3D Printing Gets Beyond Star Trek

3D printing isn't quite as good as a Star Trek replicator, yet it still adds a new powerful tool to development and art. 3D printing is a way to create difficult shapes and prototype parts rapidly. Unfortunately, the techniques have some limitations that are being lost in the hype.

To start, the raw supplies are not cheap. Making a plastic mug on a 3D printer may be a fun project, but the cost per cup is generally around $30. Secondly, the resulting cup will be fragile. The layering process isn't done under pressure, and the cohesion between layers tends to be weak. Further, stamping or molding parts is much quicker than the time it takes to print it. Finally, 3D printers are expensive.

On the flip side, 3D printing allows you to make impossible shapes. Things that can't be carved or machined can be done using this approach, such as heart valves and objets d'art , which in turn gain an entirely new dimension.

3D printing is superb as a tool for development. I've used it to model computer boxes, so we can check everything from form and fit to aesthetics before actually tooling the parts. This alone has greatly shortened production times.

It is even better for plastics molding development. Making a few prototypes allows tuning the design before spending the dollars on tooling, and that vastly reduces costs, risks, and schedules. The designs can easily be fed from the CAD tools, and an overnight check print takes on a new meaning!

Bringing new opportunities
The jewelry trade is one place where 3D printing is beneficial. Traditionally, intricate shapes were carved in wax and then converted to a metal part using a foundry to replace the wax with metal. Now, in addition to making designs more detailed, jewelers are able to take a piece from an idea to reality in just a couple of weeks.

Complex shapes can be 3D printed in plastic. A bead can be imprinted with a cameo, and even the stringing hole can be printed. The potential for shapes is limited only by the designer's imagination and budget.

Setting up your own 3D printing facility isn't for the hobbyist. However, a newly emerging “3D print shop” industry offers 3D printing as a service. It's a natural fit as a service model, since doing the job right requires expertise that the average designer doesn't have and, by hiring the expert, doesn't need to learn.

There are more advanced uses for 3D printing, since metals, rather than just plastics and waxes, can be printed now. The original form of 3D printing, called stereo-lithography, has been joined by laser deposition techniques that can lay down metals. This approach is called Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), where a thin layer of sinter metal is fused-on by a laser tracing a 2D pattern. This is repeated to generate a part. SLS can be used with both metals and ceramics. It's a new approach, with a lot of promise for small-run production work and as an alternative to investment casting.

Full color printing is possible now, and the issue of a smooth finish is addressed by printing wax-finished coats onto parts.

A solution for supply chain
For a certain group of industries, these technologies offer a solution to supply chain dilemmas, by providing parts on demand, rather than through a long pipeline. The adjacent chart highlights this well. 3D printing is a major enabler for point-of-use manufacturing.

The most exciting use of 3D printing is in medicine. Originally a modeling tool (heart valves were one of the first examples shown to prospective customers in the early days), parts are now being built to act as support for organs that are being grown as replacements.

It doesn’t stop there. “Bio-Ink” allows the direct deposition of living cells on the support matrices, and experiments to grow artificial organs are underway. There's still much to be done, but making artificial skin for grafting and creating artificial ears and noses are close to being real.

Of course, we aren't able to get a hamburger and fries from a 3D printer, never mind the instantaneous delivery of real-world foodstuffs we saw in in Star Trek . At the same time, 3D printing is changing a lot of areas for the better. As the technology evolves, who knows what will happen next?

What do you think? Share your thoughts on 3D printing's place in the electronics supply chain below.

19 comments on “3D Printing Gets Beyond Star Trek

  1. JimOReilly
    August 28, 2013

    In our online chat today, the strength of materials came up a few times.

    Here's a NASA article fresh from the presses today that describes a rocket engine part that they 3D printed. One warning, they used a very expensive printer and a sintered metal process to do this!

    Definitely getting up there with Star Trek!

  2. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    August 28, 2013

    Thank you for a great chat today, Jim! And for the NASA example. I know this is specialized by the evolution of technology always start at the high end and then trickle down. It's not for everyone yet, but i can imagine a time when it will be.

  3. JimOReilly
    August 28, 2013

    Your'e welcome Hailey. That was a fun chat.

    3D printing is here to stay. It's just too good an idea. Some of the durability problems will be fixed, and the low-end will avhieve quality at a good price. When we see printers in high-scholl art classes and engineering classes in college, we'll know the technology is maturing.

    I'd fund a startup in the space if I won the lottery!

  4. ahdand
    August 29, 2013

    I too would back 3D printing as long as its being used for good things. Lets hope it will not be something which happened to fire arms. I will back it as long as it is being served to do justice towards the users.

  5. Himanshugupta
    August 29, 2013

    I donot know how people can save an open technology from misuse. But 3D printing is i think one step further to 3D models. Most of the time 3D computer models might not give the overall picture of how a particular object will look like. Many a time, aesthetics are more important so 3D printer will find many applications.

  6. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    August 29, 2013

    @Jim, i'll go buy my lottery ticket this weekend and if i win, we can go in on it together!

  7. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    August 29, 2013

    I think you can blame a technology for the ways it can be misused, whether it is 3D printing and guns or the way hackers use security advances to break into systems. There's always the chance people will take cool technology and take it in a bad direction.

  8. zip11777
    August 30, 2013

    Jim- I missed the online chat, and am just reading up on this topic now.

    I certanily see the value of 3D prining for redcuing lead-time  at the prototyoe or development stage, but do you (or the other industry experts) think 3D prining technology will have any major impact on the supply chain once the part is needed in High Volume manufacturing quantities?



  9. SunitaT
    August 31, 2013

    Lets hope it will not be something which happened to fire arms. I will back it as long as it is being served to do justice towards the users.

    @nimantha.d, true. But you cant stop people from misusing the technology. I think strict regulation should be made so that the source files to prints such technology should be made inaccessible.

  10. Ariella
    August 31, 2013

    @himanshugupta 3D printing really is taking off, especially when combined with a cloud engine, as in the case of  Sculpteo. The 3D-printing Cloud Engine enables businesses to incorporate advanced 3D printing into their product lines andcreate products on-demand. And they're not limited to plastic,  Sculpteo offers a choice of 35 different materials, which include some metals. Of course, GE has already applied 3D printing to titanium for its engine parts.

  11. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    October 2, 2013

    This just in from Gartner:

    Worldwide shipments of 3D printers (3DPs) priced less than $100,000 will grow 49 percent in 2013 to reach a total of 56,507 units, according to Gartner, Inc.'s first forecast of the less than $100,000 consumer and enterprise 3D printer market. Rapid quality and performance innovations across all 3DP technologies will drive enterprise and consumer demand. Gartner said that shipments will increase further in 2014, growing 75 percent to 98,065 units, followed by a near doubling of unit shipments in 2015. 

    “The 3D printer market has reached its inflection point,” said Pete Basiliere, research director at Gartner. “While still a nascent market, with hype outpacing the technical realities, the speed of development and rise in buyer interest are pressing hardware, software and service providers to offer easier-to-use tools and materials that produce consistently high-quality results.”

    That's astonishing growth… and astonishing growth of the growth (75 percent in 2014?!) Sounds like this technology is going to be on fire.

  12. JimOReilly
    October 2, 2013

    I hope we get an explosionof good styling and innovative design with the expansion of 3D printing. That would resolve the hype issues!

    Maybe a whole new genre of 3D printed sculpture is heading our way.

  13. JimOReilly
    October 2, 2013

    Except fo some high end printing approaches using sintered metals, directly printed parts aren't usually strong or cheap enough for volume production.

    Ther are exceptions. small parts can be economically generated by printing, and low volume, non-load bearing parts like logo plates are best done using the technology.

    That will tend to change as printers get cheaper and faster. Remember how slow early PC printers has made huge speed improvements.

  14. JimOReilly
    October 2, 2013

    Ariella, I suspect printed circuit boards may soon be 3D-printed circuit boards.

    Getting a prototype in an hour would be great!

  15. Ariella
    October 2, 2013

    @Jim yes, and with the nearly daily advances in 3D printing, it's not at all beyond the realm of possiblity in the next few years. 

  16. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    October 7, 2013

    @Jim, it does look like we'll be hitting a tipping point in this industry sooner than any of us expected. It's going to be an interesting year coming up.

  17. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    October 7, 2013

    @Jim, i see this type of technology as being more like a “spare tire” of technology. i could see an instance where a need for a spare part could take a manufacturing line down and a three D printed version coudl save teh day at least until the part could be delivered. Is this in my head? Or does this happen?

  18. JimOReilly
    October 8, 2013

    Hailey, The spare parts idea is really good.Keeping parts for years after a unit ships is expensive, and it takes time to get the part if you are not near a depot.

  19. JimOReilly
    October 9, 2013

    I was at my dentist last week. They've just started printing temporary dentures and bridges in their office. It takes around 5 hours for the denture. Not bad!

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