How Justified is the Hysteria Around 3D Printing?

By July 24, 2015 Article, Technology No Comments

^ 3D Printing: The Third Industrial Revolution? (Source: http://www.economist.com/node/21553017) 

Work in Progress

Many including The Economist tout Additive Manufacturing (AM) or 3D Printing, as the Third Industrial Revolution because it promises to create groundbreaking technical, social, and economic changes. Skeptics will of course point to the technology’s multiple limitations.

Reality is always somewhere between the extremes. Technical, intellectual property (IP), and practical considerations have limited AM’s market penetration to 1-5% (2013). Even the technicians who almost completely printed a car at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show believed AM will not take over automotive production in the near future.

But then, AM has already demonstrated its near-infinite capacity in the prototype segment. And it is making its presence felt in final production in the consumer goods, aerospace, medical, automotive, dental, and construction industries. Sooner, not later, it will deliver on its promise.

Subtle Challenges

Currently, there are only 2,000 AM machines in the world, nothing compared to hundreds of thousands of conventional manufacturing machines. McKinsey Global Institute estimates 3D Printing to hit $550billion by 2025, a far cry from what manufacturing was globally worth in 2012, a staggering $11.5trillion a year.

Facets of Intellectual Property (Source: https://www.eiu.com/public/topical_report.aspx?campaignid=indiaintellprop2012)

Facets of Intellectual Property
(Source: https://www.eiu.com/public/topical_report.aspx?campaignid=indiaintellprop2012)

Issues include:

  • Intellectual Property: protection has always been strong in the AM industry despite recent momentum gathered by the open-source movement

Patents incentivize innovation but have obstructed innovation in 3D Printing. Here, ideas flow fast and the typical 20 year patent duration is too long to support rapid innovation

3D Printers employing the Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) procedure cannot install a build chamber in their machines because Stratasys (a leading AM company) has patented the same. IP laws in the U.S. are way behind fast-paced developments in AM

  • Cost: While some printers are available at $500, the really useful ones come at around $50,000. Metal powders cost $150/kg. High-end Ti 6-4 powder costs $600/kg. AM currently consumes 50-100 times or even more power than conventional processes
  • Tolerances: some AM-made parts are not as accurate as those made by conventional precision machining and require finish machining
  • Absence of Industry-Wide Quality Standards: because the industry is young. Also, quality checks are complicated. How can you check the quality of each deposited level?
  • Shortage of Skilled Operators: plagues the entire U.S. manufacturing industry and is more pronounced in 3D Printing. Technical school graduates know little or nothing of AM and operators learn most skills o
    Near-Deserted Shop Floor: Machinist Shortage in the U.S. (Source: http://money.cnn.com/2012/02/16/smallbusiness/manufacturing_jobs/)

    Near-Deserted Shop Floor: Machinist Shortage in the U.S.
    (Source: http://money.cnn.com/2012/02/16/smallbusiness/manufacturing_jobs/)

    n-the-job

 

  • Resistance to Change: as change makes us uncomfortable. The change to adopt AM is great because some of its aspects are the complete antithesis of conventional machining. Examples of this contrast:
  • AM typically undertakes low-volume, high-value production
  • Machined parts are usually bulky because manufacturers remove minimum material in order to cut machining costs
  • Material & Strength Limitations: most 3D printers make parts from plastic that is not suited for all applications. Neither is the strength of 3D printed parts always acceptable

Natural Advantages & Combination with Conventional Processes

AM retains its competitive edge during:

  • Low Volume Production
  • Making Intricate Parts: not possible even with precision machining. Most AM-made parts are small because 3D Printing large parts is time consuming
  • Efficient Operations: you can print parts within hours after finalizing designs without having to plan the process and make special tools and fixtures. This way, you hike your productivity
  • Flexible Processes: because, within limits, you only have to change the design drawings in the printer to make new parts

Some operations combine AM with conventional processes:

  • Binder Jetting: makes large parts not usually made by AM. It uses an adhesive to join powdered layers. The part is then sintered in the furnace where the adhesive burns off
Binder Jetting (Source: http://www.me.vt.edu/dreams/binder-jetting/)

Binder Jetting
(Source: http://www.me.vt.edu/dreams/binder-jetting/)

  • Laser Cladding: uses laser to melt the coating material and deposit it over the base material layer-by-layer
Laser Cladding (Source: http://thermalspraydepot.com/Laser-Cladding.html)

Laser Cladding
(Source: http://thermalspraydepot.com/Laser-Cladding.html)

  • Lamination: joins metal-foil layers by ultrasonic welding. Milling then removes excess material

Finally

Most 3D Printing users believe in sharing designs openly. This, more than anything else, may propel high-end 3D Printing beyond the threshold of affordability and make it a technology for the masses as laws and regulations catch up.

The story of General Electric’s (GE’s) jet fuel nozzles manifest all facets of AM. Being the first metal parts made via AM at the production level, they created waves. GE invested millions and over a decade in developing these. GE also spent considerable time and effort in setting quality standards because there are none at the industry level. Why?

Because, the nozzles will eventually save $1.5billion in fuel costs over the airplane’s lifecycle for GE’s customers. The nozzles last five times longer, are lighter, and more reliable. The bottom line: If not directly, AM offers benefits somewhere else in the value chain.

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