3D print technology is slowly moving into manufacturing, but what, exactly is driving it?
While there have been millions of desktop 3D printers sold to the public, the more interesting area is manufacturing.
For many years 3D print technology was relegated to prototyping. That’s because the materials used in the machines was almost always unsuitable for production end-use parts. However, it was possible to test fit and finish, appearance, etc., so rapid prototyping was the game.
Then as 3D print technology advanced, an increasing number of engineering materials were then able to be printed. More sophisticated print processes, advanced slicing software and operational procedures enabled use of the technology on more applications.
Many industries have been experimenting with the technology since then, but for now it’s only taken hold in a few select manufacturing industries. Let’s take a look at them, and why the technology “sticks”.
3D printing now has widespread use in aerospace, mainly for one big reason: the ability to lightweight parts. 3D printing can easily produce objects with ridiculously complex geometry, and advanced generative software can eliminate material where it’s not contributing to the mechanical function. That reduces part weight, which pays off by reducing the aircraft/rocket weight significantly.
In addition, advanced rocket engines require highly complex geometries that can only be 3D printed. As a bonus, these complex parts can be printed all at once and do not require assembly afterwards.
The highly competitive automotive industry is always innovating designs to attract customers. This process requires an ability to quickly produce new designs, falling into the rapid prototyping category. However, new engineering materials have enabled some of these parts to be identical to the production parts. In some cases we are now seeing 3D printed parts on automobiles, either temporarily as changes are made to the production line, or as permanent parts.
Dental is an area where the product for each customer must be personalized. Everyone has different teeth, and dental appliances of all kinds must be customized through 3D scanning.
This has led to vast production of products such as dental aligners. In some cases there are really no other options for customers aside from 3D printed products.
Factories produce products that are usually assemblies of parts. Assembly is done by humans or robots, but either require aids to do the process efficiently.
This is accomplished with the use of jigs and fixtures, physical aids that, for example, align parts for mating very quickly.
Forward-thinking factories have been making good use of 3D printing to produce such items directly on the assembly line. Often this is done by onsite participants who devise new approaches to simplify assembly, and then print them for immediate use.
Like the dental industry, healthcare is another subject area that requires personalization. There are a range of applications in the healthcare industry, from surgical implants like hip cups, to full-color surgical models for pre-op study.
Finally, the transportation industry is one where there have traditionally been huge stores of spare parts. Products such as railway cars are in active use for decades, and a quantity of spare parts is produced at the time of manufacture for use over the lifetime of the products. These parts must be stored for many years at great cost.
The transportation industry is slowly realizing that it’s possible to instead use a “digital inventory” where only the design files are stored. Parts are then produced on-demand when required. This dramatically reduces the cost of inventory and sometimes makes spare part delivery faster.
This is an enormous area of potential use for 3D print technology, and it is certain to grow significantly in the next few years.
While these industries are making good use of the technology, there are many that have yet to do so. Generally these are industries where the cost of parts is too low to justify 3D printing, or there is little geometric complexity or customization required.
When the costs of 3D printing come down sufficiently, we could see these industries light up the technology as well.