Industry: Contract Manufacturing
Products: 3D printing manufacturing services
As numerous industries embrace 3D printing for prototyping, co-founders and brothers Donovan and Corey Weber have long been utilizing it as a complete manufacturing tool.
The Weber brothers started Forecast 3D after working for companies that utilized additive manufacturing in the late 1980s.
As the technology improved, the duo saw the potential for it to be used for more than just prototyping, and looked towards actual manufacturing of short-run products. "We started out of our garage, and kept our focus on craftsmanship and customer service," says Corey. "We purchased some of the latest HP 3D printers and we've grown organically over the past 25 years. The HP equipment has kept up with new materials and processes, and the cost has come down."
Forecast 3D makes parts for customers in the aerospace, automotive, and medical industries, but it's not exclusive to those three verticals. Using a wide range of plastics and composites, end products have included fuel tanks, protective boots, lab equipment, battery packs, and even art sculptures.
Innovation in the 3D-printing process known as Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) grew more advanced in the last decade. Corey says this has allowed Forecast 3D to compete with injection molding companies. "When you look at it on the surface, the actual per-part costs are cheaper when using injection molding," he says. "But when you add in the mold costs, that's what makes the difference. The value in MJF manufacturing is in the quick time-to-market. Molds made overseas have to deal with shipping issues, and on average take three months to get them back. When changes need to be made, the molds have to be sent back over and the process can take a very long time to get your product to market."
Forecast 3D's lead times are considerably shorter, as are the minimums. "Using MJF, it takes three days to get your first finished part and changes can be made in the CAD drawings for rapid turnaround," says Donovan. "With injection molding done overseas, manufacturers have to order 50,000 to 100,000 units. It takes time to ship and store the inventory in a warehouse, adding to the back-end cost. Because of the rapid time-to-market with MJF, you can order smaller batches and not have to inventory as much product, saving on the need for large storage space. Furthermore, you have the design freedom to make quick changes."
Donovan also points out that there are engineering advantages using MJF manufacturing. "With injection molding, there are some design rules that apply when creating things like radiuses," he explains. "Engineers need to stay within set rules to ensure thicknesses, tolerances, and other aspects to the molding process that need to remain consistent. Some components need to be molded separately and must be added later, along with any drilling, trimming, and so on. With MJF you can design things more efficiently and add assemblies into one single part, including threaded inserts. This makes the process more streamlined and cost-effective."
While there are limitations to the types and sizes of products MJF manufacturing can accomplish, the Webers say that's changing rapidly with the growth in this technology. "Right now we manufacture using nylon and nylon glass-filled products," says Corey. "Elastomers will be next, as well as flame-retardant powders and resins. Even light-metal alloys are being used in larger processes where a part is printed, then sent into a furnace where it melts into a complete part."
As MJF technology appears in more industries, big manufacturers are pushing it into mass production. "As an example to the potential, BMW now embraces MJF technology in a variety of its OE production scenarios," says Corey. "They've now used over 1 million 3D manufactured parts in the development of their cars and are taking this seriously. GM also has a program now, and it's also growing in the aerospace industry, where Airbus has over 1,000 3D-printable geometries qualified to be manufactured in the A350 aircraft."
Challenges: "Our biggest challenge is changing the way people think about design for manufacturing," says Corey. "As an industry, we've been designing the same conventional way and with the onset of MJF manufacturing, designers and engineers will have to do a complete 180 in the way they are thinking about part designs. It will happen, especially once someone designs something completely different that will open people's eyes."
Opportunities: "We see lots of new opportunities in the aerospace industry," says Corey. "Biomedical devices also offer huge opportunities locally, and in many consumer devices, too. Consumer devices are seeing shorter runs, as there are annual changes to the products. So they don't tool-up as they used to and that makes our manufacturing capabilities an advantage."
Needs: "Young talent is difficult to come by," says Donovan. "We have to train and look for artists. It's only been within the last five years that a number of universities in the U.S. have added specific courses for engineering in this field."