How Advanced 3D Printing Technology is Driving the Future of Appliance Manufacturing
Manufacturers must rethink the very way they design and produce new home appliances.
Industries in transition are often the biggest hotbeds for innovation and disruption. Take the automotive industry for example, which is currently undergoing an historic transformation driven by a slew of disruptive new forces from ride sharing to electric vehicles to autonomous driving, reflecting a cultural shift away from traditional car ownership and more towards crowdsourcing and sustainability.
The consumer appliance sector is also undergoing an industry-wide change that reflects an increasingly fast-paced and hyperconnected world, and cultural shifts like a massive migration to population-dense urban centers where space is at a premium, living situations are more temporary, and smart buying habits are key.
Increasingly, home appliances are a key component of disruptive new technologies from voice recognition to the Internet of Things. From light fixtures to refrigerators, connected devices are changing our homes and our world with more personalized experiences, less environmental impact, and greater sustainability. And as these new connected appliances become more widely adopted, product development cycles must speed up to keep pace with the advanced technologies that power them.
More than others, the consumer appliances landscape is rich with customer choice, and new technology-first entrants to the space are forcing traditional stalwarts to respond. Not only have people come to expect new features in their appliances, they are also demanding lower prices. According to Juniper Research, that trend has already begun, forecasting that the average cost of connected appliances will drop 52% between now and 2023, falling to an average price of $280 globally. At the same time, it’s estimated that shipments of connected appliances will grow 80% per year on average through 2023.
To keep up with this accelerating demand for increasingly innovative and affordable products, manufacturers must rethink the very way they design and produce new home appliances. They need to leverage perhaps the most disruptive technology in this new digital industrial revolution: 3D printing.
3D Printing vs. Injection Molding
Injection molding has long been the de facto method of plastic component production in high-volume industries like appliances. The cost structures and scalability of the technology have allowed the relatively low-cost goods we enjoy today.
However, with that scale and cost structure comes tradeoffs: physical tooling limits design possibilities and inflexible development schedules are limited in their speed. But recent developments in 3D printing technology are breaking down these barriers to innovation, increasing productivity and production volume, and opening new worlds of design possibilities that make it a viable, scalable, and cost-effective manufacturing technology for appliance makers.
Importantly, the cost-per-part for 3D manufacturing continues to drop as technology advances and materials become less expensive, making it increasingly competitive as an industrial-scale production technology and increasingly attractive to high-volume consumer markets like home appliances.
As a designer, 3D printing provides the ability to design and produce geometries that were impossible to do with older technologies like injection molding. This can mean entirely new design strategies like complex lattice structures or topology optimization and organic shapes, creating jaw-dropping new possibilities of form and function.
But in the most practical terms, 3D printing means that you don’t need to compromise design and functionality for the sake of manufacturability. Traditionally, engineers will design for function first, and then later make tradeoffs for the sake of manufacturability like limited feature size or needing to redesign as an assembly of many parts. 3D printing eliminates many of those limitations, reducing design and development time, increasing manufacturing flexibility, the ability to produce complex parts as single components, and the removal of design restraints—enabling the realization of a product’s full functionality, without compromise, as originally conceived.
However, because injection molding has become so firmly ingrained in terms of how we think about designing and manufacturing products, cross-organizational change is required to make the transition to digital 3D production. And the processes that will need to be reinvented to drive such a change extend far beyond the factory floor, from supply chain to training to portfolio strategy to project management to measuring KPI and much more.
How 3D Printing Is Transforming the Appliance Production Process
3D printing enables the production of complex singular parts that used to require the assembly of several different parts. Right now, manufacturing processes are often limited to injection molding, which can be fully-featured but often requires several parts to be assembled together, or blow molding, which can create enclosed spaces like tubes and containers but must remain largely featureless.
3D printing removes these manufacturing restraints while creating fewer, smaller, and better-performing components, which is of great benefit when producing fluidic parts like manifolds, ducts or valves. Many of today’s appliances are heavily driven by fluidic design, and for appliances like washing machines that circulate air, water, or other fluid, the advantages of 3D printing are obvious.
In our own products we’re starting to leverage the capabilities of digitally manufactured fluidic components with our own advanced 3D printing technology. In one example, our supply chain organization determined that a complex duct would be more cost-effective if manufactured with 3D printing to avoid excessive tooling and assembly time, reducing what was once a dozen parts to a single component. 3D printing also eliminated concessions that had been made to accommodate molded production that required having plastic flow through the mold to add draft to the wall, significantly de-optimizing the original product design and vision.
The result is more compact and efficient designs that can reduce the physical footprint in the home without sacrificing functionality.
And with industrial-scale 3D metals printing on the horizon, there will be a massive new opportunity for components like heat exchangers, whose efficiency is largely tied to the creation of more surface area, so the opportunity for 3D production to create more complex and better-performing parts in more efficient ways will become increasingly difficult for other technologies to match.
The Future of Appliance Manufacturing
3D printing is already changing the way we design and produce appliances, but we’ve only scratched the surface when considering the full promise and possibilities of digital manufacturing for the industry. As product lifecycles continue their analog-to-digital shift, designers and manufacturers will be able to tap into greater innovation, wider applications, and unbridled imagination, ushering in a new era of 3D-printed appliances