In addition to prototyping, manufacturing companies are increasingly looking to additive manufacturing on 3D printers as a way to build production components, too.

With manufacturing of production tools reduced from six weeks to just two days and tool production costs slashed by 40 percent, additive manufacturing is really paying off for French aircraft design and manufacturing group Latécoère.

So much so, in fact, that engineers at the company, which works with aerospace giants including Airbus, Bombardier and Dassault, are starting to explore the idea of using 3D printing in the creation of production parts.

Earlier this month, Latécoère announced that it was using 3D printer technology from Stratasys for both rapid prototyping and production tooling. Using 3D printers as production tools is often referred to as ‘additive manufacturing’, because these machines lay down layer after layer of a given material to create a ready-made object, as opposed to the ‘subtractive’ business of cutting, drilling and hammering material away.

Either way, the adoption of this technology has been “transformational”, according to Simon Rieu, composite and additive manufacturing manager at Latécoère’s R&D and innovation center. “Additive manufacturing has integrate seamlessly into our design and production process and has seen us enjoy improved lead times, reduced costs and enhanced efficiency,” he says.

Read more: Analysis: Four smart factory trends to watch in 2018

Additive manufacturing begins to take off

In future, the company plans to 3D print final production parts for planes from Airbus, Boeing and other leading aircraft manufacturers, such as air duct housing components, for example. When 3D printed, these components could be produced more quickly than using traditional production methods – plus they’d be lighter, too, which is significant because an aircraft that weighs less also uses less fuel on flights.

Currently, only 29 percent of manufacturers are using 3D printing for production parts, according to a recent survey sponsored by manufacturing technology company, Jabil. But as 3D printing becomes more efficient and can be carried out using a wider variety of materials, the company expects this figure to climb. In fact, nine out of ten of the manufacturers surveyed said that they expect to grow their use of 3D printing for production parts in the next three to five years.

For now, the use of 3D printing is limited for most manufacturing companies – and, more specifically, limited to the prototyping process. In other words, it’s used to make mock-ups and test versions of components so that designs can be tweaked before final versions are produced. In Jabil’s survey, seven out of ten respondents say they use 3D printing for prototyping.

But either way, manufacturers are hardly sitting on the sidelines, watching the evolution of 3D printing. They are already using the technology – more than eight out of ten use 3D printing in some way today. “This is encouraging as it means that manufacturing companies are already looking for opportunities to integrate additive manufacturing within their established processes,” says Jabil. The aerospace and medical device industries, incidentally, are leading the way here.

Over time, this suggests that 3D printers will become integral parts of the smart factory set-up – just another form of connected device, capable of receiving instruction and reporting on their status, activity and performance over the Internet and boosting manufacturing productivity and efficiency in the process.

Additive manufacturing is bound to come up as a topic at our Internet of Manufacturing event, taking place in Munich on 6-8 February 2018. Attendees will get the chance to learn more about how connected technologies open up new paths to increased productivity and profitability for industrial companies.