The use of additive manufacturing also has to make sense from a design perspective.
"That's where everything starts," said Ravi Kunju, senior vice president of strategy and business development for simulation-driven design at Altair Engineering Inc., a global technology company based in Troy, Mich., that specializes in software for computer-aided engineering and high-performance computing.
Kunju said you have to consider the characteristics of the part you're looking to 3D print in terms of performance, surface quality, volume, form and function.
"Understand where it's going, understand the performance, because there are a lot of people who know how to do things, but you need to know why you are doing them," he said.
Simply taking an existing part and 3D printing it just because you can is "the dumbest idea," he added. "Don't, for heaven's sake, take a part and print it just because you want to print something."
Steve Wishau, production development engineer at additive manufacturing company Carbon, said designing those expectations and performance traits into the part from the get-go is important for developing additive manufacturing applications whether you're using Carbon's Digital Light Synthesis, HP's Multi Jet Fusion or other 3D printing technologies.
"Having multiple of these printing methodologies in your toolbox is important for the same reason that there's different methods for injection molding or rotomolding. … It's important to understand the pros and cons for all these technologies because they really complement each other in the overall workflow," Wishau said.
For John Tenbusch, CEO and founder of Linear AMS LLC, an injection molder and tool builder in Livonia, Mich., getting into additive manufacturing means first taking a look at what your customers need and the types of parts you currently manufacture in-house.
It just doesn't make good business sense to dabble in every market, every process, every manufacturing method and every kind of part, Tenbusch said.
At Linear AMS, the company can build complex metal parts via 3D printing. It also 3D prints nylon parts using HP's Multi Jet Fusion technology for end markets ranging from automotive and aerospace to consumer goods and packaging.
"We're picking our lanes, and we're staying in them," he said, explaining that in order to be successful with additive manufacturing, it's about simplifying your business model and staying within those lanes of expertise.
"If you try to be everything to everyone, it's a struggle. It's a tough road," Tenbusch said.
For big-name global corporations like Ford Motor Co. — and those working in the automotive industry, in general — the likelihood of implementing new ways of doing things is often linked to cost.
"I'm very much an advocate of the 'just do it' philosophy, too; however, working for a large corporation, it always comes down to what are you saving the company, where's the value in it," said Harold Sears, technical leader for additive manufacturing technologies at Ford.
Sears suggested figuring out the "pain points" in your production process and products, understanding the cause of those pain points and then deciding whether you can commit to redesigning that part of the process or product for additive manufacturing.
Ford has been successful in this regard. With Carbon's technology, the automaker has been able to design and produce digitally manufactured end-use parts on three production vehicles, including the 2020 Mustang Shelby GT500.
But those are still low-volume applications, usually for aftermarket, replacement or specialty parts, and the panelists all acknowledged that additive manufacturing has a long, long way to go before it can — if ever — tap into high-volume production.
Start small, Sears said, and don't just take a part that you injection mold today and decide to 3D print it as an experiment. But, ultimately, the success of implementing additive manufacturing at any company, big or small, starts at the top.
"The leadership has to believe in it as well and has to empower and enable their people to go down this road and take some risk, experiment a little bit," Sears said.
"If leadership is going to simply allow you to buy a couple additive machines and make some parts on it, you're probably not going to progress past that if your hands are still tied to designing very traditional parts that can be made with traditional processes," he added. "Leadership has to engage. They have to empower people to do something differently and try it."