A year ago, talking about 3D printing almost always led to images of pastel-colored coffee cups or rather unappetizing printed hamburgers. We were still in the hype phase of the technology, despite it being about a decade old. Things have changed. There are serious uses now for 3D printing and it promises to revitalize production by bringing creative designs and small-lot printing to many industries.
3D printing is an umbrella term for printing solid products with a spectrum of different materials. We can choose between plastics and ceramics, metals or composites and the biological side now has human cell-based offerings. With all these choices, industry has many options for making parts that otherwise would be uneconomic or impossible to create by conventional means.
Let's look at some of today's practical uses. Making plastic parts has typically required a substantial investment in tooling a molding die. Even so-called “soft” tooling involves metal cutting and both expense and, more importantly, delay. Often tooling is the pacing item to getting a new product to market, given the time to fabricate the die and then tweak it in to specification. It is essential to model the CAD design as carefully as possible before investing in tooling, so that adds to design costs and schedule, making projects even longer.
With additive metal printing, soft tooling can be constructed quickly and cheaply, and if mistakes are made, corrections won't break the bank. The result is a much faster design process, followed by fast introduction. Customization of a design to, say, add a different customer logo can be done in hours and tooled in days.
Making the demo sample of a part for a customer also speeds up. Using plastics, metal or whatever works, a customer can get a demo in minutes or hours. Think about the selling value of being able to quote a solution by sending the actual part with the bid!
One result of the small run efficiencies of 3D printing is seen in the aerospace industry, where a complete production run might consist of a couple of hundred parts over a few years. The space agencies take this one step further, since one-off parts are common since each satellite is customized so much. Even parts like thruster cones, which take a lot of heat and stress are being printed today, with normally difficult to manufacture titanium.
Making molds isn't just restricted to plastics, of course. Dies for rubber gaskets can be made on a printer and molds for anything from cakes to building bricks fit the profile. One high-profile industry that's moving rapidly to printing is the jewelry trade. It's possible to design unusual, one-off pieces without having to create a lost-wax mold from scratch….printing with wax is one of the options today. The result is jewelry is achieving new lower cost levels in production, while customization is within reach of a new set of buyers.
Of course, direct printing of parts plays a great part in the growth of printing. Beyond the savings to schedules, designs that are printed can be optimized for weight and strength much better than traditionally molded or machined parts. It's just possible to create shapes that can’t be fabricated any other way.
The medical profession continues to move forward with printing. Better synthetic bones are being created, though printing human cells onto substrates is still in the lab for the most part. One innovative medical idea involves using printing to create a sensor cartridge from paper, wax, and reagents as a cheap way to do 24 bio-assays in parallel. Another, still in the lab, is a curdled milk sensor for cartons. This may be the harbinger of how a large piece of the Internet of Things will be achieved.
From an availability perspective, there are printers to meet needs from the desktop to the large manufacturer. We are even seeing models priced and right-sized for schools to use. Service bureaus with overnight delivery are appearing too.
There's still an immense amount of growth potential in front of 3D printing. Perhaps the larger question is, given the benefits to flexibility and agility of printing, will we see companies moving fabrication back on-shore from China to take advantage of production on demand, tiny inventories and the ability to customize cheaply? This could shape the future of industry in the 2020's.