It’s known by many names: additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping, layered manufacturing, direct digital manufacturing and, most often, 3D printing. Over the past couple of years, businesses and entrepreneurs, including valve and actuator manufacturers, have started using 3D printing to create prototypes, manufacture short-run products, and shave time and money off production processes.
What is 3D Printing?
3D printing is a unique process that can manufacture small- to medium-sized products in a short amount of time. It takes a three-dimensional digital model of a product and computes that product into thin, horizontal cross-sections. Those cross-sections are printed in the material of the producer’s choice and laid one on top of the other until the full product has been completed.
It’s an ideal system for anyone who needs to produce a complicated item in small batches, as it simplifies the production process and breaks down a complex shape into something more easily replicated. It’s also beneficial for creating prototypes of new products, manufacturing small parts or components, and producing precise small-scale models of larger objects or machines.
3D printers can use a wide variety of materials, metals and plastics, allowing for a highly customizable product. Additionally, a number of different file types can be used as the basis for a 3D model. In the industrial world, CAD data, Solidworks files and other common file types can easily serve as the foundation for a 3D-rendered model.
3D Printing and Valves
Using a process called digital sand casting, 3D printers can quickly and easily produce a pattern for a valve directly from CAD data. Then, the valve can be produced using low-cost alloy metals without having to create a core, saving money and reducing production time.
The sand-casting process can be used to cost-effectively create valves for working use in wells, but this process has another benefit. Valves can weigh upwards of 300-400 lbs.—not exactly something a sales team can carry to a sales call. However, sand-casting can help create mock-ups that weigh a fraction of the actual product. A 380-lb. metal valve can be re-created as an 18.8-lb. non-metallic scaled-down replica! Lightweight mock-ups can be easily transported to meetings with potential clients to be used as visual aids or demonstration tools.
In addition to functional valve production and the creation of mock-ups and sales tools, 3D printing can also help manufacturers create prototypes of new valve types to test and sell before beginning full-scale production.
Saving Time and Money
3D printing can save manufacturers time and money when it comes to producing valves, well parts and other customized components. With traditional manufacturing, there is an extensive amount of labor involved. Metals must be cast and forged, often taking several months.
With 3D printing, labor is practically eliminated. The production process is essentially automated, and once the file is sent to the printer, the machine does the rest of the work. This streamlined process allows companies to cut down on overall production costs and enables them to go to market faster; parts can be built in just a few hours or days. Traditional manufacturing doesn’t allow for this level of speed or flexibility.
The on-demand production aspect of 3D printing has intriguing ramifications for manufacturers; imagine the effects on supply chains and inventory requirements! Additionally, 3D printing has fewer limitations than other production options. The design process is more efficient, and virtually any material or metal can be used—from high-quality plastics to simple alloy metals. This increased efficiency and flexibility leads to a more customized product and greater savings.
Amidst the growing concern about industry’s effects on the environment, 3D printing can offer companies a way to be environmentally friendly and green when it comes to valve, part and prototype production.
During the 3D printing process, the only materials used are those that form the desired product – the individual layers that comprise the whole. This virtually eliminates any material waste from the process. This lack of waste means a more environmentally friendly process, and it allows manufacturers to avoid expenses for transporting and disposing of the waste itself.
3D printing also requires very little energy. All that’s needed is the power to the printer, and a product can be created in just a few hours. Conventional manufacturing methods require significantly more energy—and lead to more waste in the end.
Transporting manufactured valves to their final destination can rack up considerable shipping costs—not to mention the carbon footprint involved. The growing number of 3D print shops around the globe opens up the opportunity to create your valve or desired component as close to your destination as possible, drastically reducing the cost, time and environmental impact of delivery.
Improving Sales Efforts
Typically, a sales rep would supplement his or her presentation with printed-out images, marketing handouts or possibly a PowerPoint slideshow. Through 3D printing, sales professionals are able to show—not just tell. They can bring in mock-ups and small-scale models of products and parts instead of just talking about them. 3D-printed mock-ups put the product in the prospect’s hands and allows for a real demonstration of what this product can do for them.
Just a few of the 3D printed tools sales reps can use include:
- Valve replicas
- Scaled models of land or other areas where wells or systems are being considered
- Prototypes of parts, components or other products
- Training tools
3D-printed prototypes, scaled models and other visual aids can allow representatives to better demonstrate key points when discussing the features of their products. And since 3D printing is low-cost, even if 3D-printed materials only lead to one additional sale a year, that can mean millions of dollars in profits.
According to a May 2013 report by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, 3D printing is expected to have an economic impact of $100 to $300 billion annually by the year 2025.