27 Feb 2018 / 3D Printing

3D Printing: Just Hype or a New Age in Manufacturing?

Will 3D printing usher in a new era in manufacturing? Or does the technology only hold promise for hobbyists and craft enthusiasts? Certainly, personal 3D printers can be found for less than $1000 on Amazon.com, and people use these to print out jewelry, key chains and other small trinkets. However, 3D printing is also being used for a host of industrial and medical applications, including medical devices and implants, automobile and aircraft parts, solid-state batteries and much more.

Value additive

Engineers and designers have been using 3D printers for close to three decades to make prototypes because it is much cheaper, faster and more flexible than tooling up a factory. As 3D printers become more advanced and capable of working with a broader range of materials, including production-grade plastics and metals, they are increasingly being used to make final products, too.

However, to reach mass-production, there are two major challenges to overcome. The first is to develop a wider scope of 3D printing materials (whether it be metal or plastic), because today this is very limited. The second challenge is to enhance the performance, repeatability (consistent dimensional stability) and productivity of 3D printers.

In the meantime, the technology is already being used for scale production of such applications as dental crowns and hearing-aids. And, because additive manufacturing deposits material only where it is needed, it is ideal for making complex and lightweight, high-value parts for aerospace and Formula 1 racing cars, for example. GE is investing $1.5bn in the technology to make parts for jet engines, among other things.

The additive process requires significantly less raw material than traditional manufacturing – up to 90% less – which means a substantial cost savings when working with pricey exotic alloys, for instance. It also turns economies of scale in manufacturing upside down, since it’s no longer necessary to make mass quantities of items to recover fixed costs. Both industry and consumers are increasingly benefiting from the tailored capabilities of 3D printing.

But more than this, entirely new breakthroughs are being achieved through 3D printing, such as the ability to create geometries that are otherwise impossible using traditional technics. This is leading to a change in the way designers think – a mindset shift – to imagine entirely new possibilities in design.

The new possible

The technology still remains too slow, too expensive and substandard for some applications. Nevertheless, it is at a formative stage where 3D printing is expected to gradually grow from niche to mainstream manufacturing. According to the consultancy Wohlers, in 2016 there were 97 different manufactures of industry-grade 3D printing systems, meaning those priced from $5,000 to $1m and more. And new business models are coming on line, such as annual leases with regular software updates rather than outright purchase.

Additive manufacturing is helping to lower the cost of innovation for firms everywhere. Using 3D printing, startups can now make prototypes locally for a fraction of the cost and time compared to traditional methods. The technology also holds particular promise for regions lacking a strong manufacturing base, where 3D printing technology could lower industry barriers to entry. A new manufacturing possible is in the making.