all the same. This consistency makes the parts printed more reliable in their size and fit. And more reliable parts make both you and your customers happier.

With CNC machining, it’s possible for part consistency to be given up in exchange for speed. With 3D printing, every part has the same quality.

More Flexibility

The rapid printing rate allows designers to take bigger risks with parts than they could before. Whereas crafting a part limited its design, with 3D printing, the parts are built a layer at a time. This allows for innumerable variations and designs that may have been impossible before.

The lower price per part also makes it easier to change your products. It’s much easier to shift production when all that needs to be changed is the programming of the printer.

Less Waste

Production of any kind tends to generate waste. Machining starts with a solid piece and the material removed is usually tossed aside as waste. With 3D printing, most of the material used goes into the part. Only a few support structures may be waste. This fulfills the core tenet of lean manufacturing: reducing waste.

Fast Setup

Setting up a 3D printing system is easier than you might think. The hearing aid industry in the United States transitioned to manufacturing all hearing aids with 3D printers in just two years. This fast setup time makes it feasible for any company to bring 3D printing into their shop.

If you’re transitioning from CNC machining to 3D printing, don’t worry about changing file formats. Both creation processes can use OBJ and STL file types to make 3D products based on 3D models. This allows you to start with the same CAD software you use for CNC machining to get started with 3D printing.


For customers who request that individual parts have distinctive designs, nothing beats 3D printing. This option easily shifts through multiple designs, even in succession. Though it might take a little longer for the printing compared to CNC machining, you need less time to switch between designs.

All you need to do is load the next file — there’s no equipment change-outs. This makes the most of your time and can reduce the time that’s wasted in your shop by as much as 95 percent. Another goal of lean manufacturing is cutting back on wasted time, in addition to reducing physical waste.

Cut Back on Excessive Movement

When employees move around your shop, they waste time and energy. With 3D printing, there is at most two steps, which allows employees to stay in one place. This is more efficient for them and for your facility’s operations. The printer requires materials loaded in and the final product gets taken out. In some cases, your employees may need to finish the product before shipping.

These few steps can take place close to the printer. Every movement of your employees will count toward adding value to your products, which adheres to another central lean manufacturing goal of maximizing efficiency.

3D Printing and Lean Manufacturing

Your shop can integrate 3D printing for less waste and faster prototypes. In many instances, your final products could be cheaper. This boosts your bottom line and improves profit margins. Consider bringing 3D printing into your lean manufacturing facility. You won’t have to sacrifice your lean practices and you’ll benefit from this growing technology.


Megan Ray Nichols 
STEM Writer & Blogger


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