Advanced Precision Machining

Machine Shop Prototyping and the Future of 3D Printing

[April 30, 2019] Despite recent reports on the softening U.S. economic growth and growing headwinds that are expected to slow the sector in 2019, last year saw the addition of 264,000 newly added manufacturing jobs. On the precision manufacturing front, which includes the milling and machining industry, analysts continue to report on good news. The labor market remains solid, and we’re experiencing the best manufacturing jobs growth in the last 30 years, even while combating the ever-present skill gap. Machine tool consumption is expected to increase this year by 11%, the recent tariffs and trade wars haven’t dented many bottom lines, and advances in robotics, automation, and even additive manufacturing are poised to make up for any labor shortages. This is all great news as our industry continues to prosper and experience a boom not seen since long before the 2008 recession.

At Advanced Precision Machining (APM), your go-to Colorado CNC machining facility located in Longmont, our thoughts are naturally on the future of the CNC machine shop industry. In our ongoing effort to meet our clients’ manufacturing needs for high precision parts and components, keeping up with advancing technology trends is always part of our business plan. The machine tools industry has rapidly evolved with the development of both hardware and software applications, more advanced milling and machining equipment, process automation, the Internet of Things (IoT), Industry 4.0, and the integration of additive manufacturing (3D printing) technology with machine tools. In this month’s latest APM blog entry, we'd like to briefly revisit a topic of particular interest to us and to the future of precision manufacturing operations; prototyping and 3D printing’s expanding role in the modern CNC machine shop.

One of the top trends influencing the global machine tools market today is the integration of 3D printing technology with machine tools. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process whereby a three-dimensional solid object is created from a digital model using an additive process and was originally invented to create small plastic models and prototypes. A 3D printer lays down successive layers of a material, usually a liquid, paper, powder or sheet material, until a desired shape and form are obtained. Whereas a traditional CNC milling machine removes material, a 3D printer adds material, hence - additive manufacturing. When first envisioned, 3D printing was thought of something that would enable the manufacturing of products on demand, including those traditionally machined from various metals. Unfortunately, this hasn’t transpired yet. To date, 3D printed metal parts require tremendous time, it’s cost-prohibitive, and the post-processing finishing steps are labor-intensive. Despite these barriers, many machine tool manufacturers are slowly incorporating this technology into their equipment.

For today’s precision CNC machine shop however, 3D printers, in reality, are not meant to replace the time-tested methods of milling and machining metal parts. Instead, they will compliment them and create a new digital manufacturing ecosystem, while solidifying their role for use in on-demand rapid prototyping. Currently, additive manufacturing has revolutionized the process of prototype development, and the technology is now worth looking into for even smaller operations. The process of producing a prototype part for a customer is a necessary step in the precision machining process, but requires manpower, machine hours, setup time, bar stock costs, etc. Additive manufacturing, depending on the job, has the ability to put many samples into the hands of a customer, and allows them more flexibility in designing then choosing their end-use component. But, CNC milling and machining still remains the best choice for rapid prototyping of high-quality metal and plastic parts requiring the greatest degree of dimensional accuracy, critical surface finishes, material-specific properties.

There is no denying the evolving role that production 3D printing now plays in machine shop environments, and many are predicting that it will be an unstoppable force driving the next industrial revolution, aka Industry 4.0. Relegated to today’s sphere of prototyping and short-run production, an important shift is occurring in additive manufacturing towards higher output and mass production as the market is expected to double in size over the next years. Innovations in direct-metal printing and the number of alloys that can be printed are on the rise, and increases in speed and printing technology are better aligned, meaning the industry will be pushed forward. At Advanced Precision Machining, this is all positive news, and intriguing enough to start exploring this technology for our own shop!

Want to learn more about machine shop prototyping or have a question about 3D printing? Contact the expert CNC machinists at APM for all of your precision part needs.

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About the Author

Gerry Dillon is a co-founder, current owner and certified CNC machinist at Advanced Precision Machining (APM), a full-service machine shop located in Longmont, Colorado. Before making his home in the United States in 2000, Gerry was born and raised on the emerald isle of Ireland and took an interest in milling and machining from an early age, ranking #1 in the Irish National Apprenticeship Program. In 2005, he and a partner began what’s grown into a leading Colorado machine shop. Gerry brings over 30 years of machining experience to the shop floor and is certified in all aspects of geometric dimensioning and tolerancing.


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