3D Printing Technology Insertion: Sociotechnical Barriers to Adoption

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Chang, Shawn H.
Moser, Bryan R.

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University of Texas at Austin


Since the initial development of three dimensional printing (3DP) in the 1980s, companies have relentlessly researched for applications of the technology. The potential benefit is large, beginning with improved cost and schedule to manufacture plastic and metal articles. As such, governments and industry from advanced economies continue to invest heavily to accelerate 3DP adoption. Amid advancements in the pillars of three dimensional printing – the technology, material, and software – practitioners across industries are steadily deploying 3DP in product development, prototyping, and small scale production of parts and products. However, a large gap remains between promise and the reality of larger scale adoption. The potential benefits, risks, and specific steps to adopt and realize the benefits are not clearly understood, resulting in overly zealous (at risk) or overly cautious (opportunity avoided) approaches to 3DP adoption. Traditional manufacturers rely on decades of know-how in manufacturing practices across a large portfolio of parts, making first steps on a path to adopt new processes more challenging. This paper identifies the variables that complicate or impair judgement when considering the adoption of 3DP. A systematic approach to evaluate 3DP adoption across a portfolio is needed. A methodology is proposed to analyze the relative value of 3DP at the part and product system level for prototyping and production. The outcome is a framework that combines part-level feasibility with systemic benefit of cost and schedule improvements as prototyping and production alternatives. In building this framework and in interviews with experienced manufacturers, several key insights were gained. Part by part consideration of 3DP feasibility is daunting, while adoption requires readiness not only of 3DP technology but also the receiving systems and organization. By viewing 3DP insertion as a sociotechnical system implementing the changes, attention is drawn to the tacit knowledge of critical characteristics in existing manufacturing processes, design for manufacturing decisions embedded in existing part assemblies, the pre-processing and post-processing capabilities available to shift 3DP feasibilities, and the alignment of organizational learning across parts.


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