Innovative 3D Printing Applications Catching on in Many Industries
Analyst Pete Basiliere told eWEEK that those estimates are expected to continue to more than double each year through 2018, when about 2.3 million 3D printers are expected to ship. The Gartner figures include both consumer and enterprise-grade devices. "Over the last five years, the industry, which kind of went along at a slow and steady pace in the past, has come into a world of its own," said Basiliere. Now that the technology is more readily available, enterprises should set up programs to foster innovative 3D printing applications, he said. "I advocate setting up a maker space within an enterprise, where for under $10,000, you can get a material extrusion printer, a stereolithography printer and a scanner" to use for projects, he said.One of the biggest uses of 3D printing today isn't in making components or products, said Basiliere, but in making the tools, jigs and fixtures that are then used to build products. "That's where I think we're going to see real growth, to make the assembly process that much more efficient." At FirstBuild, a subsidiary of General Electric, designers and researchers are using three 3D printers to create fast, one-off components used to build prototype appliances that are suggested by homeowners and other appliance lovers. Since developing a new home appliance can cost tens of millions of dollars, FirstBuild can print out small runs of parts so they can be tested and used before GE commits to mass production, said director Natarajan "Venkat" Venkatakrishnan. That flexibility can help with the design of new appliances because 3D printers allow engineers to build and test innovative appliance designs without huge research and development budgets, he said. For an appliance maker like GE, if a design is too novel, it may not sell well enough to recoup the development costs. So big design changes don't happen too often in the appliance industry, Venkatakrishnan noted. "If you can build in low volumes and see if there is buzz, then you can scale up" later if consumers like the ideas, he said. That's why FirstBuild was created, to enable that kind of feedback and innovation. "That is what we are about—we take ideas and then let our engineers work on them to make the ideas real. We don’t want to invest $20 million to see if it is successful. I want to spend $20,000 or $100,000" to see if ideas will work. One such project is an oven that has a drawer that slides in and out so food can be placed inside for cooking, rather than a traditional fold-down door. Typically, such a product will only be developed and built if the company knows that it will sell at least 200,000 units. To expedite development and lower costs, 3D printing was used to make much of the tooling used to bend and shape the oven's exterior and interior panels and parts, said Venkatakrishnan. In the oven project, the printers were also used to make the supporting legs for the appliances. To encourage wider use, though, prices for the plastics used to create parts with the 3D printers will still need to come down, he said. Sometimes materials prices can still be too high for printing large quantities of the same components, but over time as materials prices fall, it will be more economical to do so, he said. For Christopher Chapman, an additive manufacturing engineer in the rapid prototyping lab at NASA's Johnson Space Center, 3D printers have a wide range of uses, including creating parts mock-ups so people can see and touch a real part rather than just viewing a drawing
"Most managers in an enterprise can do that on their own authorization if a capital budget is approved. They can get people experimenting with 3D printing and new designs they couldn't do before. And give access to all employees, not just the designers and engineers, but to the assembly workers who may have ideas of their own."