3D Printing: The Building Blocks of Industry

What impact has 3D printing had on industrial production?

Over the first half of this decade, we’ve seen the lavish promises of a consumer 3D printing revolution gradually settle down into a number of highly-specific niche applications with limited growth. Yet while 3D printing at home has made a lot of noise yet minimal impact, a more profound change has been quietly taking place behind the factory gates.

Although it’s been around for 30 years now, an increasing adoption of industrial 3D printing is being driven by an ever- increasing array of applications. Why have giants like GE recently spent billions to acquire both technology vendors and technology users? The answer lies in 3D printing’s ability to increase top line growth and bottom line pro t by solving multiple problems in a single stroke.

The development tool of choice

3D printing has been key to helping companies shorten product development times but today’s rapid prototyping is much more than just a modelling solution. Thanks to increased machine accuracy, 3D printed parts can now be used to check assembly tolerances and the t of complex components and systems. With an ever-increasing palette of printing materials available, functional prototypes can also be used to test the capabilities of design concepts long before they go into full production.

The need for physical, tangible and tactile prototypes is, and always will be, very real. Yet one of the biggest growth areas is now coming not from the development environment but from a desire to use 3D printing during the production process, or even to put 3D-printed products into the supply chain itself.

Leaner, less wasteful logistics

3D printing is a digital technology suited to making complex geometry shapes in a variety of metals, thermosetting polymers and ceramics. As such, it’s an ideal way to make rapid, low cost and reconfigurable tooling, jigs and fixtures as well as short-run injection moulding, blow moulding and die casting tools.

In the composites industry, 3D printing using thermoplastics can make layup tools while soluble polymers can be printed into easily removable cores used in lament winding. In the casting sector, 3D printed wax and plastic parts are used as sacrificial patterns in the investment casting process, while sand casting cavities can be printed directly within the foundry by binding granules of sand with an ink-jet print head. In short, 3D printing is becoming an invaluable enabling technology for many upstream manufacturing processes.

In the assembly environment, 3D printed jigs and fixtures are also being used to hold traditionally manufactured component parts during drilling, bonding and inspection operations.

But if it’s possible to print a prototype and it’s possible to print the tooling used in the manufacturing process, why bother to use traditional manufacturing at all? Would it be simpler for most industries to just print the production part and be done with it?

Production using 3D printing

There are many examples of successful business models that already use 3D printing to produce the end product. From the exterior shells of hearing aids to dental caps, from hip implants to aerospace components – all these are printed to order.

What are the advantages to 3D printing such objects? Firstly, there is the design freedom. Given the layered, particle- by-particle nature of the technology, it is possible to produce parts with a very high level of geometric complexity with little or no cost penalty. 3D printing can effortlessly produce complex lattices and honeycombs compared to the bulky chunks of moulded plastic or metal from traditional manufacturing. This allows 3D printed components to have near-perfect strength-to-weight ratios and be made with the minimal amount of raw materials and production waste.

This particle-by-particle approach to manufacturing also allows materials to be very specifically combined in order to increase the functionality of a product or control its aesthetics. For example, combining multiple elastomeric and damping materials can create a ‘tuned structure’ capable of compensating for vibration, shock, sound or impact. Or, more simply, differently coloured materials can be combined to save on painting the finished product.

Beyond the physical nature of each product, there are several significant commercial implications and benefits to 3D printing parts. Firstly, eliminating the tooling associated with traditional production frees up working capital within a business and removes the needs to pass these costs on to the consumer. Secondly, with 3D printing, production runs of one unit are no longer a ridiculous idea. Also, by producing parts on demand rather than investing in an entire production run in the hope that all will sell, the entire supply chain is de-risked. Costs no longer need to be put into making and then warehousing large numbers of unsold products.

There is also a customer stickiness and value proposition that can be achieved by 3D printing products. Given that 3D printing is suited to individual units and is capable of producing highly complicated geometries, it is well suited to the manufacture of personalised and customised products, from jewellery and toys through to medical inserts and prosthetic limbs and devices.

3D printing also allows businesses to entirely reconfigure their supply chain, since the production of components no longer need to be constrained to any single location where the tooling resides. To this end, components can be made whenever and where ever they are needed – a potential revolution in the spare parts and aftermarket supply chain.

But let’s not get too carried away and carefully underline the word ‘potential’.

Since the percentage of 3D printed finished products remains small, let’s see why that’s still the case.

There is always a ‘but’

Currently, the vast majority of end-use 3D printed parts are made on machines optimised for prototyping and made from materials developed specifically for prototyping. Many of the sectors that want to exploit the low volume, high value benefits of 3D printing – such as aerospace and medical – are heavily regulated. So to serve these fields with 3D printed parts, both the technology and materials need to be elevated to a production-ready state. Processes need to be repeatable, interoperable and validated. Materials need to be traceable, capable and qualified.

Fortunately, all these factors are now being addressed across the industrial 3D printing supply chain, from the enabling CAD, software vendors and raw materials companies, to the regulators, technology platform vendors and end users.

How is Stratasys responding?

As one of the world’s leading 3D printing companies, Stratasys® is profoundly aware of the changing landscape of industrial 3D printing. We brought our first concept modelling 3D printer to market almost 25 years ago based on our own thermoplastic extrusion Fused Deposition Modelling process, although present day FDM® technology is far removed from those early systems.

Our current technology platforms can print high temperature-stable and aerospace approved materials as well as clinically approved medical materials. We can print full colour, materials with tuned mechanical properties and combine plastics with carbon composites.

We have developed software to streamline the work ow between the design and print environments and have made 3D printers larger, faster and more repeatable, increasing productivity while at the same time decreasing the cost of ownership. By integrating 3D printing with other automated industrial production processes, we’re driving this technology onto the modern shop floor.

Industrial 3D printing has come of age. To maximise its benefits, businesses needs to think strategically. It’s not the solution to every problem but it can do some things no other process can. Applying it to the right job is the key to its success.