^ Building Plastic Object with a Novel 3D Printer – Image Courtesy of Alexander Kirch at ShutterStock.com
A Peep into the Future
Imagine this. In not too distant a future, your car breaks down because one of its parts has worn off beyond repair. Now, you have been using the car for over five years. You visit the company’s authorized spares dealers. The part is not available. You check with other dealers. Same result.
Vexed, you call a friend who happens to know a thing or two about automobiles. He gives you the contact details of a small fabrication shop right in your neighborhood. Unsure but eager, you walk into the shop. At first sight, you are not impressed. Not one bit.
Appearances can be deceptive though. In the next hour or so, you watch with spellbound surprise as the fabrication shop owner-operator builds a new spare layer-by-layer after writing a code for building an exact replica.
He may or may not use conventional machining processes such as cutting, shaping, drilling, or milling. But he completes the job quickly and provides you a better than expected part. And yes, he does not waste much material.
That, in a nutshell, is how 3D Printing also called Additive Manufacturing (AM) will change the fabrication shops of the coming day. There will be many around and will offer you faster and better choices at reasonable rates. Customer will no longer be the king only in name.
A revolutionary technology, 3D Printing holds the potential to turn on its head the omnipresent logic of mass production ushered into the manufacturing world by the Industrial Revolution.
With 3D Printing, the fabrication shops of the future will be smaller and closer to your office or home. They will be more interactive and more creative quickly making parts more tailored to your needs at low costs with minimum wastage and the least possible environmental impact.
You will no longer have to chase the maker of your ageing machine to get its spares. The neighborhood fabricator will make them for you. Soon, the original maker too will start making them. And most importantly from the economy-wide perspective, all this will bring back manufacturing jobs.
Transport and storage will be almost unnecessary and this will radically alter the supply chain mechanics in global trade. In short, your neighborhood fabrication shop will be the digital store for all your customized product-related needs.
As yet, however, the technology is miles away from such radical capabilities. Thanks to a host of technical, market, and legal realities. Plus, there is the job loss argument. It will take time for the technology to dispel negative notions and comes into its own.
Revolutions in material and manufacturing technology have always transformed the economy. And, economic changes are at the root of social, political, and cultural revamps.
CCS Insight estimates 3D Printing to grow to $4.8billion in 2018. By then, 75% of its revenue will come from industrial production, not prototype production. Only 20% of 3D-printed products in 2011 were final parts. Prototyping remains its single largest application thus far.
Conventional machining processes are subtractive. They make the final part through a calculated and step-by-step removal of material from an existing block of material.
3D Printing, on the contrary, makes final parts by fusing together a very large number of horizontal layers deposited over one another. Each layer is the cross section of the part at a certain level.
After you feed the drawing of the part into the printer, the software breaks it down into a mammoth number of horizontal layers. It then guides the working arm of the printer to create each of these layers one above the other.
3D Printing is far better than traditional machining processes when:
- Making Customized and/or Complex Components
- Undertaking Low-Volume High-Value Production: aerospace, customized artwork, jewelry, and designer consumer goods
- Dealing with Flexible Processes: as you only need to change designs to make different parts
- Executing Rapid and Efficient Operations: as you can finalize designs and print out the parts in a matter of hours without needing complex jigs and fixtures
Plastic is the most 3D-printed material in the world. The technology is however making strides and expanding its use of metals, paper, ceramics, biomaterials, and even food.
A developed and streamlined version of Rapid Prototyping (RP), 3D printing first achieved a physical form with Charles ‘Chuck’ Hull’s Stereolithography Apparatus in 1983.
Futuristic Impact of 3D Printing on Fabrication Shops
Retail, manufacturing, and product development firms will be most affected by 3D Printing. AM has had the most impact on the aerospace, automotive, and healthcare sectors.
3D Printing will affect almost all aspects of manufacturing such as:
Mass Customization or the capacity to make a large number of different and personalized parts at low cost is one merit of 3D Printing that has made many brand it as the Third Industrial Revolution.
Making a whole range of diverse parts will not take more time and not cost more than making a large number of same parts. Rather, it may cost less and take less time.
Because, within limits, all you have to do to make different parts is change the drawing fed in the 3D printer. No expensive and time consuming production planning, re-tooling, and designing of intricate jigs and fixtures.
Installation too will be easier because you can combine many components into one single product. Remember, 3D Printing can easily make intricate parts.
And because such 3D printers will be available with many, it will decentralize and democratize manufacturing and thereby drastically cut transport and storage costs. And you don’t have to wait for ages for the company or the dealer to find the spare and ship it.
Speaking of storage, you will now have digitally stored spares. You don’t have to store them physically. This will completely remodel the way companies establish their supply chains because you can now make parts as needed at remote locations.
Armed forces and oil rig operators will no longer have to maintain large, heavy, expensive, and space-inefficient inventories of critical spares. They will print the spares on site. Same goes for sailors and astronauts who will also get to ride lighter ships.
Remember, we touched the issue of non-availability of spares of older machines. Well, some companies use this as a deliberate ploy. It is called planned obsolescence. They stop the production of spares of older machines to create demand for its new machines.
With small local fabrication shops making such spares, large companies will no longer neglect the repair and maintenance market. On account of planned obsolescence, most goods at present either occupy pre-production warehouses or landfills. This amounts to wastage.
By cutting down such wastage, 3D Printing will reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing. Environment provides all the resources we need to survive and thrive. It also absorbs the wastes we create. And the more resources we consume, the more wastes we generate.
Now, the capacity of the environment to supply resources and assimilate waste is large but not unlimited. Seen from this perspective, 3D Printing is an exceptionally eco-friendly process. By cutting down transport, the technology gives you a further green effect.
Then again, 3D Printing wastes less material. Conventional machining removes 90% material while making some aircraft parts. 3D Printing removes only 10%. Airbus Defense and Space cuts the production cost of satellite brackets by 20% by using 3D Printing.
If you cut an aircraft’s weight by 1kg, you save $35,000 in fuel costs over the aircraft’s lifecycle. And, 3D-printed parts are 65% lighter but as strong as those made via conventional processes.
When a whole lot of people use a technology, it unleashes the creativity of that many users. It may happen that we may no longer engage the services of product designers. Why hire them and wait for weeks to obtain the design when you can do it yourself?
Conventional machining is prohibitively expensive when it comes to making customized parts. More so if you wish to employ it for a trial-and-error process.
Innovation is among the important drivers of technological and economic advances. But you cannot take an innovative idea to its logical conclusion unless you go through the cumbersome and painfully slow process of trial-and-error.
As the cost of 3D printers fall progressively, it will lower the entry barrier posed by capital requirements. This will nearly level playing field between small and large players.
Re-shoring or the return of jobs outsourced to cheap-labor economies is already a reality. This is creating jobs in the U.S. economy. 3D Printing will accelerate the process by cutting production cost.
The Ifs and Buts
Let’s not get carried away. 3D Printing is beset with umpteen limitations that restrained its market penetration to 1-5% in 2013. The technicians who nearly 3D-printed an entire car at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show believe AM will not replace conventional machining in the automotive sector in the near future.
McKinsey Global Institute places the worth of global 3D Printing at $550billion by 2025. International conventional manufacturing was worth $11.5trillion in 2012 itself. Currently there are only 2,000 odd 3D Printers in the world vis-à-vis thousands of conventional machines.
- Intellectual Property Rights: is a mega issue. While patents encourage innovation, 3D Printing is a rapidly evolving technology that loses steam due to the standard 20-year patent duration
Large companies favor a strong patent regime while the open source community prefers open sharing via the internet. To attain its full potential, 3D Printing needs an open source revolution
Then again, current provisions in the U.S. IP law cannot address the multiple legal facets that the technology opens up
- Cost: genuinely useful 3D-printers cost $50,000 although some are available for as low as $500. Ti6-4 powder costs a whopping $600/kg while metal powder comes at about $150/kg
Some AM processes consume 50-100 times more power than traditional processes
- Psychological Adjustment: is an invisible but critically important issue. Business models must evolve to keep pace with this continuously upgrading technology or risk failure
Adapting to change requires a dynamic mentality that only a few good men are blessed with. And the fact that some facets of AM are diametrically opposite to those of traditional machining aggravates this
- Structural Limits: plastic is the most 3D Printing-friendly material and is not very strong. Plus, the structural integrity of non-plastic parts made via 3D Printing is not always acceptable
- Precision: certain AM-made parts are not as accurate as those made by traditional precision machining
- Lack of Industry-Wide Quality Standards: because the sector is new
- Acute Shortage of Skilled Workers: as fresh technicians know almost nothing about AM as the field is new. Even otherwise, the U.S. faces a shortage of skilled conventional machinists
Perhaps the greatest challenge with 3D Printing is to overcome the notion that it will cause job losses. Technology has always created more employment in the long term than it has destroyed. Isn’t that what happened with the computers? While AM will cut labor requirements, it will also propel blue-collared labor to learn fresh technical skills.
The Dodgy Way Ahead
Capacity of the technology to produce more useful parts and print a wider variety of materials is expanding by the day. Prices of 3D printers are falling.
You don’t have to 3D print an entire part to benefit from its merits. And you can now share 3D designs freely on the internet. Soon 3D Printing will make its way into the educational curriculum.
These developments are inching 3D Printing closer to the mainstream. The general feeling in the 3D Printing industry is that by 2020 the technology will reach its tipping point. Thereafter, it will be used more for Direct Digital Manufacturing (DDM) than for making prototypes.
According to Christopher Barnatt, Associate Professor of Strategy and Future Studies at the Nottingham University Business School, 3D Printing can be a part of the mainstream only by integrating with conventional manufacturing technologies.
Such integration means, we will have a composite manufacturing process. We can no longer call it 3D Printing Revolution, but Local Digital Manufacturing (LDM) Revolution of which 3D Printing will be the foremost element.
We must all look forward to it. Else, we will be looking forward to receiving a spare for months. And, it may never arrive.
Our blog is replete with enriching content on 3D Printing. Do visit it. And speaking of deeds beyond words, Kemplon Engineering is among the finest providers of marine fabrication services, marine pipe fitting, and large scale custom metal fabrication.