3D Printing Comes of Age, Part 2

Stephen DeAngelis

December 4, 2012

In Part 1 of this series, I asserted that 3D Printing (or additive manufacturing) is likely to be one of the next disruptive technologies that alters the business landscape — assuming legal concerns about piracy and copyright infringement can be worked out. If, as many analysts predict, additive manufacturing is “the next big thing” in manufacturing, what will its impact likely be? The design & architecture website Freshome states, “3D printing has been hailed as a game changer … and has enabled businesses to make manufacturing advances that were previously unthinkable.” [“How 3D Printing is Disrupting Mainstream Manufacturing Processes“] The article is filled with pictures of beautiful, intricately printed items like chairs, lamps, and stools. The article points out that items can now be manufactured using “metals such as titanium or gold, polymers such as ABS, Nylon and polycarbonate or ceramics such as aluminum or zirconium.” It goes on to note, “It is the coupling of increased productivity with increased material suitability that is driving the technology into main stream production applications in areas such as orthopaedic implants, dental caps and crowns, hearing aids, mobile phone cases, prosthetic limb covers and home interior products. … D-shape has developed a large scale 3D printing system that uses reclaimed marble powder or sand, which is consolidated by jetting a binder into the material. D-Shape is now producing relatively large (circa 5M high) architectural products such as gazebos, kiosks, park benches & furniture.”

That short list doesn’t do justice to the types of products that can be manufactured using additive manufacturing. Because there appears to be so much promise for 3D processes, analysts are openly speculating that additive manufacturing will usher in a new era of manufacturing in developed countries like the United States. Last August, “the Obama administration announced that a new public-private institute based out of Youngstown, Ohio, would be awarded $30 million in order to establish a base for additive manufacturing innovation. The newly-formed organization — the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) — will consist of more than 40 members spanning entities that the region’s biggest thinkers call home: universities, technical schools, not-for-profit firms and private companies.” [“Will 3D Printing Save The ‘TechBelt’?” by Joel Hans, Manufacturing.net, 24 September 2012] The hope is that NAMII, whose budget comes from the Department of Defense, will stimulate interest in additive manufacturing, serve as the hub of a new manufacturing cluster, and create desperately needed jobs in the region. Hans claims the region surrounding NAMII “has nearly 32,000 manufacturers, and countless employees who have those ‘high-tech’ skills that modern manufacturers need to thrive, but oftentimes, there simply isn’t enough work to go around.” Hans makes an important point — the types of jobs that will be created by additive manufacturing won’t be the kind of blue-collar jobs that were sent overseas by traditional manufacturers. There will be fewer workers on the factory floor, but their skills will be higher tech. Hans continues:

“David Burns, President and Chief Operating Officer at ExOne, believes NAMII [can stimulate] a groundswell of jobs related to additive manufacturing. He says, ‘It was gratifying to us that the national government would take interest in manufacturing to begin with … and the fact that they would focus in on progressive or innovative technologies is even more encouraging.'”

With funding only announced in August, NAMII is obviously not yet off the ground. Nevertheless, Hans explains how it will work. He writes:

“The additive manufacturing institute is centered on a non-profit organization — the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (MCDMM) — which gives it a structure that is fundamentally different than a collaborative effort focused solely upon making money. Burns says that under this structure, engineers and other innovators will propose projects to the institute —a typical project would be seeking, for example, a better way to make a part out of titanium. At this point, the educational component of NAMII will come into play. Professors or students at Case Western Reserve University, Carnegie Mellon University and Youngstown State University, among others, can try to take the problem through research. A metals expert connected to the institute may also be brought in to provide a certain level of expertise. From here, NAMII will turn to a company like ExOne as a printing resource. … Once prototypes have been developed, they will move on to another entity within the institute for testing and certification.”

Industrial clusters have a long history of success in the United States and elsewhere; but, as Hans writes, “Only time will tell whether or not the investment in the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute will produce a positive return on investment for all the organizations involved — government and its taxpayers included. … NAMII has a real potential to build a for-profit additive manufacturing base in the area. And from there — who knows where it might grow, layer by layer, job by job?” The Freshome article notes:

“There are still limitations in terms of process economic and material capabilities. There is an expectation that one day 3D printing will be able to print almost anything, even in the home, from pots and pans, to broken parts of washing machines, showers or the TV remote. The reality is, we are years away from such systems. But we do already have relatively basic systems aimed at the consumer market that are suited to the manufacture of basic toys, games and curios.”

NAMII hopes to bring the envisioned future to reality as quickly as possible. The characteristic that makes additive manufacturing so unique, according to Freshome, is that “3D printing [has] the ability to manufacture complex geometries with little if no cost penalty.” The article explains:

“3D printing is often used to make products that are impossible to produce using traditional processes such as plastic injection moulding. Designers are exploiting this geometric flexibility by enabling greater and greater levels of product differentiation. In the end, no 3DP product ever needs to be the same. This single-unit batch production is also a compelling driver to the manufacturing community. In the past manufacturing economics was always based on producing sufficient components to cover the costs of fixed assets, such as the mould tools. But once you take away the need for the mould tools, the economic model changes dramatically.”

So does the supply chain model. The article continues:

“3D printing is not just a disruptive technology being used to replace moulding, casting or machining, it is an enabling technology that allows companies to think differently about their supply chains, and more importantly the value chain and interaction with the customers within their business. There are really six main benefits across this value chain that result from the implementation of 3D printing.

  • Digital & tool-less manufacture – enabling increased levels of product variance and smaller economic batch production to support specific geographic, demographic or social trends
  • Exploiting design freedoms – enabling the production of products with increasing levels of geometric complexity, with little if no cost penalty
  • Enabling product personalisation – coupling low volume production in batch sizes of one with complex geometry to realise individualised products
  • Offering new experiences in retail – engaging the consumer in the product design experience through online or in-store access to intuitive software tools or 3D scanning
  • Addressing emerging markets – coupling product personalisation with retail accessibility for an aging and changing population
  • Greening the supply chain – reducing stock holding, mitigating packaging waste, reducing logistics & reduced manufacturing CO2

“In effect, 3D printing can totally reorient the supply chain, as it puts the consumer at both the back end and front end of the chain. Consumers can engage in the initial product design, or they can order on-demand, with products being made following the exchange of payment. 3D printing can enable both an agile responsive supply chain, but also one that is lean – we call it legile manufacturing.”

The Freshome article goes on to address the home market for 3D printers. It reports:

“Interest for home 3D printing has been phenomenal in the last couple of years, as has the growth in companies making machines to service the market. Last time we counted we found over 40 companies around the world making low-end, home, consumer printers. Most are based on the same open source design of extruding molten polymer through a nozzle, but some are using other approaches. Last year around 15,000 home printers were sold. We expect that number to be nearer to 60,000 this year (maybe more). So not every home – just yet.”

I’m not sure that home 3D printing will ever reach the level of penetration that has been achieved by PCs and traditional printers. Both lack of need and cost of printing could remain drawbacks. Douglas Alexander, Principal Consultant at Component Engineering Consultants, addresses the cost factor. He calls 3D printers “the next goose that lays the golden egg.” [“Creating the 3D Printing Supply Chain,” EBN, 17 August 2012] He believes that 3D printer manufacturers will eventually offer the printers free to consumers in expectation of making a profit by selling printer supplies. He bases his prediction on the fact that companies like HP and Epson make a lot of profit by supplying ink for their traditional printers. He says that he received a free printer the last time he bought a PC (and he writes that he has more than paid for it through the purchase of ink cartridges).

Who really knows what the future will hold? If you can’t find that amazing (and hard to find) toy for your child this holiday season, you may just wish you had an in-home 3D printer on which you could download a program that would print it out and save you the hassle of endlessly searching stores or the Web; but, like the Freshome article stated, those days are probably well into the future. The final part of this series will look at a few more interesting ways that 3D printing is being put to use.