Is 3D Printing the Future of Manufacturing?

By July 8, 2015 Article, Technology No Comments

^ Stereolithography Apparatus: First 3D Printer (Source: http://theinstitute.ieee.org/technology-focus/technology-history/layerbylayer-the-evolution-of-3d-printing)

Curious Paradox

Nobody said it better than Joseph Schumpeter – Creative Destruction, a phase when groundbreaking innovations destroy established economic structures in favor of the fresh. Such catastrophes are a necessary evil for long-term technological and economic progress.

Massive changes in material and manufacturing technologies have always triggered revolutionary socio-economic changes. This is precisely how we have advanced since the days of cavemen.

From 2012 onwards, the mainstream media and the world opened its eyes to 3D Printing when two highly-capable, novel 3D Printing technologies grabbed eyeballs. Of course, industry players have long known its revolutionary promise.

Prospects & Process

One of the most experienced firms studying 3D Printing, Wohlers Associates estimated the value of 3D Printing sector at $3.07billion in 2013 growing at a CAGR of 34.9%. Research firm Canalys expects the industry to clock 45.7% CAGR in 2013-18 and hit $16.2billion by 2018.

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Size and Forecast of the Global Additive Manufacturing Market (Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/louiscolumbus/2014/08/09/roundup-of-3d-printing-market-forecasts-and-estimates-2014/)

Hosting about 40% of the world’s 3D Printers, the U.S. is an important venue for this technology. The U.S. government established the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) to expedite developments in this sector.

Standard manufacturing processes:

  • CNC Machining
  • Injection Molding (IM)
  • Plastic Joining
  • Plastic Forming (PF)

Machining is subtractive i.e. operators/computers remove material from blocks in calculated steps to make the final part. 3D Printing or additive manufacturing builds parts by depositing thousands of extremely thin horizontal layers of material over one another. Each layer represents a cross section at one particular level.

Operators load the part’s drawings into the printer. The software slices the design into innumerable horizontal layers and guides the 3D Printer to create the part layer by layer. Plastic is most popular 3D-printed material. Metals, ceramics, biomaterials, paper, and food are also used.

3D Printing is a refined edition of Rapid Prototyping (RP). Charles ‘Chuck’ Hull built the first viable 3D machine, the Stereolithography Apparatus (SLA) in 1983. SLA uses ultraviolet light to harden a molten plastic layer before the platform drops by 0.05-0.15mm to allow the deposition of the next layer.

Stereolithography Schematic  (Source: http://www.micromanufacturing.com/content/stereolithography-microparts)

Stereolithography Schematic
(Source: http://www.micromanufacturing.com/content/stereolithography-microparts)

Carl Deckard’s Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) uses lasers to melt and solidify powders. Scott Crump’s Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) deposits the modeling material and the support material from separate nozzles in the same extrusion head to create complex-shaped parts. EoS GmbH’s Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) is similar to SLS.

Merits

Speed, accuracy, exceptional quality, less wastage, lower power consumption, more eco-friendliness, and the ability to built complex shapes are the obvious advantages. High-end FDM for example has accuracy of ±0.0015inches vis-à-vis ±0.05inches of injection molding. But the real potential lies elsewhere.

Within limits, all you have to do to print different parts is change the drawings fed to the printer. You don’t have to change any tools. This makes customization and experimentation simple, rapid, and inexpensive thereby unleashing the designer’s creativity.

Customization and experimentation is prohibitively expensive with conventional processes. These days, people demand greater personalization. 3D Printing is inherently customization-friendly. Plus, the falling price of 3D printers ($500-$1,000 for some printers) caters to this need.

Soon, a store in your neighborhood may print tailored parts for you. No transport, no warehousing – great economy. Shapeways for example prints 10,000 unique models a month from plastic, stainless-steel, and glass for individuals and industries.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) (Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/organ_printer/878476066)

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
(Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/organ_printer/878476066)

Plus, you can print spares that manufacturers no longer make, a deliberate strategy called built-in obsolescence i.e. out-dating models by stopping the manufacture of its spares. This creates demand for new models.

3D Printing’s ability to decentralize manufacturing is precisely its revolutionary potential. Only open sharing can spread the use of 3D Printing and help it realize this promise. It was only in 2007 that this long-awaited potential precipitated, partly.

Dr. Adrian Bower built the RepRap, the world’s first general-purpose, self-replicating manufacturing machine in 2007. All designs created under the RepRap project are released freely. This started the open-source revolution.

Applications

Prototyping is the single largest application. Final manufacturing made up over 20% of 3D Printing production in 2011. 3D-printed aircraft parts are 65% lighter than conventionally machined ones yet equally strong. Slashing 1kg weight saves $35,000 in fuel-cost over the aircraft’s lifecycle.

Traditional processes lose 90% material when making certain aircraft parts while 3D Printing loses only 10%. Airbus Defense and Space 3D-prints satellite brackets to cut production costs by over 20%. The Medical and Dental sector needs the technology for printing personalized implants and prosthetics. Frontier developments include robotic aircrafts, cars, prosthetic jaws, and body parts.

Challenges

Current laws trail developments in 3D Printing creating misuse-able grey areas as was amply demonstrated by the Liberator Incident in September 2013. Plus, there are presently no particular provisions in the U.S. Intellectual Property laws for 3D digital designs and printed objects.

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) (Source: http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~rapidproto/students.03/rarevalo/project2/Process.html)

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
(Source: http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~rapidproto/students.03/rarevalo/project2/Process.html)

Open-source firm Defense Distributed freely released the code for printing the Liberator, a single shot, 3D-printable, plastic handgun. Note, plastic is undetectable for airport metal detectors. Net users downloaded the code 100,000 times before State Department forced the code’s withdrawal.

The present running battle between the open-source and the closed-source players has diluted creative destructive to creative erosion. The open-source philosophy believes in sharing all technological developments for free while the latter shares only for financial profit.

Possible loss of manufacturing jobs is the most sensitive negative perception of 3D Printing. Manufacturing employs 14% of the global workforce and generates 16% of the global GDP. The global manufacturing sector clocked $11.5trillion in 2012 with U.S. manufacturing making $2trillion.

Plastic is not suitable for making numerous components. The strength and structural integrity of 3D-printed parts is far from perfect. Presently, the technology consumes 50 to 100 times or even greater amount of electricity vis-à-vis conventional processes. Even otherwise, it remains expensive.

Finally

Technology has always created more jobs than it has destroyed. There was similar job-loss talk due to computers in the 1970s, none of which materialized. Limitations of 3D Printing will vanish with time. Even at present, 3D Printing clearly maintains an economic edge over conventional processes for customized production.

It only takes a few industry heavyweights to cast their lot in favor of a novice technology for it to reach critical mass. The moment will come for 3D Printing when creative destruction precipitates fully and makes the technology the Third Industrial Revolution.

For more info on such cutting edge technologies, visit our blog. And for the best in class marine fabrication services, marine pipe fitting, and large scale custom metal fabrication, contact Kemplon Engineering.