CNC Your Way to Metal 3D Printing Success

Over the last several months, we’ve had the good fortune to meet with a number of machine shop operators in Louisiana and Mississippi. All great people. All highly skilled. They know their equipment backwards and forwards, and they know how to get fantastic results from it. Take the big machine tools (larger than a pickup truck), add hours of programming the CNC tool path, and a solid block of metal, and these artisans produce parts of complexity and precision that are truly a marvel. Imagine being able machine a part with a tolerance of 5 microns — that is ~10x smaller than the diameter of a human hair! That expertise doesn’t happen with the purchase of a machine. These skills were acquired over years (in many cases, decades) of diligent practice and a willingness of these individuals to challenge themselves to make ever more complex or more precise parts — and being ok with failing a time or two.

My partners at Entrescan and I feel like we are on the cusp of a phenomenal change in this industry. We are standing on the threshold of the next iteration of metal part making — additive manufacturing. Interesting fact — every 3D printed metal part needs some sort of post-processing or machining once it comes off of the printer. 3D metal printing can produce feature sizes as small as 100 microns — which is very impressive and bound to improve from there. 3D printing in metals can produce parts that are more complex, or lighter or with greater speed than traditional manufacturing. However, the resolution in every dimension in many cases can’t match traditional machining yet. From polishing for surface finish to machining a fitting for tighter tolerances, traditional machining and CNC skills will still be very much in demand, even in a 3D printed world. Great machine shop skills are necessary to get the most out of metal 3D printing.

The winners in this new paradigm will be those traditional manufacturing companies who start early. They will learn what the current limitations of the new technology are (along with the benefits), and they will combine their CNC skills with a growing metal 3D printing expertise to put out better parts faster. These pioneers will figure out the best way to build a part, or series of parts. Buying a metal 3D printer isn’t going to bestow magical properties on a machine shop business overnight. But USING one on a regular basis, learning its strengths to gain efficiencies will certainly deliver tremendous benefits. These forward-thinkers will achieve benefits that traditional job-shops cannot. They will get up the learning curve faster. They will push the boundaries of the new technology into the next iteration, and the next. Those entrepreneurs aggressive enough to experiment with materials and take the time to push those processes and resulting parts through various certification boards may end up “owning” certain markets.

These early-adopters will have the opportunity to go from a ‘job shop’ that bids for jobs on price, to value-added businesses that command a premium for parts that they can manufacture like no one else can. Let’s be clear — traditional CNC expertise is still going to be valuable. Many many parts will be machined and not printed, because the design of those parts doesn’t demand the complexity of a 3D printer. But as more and more parts are designed with the manufacturing capabilities of 3D printing in mind, these higher-complexity parts will take more share. At Entrescan, our job is to make sure that our clients are well positioned to capture that growth. If you want to be in that number (as we are fond of saying/singing in New Orleans), we hope you will reach out.

Let’s get better together.