Technology

Feb 29, 2016

Are you ready for 3D printing revolution?

Printing in 3D may seem bizarre. In fact it is similar to clicking on the print button on a computer screen and sending a digital file, say a letter, to an inkjet printer. The difference is that the "ink" in a 3D printer is a material which is deposited in successive, thin layers until a solid object emerges.

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The layers are defined by software that takes a series of digital slices through a computer-aided design. Descriptions of the slices are then sent to the 3D printer to construct the respective layers. They are then put together in a number of ways. Powder can be spread onto a tray and then solidified in the required pattern with a squirt of a liquid binder or by sintering it with a laser or an electron beam. Some machines deposit filaments of molten plastic.

Engineers and designers have been using 3D printers for more than a decade, but mostly to make prototypes quickly and cheaply before they embark on the expensive business of tooling up a factory to produce the real thing. As 3D printers have become more capable and able to work with a broader range of materials, including production-grade plastics and metals, the machines are increasingly being used to make final products too.

Many people are using three-dimensional printing technology to create remarkable things. These include medical implants, jewelry, football boots designed for individual feet, lampshades, racing-car parts, solid-state batteries and customized mobile phones.

There are several ways to make 3D print and all those available are additive, differing mainly in the way layers are build to create the final object. Using 3D printers as production tools has become known in industry as "additive" manufacturing (as opposed to the old, "subtractive" business of cutting, drilling and bashing metal). The additive process requires less raw material and, because software drives 3D printers, each item can be made differently without costly retooling. The printers can also produce ready-made objects that require less assembly and things that traditional methods would struggle with. It can be printed in nylon, stainless steel or even titanium.

The printing of parts and products has the potential to transform manufacturing because it lowers the costs and risks. Parts could be made at dealerships and repair shops, and assembly plants could eliminate the need for supply chain management by making components as needed.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of additive manufacturing is that it lowers the cost of entry into the business of making things. An entrepreneur could run off one or two samples with a 3D printer to see if his idea works. He could make a few more to see if they sell, and take in design changes that buyers ask for. The success in manufacturing will depend less on scale and more on the quality of ideas.

Is 3D Printing Already a Mainstream? The simple answer is not, not YET.  The beginnings of the revolution show up in a 2014 PwC survey of more than 100 manufacturing companies. At the time of the survey, 11% had already switched to volume production of 3D printed parts or products. According to Gartner analysts, a technology is "mainstream" when it reaches an adoption level of 20%.

Some industries have already adopted 3D printing. Aircraft-makers have replaced a lot of the metal in the structure of planes with lightweight carbon-fibre composites. The U.S. hearing aid industry converted to 100% additive manufacturing in less than 500 days.

As applications of the technology expand and prices drop, the first big implication is that more goods will be manufactured at or close to their point of purchase or consumption. Another implication is that goods will be infinitely more customized, because altering them won't require retooling, only tweaking the instructions in the software. Creativity in meeting individuals' needs will come to the fore, just as quality control did in the age of rolling out sameness.

Making low-volume, high-value and customized components is all very well, but could additive manufacturing really compete with mass-production techniques that have been honed for over a century? Established techniques are unlikely to be swept away, but it is already clear that the factories of the future will have 3D printers working alongside traditional machines, and taking on an increasing amount of the work done by those machines.

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