Is 3D Printing the Future of Manufacturing?
This is a question that often sparks debate amongst engineers. To give a definitive answer is tough but the real benefit in asking the question doesn’t come from the answer. It comes from exploring possibilities, sparking creativity, and assessing the capabilities of the technologies.
Since the 1980’s, 3D printing has been a developing technology with a variety of different forms. 3D printing can be described as creating discrete layers or “slices” of a 3D part which are combined to form one solid object.
The cheapest forms of 3D printing offer solutions in plastic. Generally, these are extruded from a filament spool, heated to above their melting point, then fused onto the workpiece. Once in place, the plastic cools to form a solid layer. Repeating this process over and over allows for the complete 3D object.
Metallic part production can take a similar deposition strategy to the plastic parts. More commonly though metal parts are produced through direct metal laser sintering. More on this later.
Some ceramic material can be processed by combining ceramic powders with vaporized adhesives such as super glue. The powder will be carefully laid on the work, then vaporized glue will be added to bind the powder, the work area is cleaned then the process repeated layer by layer.
With the exception of specialized production, we can break down 3D printing into the following categories:
- FFF “Fused Filament Fabrication” (commonly referred to as FDM or “Fused Deposition Modelling” but this is a trademark of Stratasys)
- Resin curing
- DMLS “Direct Metal Laser Sintering”
FFF systems draw material from a feed to the extruder, heat the material, and deposit it onto the workpiece. This provides a compact “business end” for production. Cheap systems don’t even require an enclosure for the machine. One drawback of this method is a limitation on layer thickness. The thickness is determined by a combination of head speed and extrusion speed. Controlling this often comes down to a case of trial and error. Also, it is extremely affected by external factors such as temperature, humidity, vibration, etc.
This method was new to me this year. After stumbling on the Formlabs Form 3L I was blown away by the magic of seeing a bed move into a pool of liquid resin and pull out a solid part. Resin printers work by building the component upside down. The resin is set in a bath with a clear window at the bottom. Below this is an LCD screen followed by a UV light source. The UV source switches on then is selectively allowed to pass through the LCD display based on which pixels are activated. The light that passes through will cure the photosensitive resin. This combined with a print area and a z-axis allow for the layer by layer creation previously discussed.
This method lays a small layer of powdered metal which is then fused by laser into position. Layer by layer a full object is built up. Laser sintering can whilst providing the ability to create much more complex parts than traditional metalworking methods. Though it is susceptible to micro-fractures due to the porous nature of the material.
What opportunities are there for new business in the market?
RP offers a user to quickly have a physical representation of a design they have. Due to reduced cost in manufacture compared to traditional milling. Parts can be observed and discussed by engineering teams or even trailed in assemblies before moving to batch production.
Small Batch Production
Just as RP offers low cost for low volume work small batches of products can be created whilst still offering cost saving compared to injection molding, milling, or other traditional processes.
3D printers by nature can produce individual parts which if a designer chooses can be slightly altered for each run. For example, differing degrees of backlash on gearing systems or progressively tightening an interference joint in an assembly. Iterative design philosophy opens up much higher levels of understanding. Utilizing this principle puts more weight on the design team and keeps the process within the realms of a skilled service over and above simply having machinery available.
Impossible / Complex Shapes
3D printing offers the ability to create bodies within bodies.
Statista.com sets the global 3D printing market at 20 billion in the US. This number can be misleading for those looking to invest as it includes not only part production but also machine sales. For high-end engineering applications, 3D printing is a slave to material science. Metallurgists have 1000’s of years of knowledge about grain structures in steel and corrosion in metals. In 3d this area of understanding is relatively immature but growing fast. Entering aerospace and medical markets may prove difficult for certain applications.
What’s the future of 3D printing?
For years material sciences have been working to fill the needs of more traditional manufacturing methods. Steel mills will produce different variations not only to suit the needs of the final product but also to aid in the production.
Chemists will create polymers that will behave at end-use in the same way as existing solutions but will also reduce toxicity or keep byproduct particle size above a certain limit.
As 3D printing methods develop and are adopted globally, material science will offer new products and solutions. These solutions will tackle things like curing time, rigidity, conductivity, aroma, and many more that we have not even considered at this point.
A common idea discussed is that each home will have a 3d printer. I see adoption moving far and wide but I don’t see this as the final stage. We live in a highly connected world which will only become more connected as time moves on. I highly doubt we are at “peak internet”. 3D printing will offer decentralized production. In my opinion, I don’t see this as becoming a production facility in each home but rather a series of small production facilities in local communities. Easy access for material delivery with space for storage.
In the early 2000’s there were services that would automatically print the newspaper on your home printer. At the time this was seen as the future but quickly was found to be wasteful and unnecessary. 3D printers in homes will be limited in scope whereas a 3d printing hub in a community will serve many more needs whilst limiting waste capacity.
The original question posed isn’t great. 3D is here and it’s no fad. It will be a part of our future and manufacturers will embrace it when it’s the best solution for their needs. Rather than asking “Is 3D printing is the future? ask “What is the future of 3D printing?”. This is a better outlook to have in my opinion.