3D printing has been around for almost 30 years, used by a wide range of product manufacturers, aerospace companies and others to quickly design and produce prototypes, molds, one-off parts and more without having to invest lots of money and time.
But in the past five years, 3D printing has been growing much faster as enterprises of all sizes find out they can buy a device for as little as $500 and begin trying out new ideas they never dreamed of in the past.
Much of the latest enthusiasm for 3D printing comes from a blooming hobbyist or “maker” movement that has helped bring down the cost of smaller devices to where companies of any size can now afford to try one, Chris Curran, the chief technologist for PricewaterhouseCoopers, told eWEEK.
“This is the coming together of large-scale industrial stuff and the hobbyist stuff,” said Curran. “I think these are all great options for companies to experiment with. Without experimentation, we can’t go anywhere.”
The basic consumer-grade machines of today don’t offer the precision of units that cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, he said, but they allow companies to perform relatively inexpensive trials and gain new insights about how they can use 3D printers productively. “For a company that doesn’t require super-high precision right now, maybe a telecom that needs wire insulators, they could do a pilot project.”
What will continue to drive 3D printer installations in the enterprise are further refinements in the materials used for printing, increased device precision and improved price-performance, said Curran. Three to five years from now, a home appliance repair person may be able to drive to a service call, produce a needed part on a 3D printer in their truck and install it as part of a repair, he added.
“All the problems we are talking about are being worked on,” he said. “Who’s going to bite the bullet with production-level parts” and buy 100 such devices so they can really explore the possibilities, asked Curran. “I don’t see any reason that the experiments couldn’t start soon.”
Anthony Vicari, an analyst with Lux Research, agrees. Vicari said he’s often seeing companies buying 3D printers for specific projects, but then quickly being adapted to new projects envisioned by other employees. “They find all kinds of other uses for them,” said Vicari. “The 3D printers today are significantly different from those even a few years ago, bringing in new possibilities.”
One client bought a printer to make a part and then saw they could also use it to make a product sample holder, he said. Another client uses a 3D printer to shave one second off the manufacturing time for a part and saved about $100,000 for the business, which was more than the cost of the 3D printer, said Vicari.
Today, the global 3D printing business is a $2.2 billion market that continues to grow, he said. In some cases, companies are able to print out parts that in the past would have had been painstakingly created by milling a large, expensive chunk of metal. In some cases, printed parts today will outperform a machined metal part, particularly for exotic items that require precision such as rocket engine nozzles, Vicari said.
3D printers typically work by laying down layer upon layer of material to gradually build up a part until it is complete. There are seven different technologies used in 3D printers that work with various materials, including plastics and metals.
The major manufacturers of the devices include Stratasys, 3D Systems, ExOne, EOS, Concept Laser, Arcam, Beijing Tiertime and XYZprinting. Top-of-the-line industrial 3D printers can sell for as much as $5 million.
Worldwide shipments of 3D printers are expected to double in 2015 to 217,350 units, up from 108,151 in 2014, according to figures released Oct. 27 by Gartner.
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.
“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.”
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
Innovative 3D Printing Applications Catching on in Many Industries
“It gives them an idea of what the products are really going to look like,” he said. “It tends to resonate better with them.”
The lab also uses the printers to build functional parts, as well, he said, some of which have been sent to the bottom of the oceans and to the International Space Station (ISS) where they are used in research. “We get to try new things as the technology grows,” said Chapman. “It kind of opens up the spectrum of what you can and can’t do.”
One of the coolest things being done with 3D printers today is on the ISS itself, as NASA is conducting experiments with the Made In Space program, which is a partnership with the Marshall Spaceflight Center and a number of other organizations, according to Chapman.
In September 2014, a special zero-gravity 3D printer was sent up to the ISS, where it will serve as a test bed to study the long-term effects of microgravity on 3D printing, according to the Made In Space group.
That printer will demonstrate the viability of 3D printing in the weightlessness of space, where replacement parts for important equipment for a space mission can literally be thousands or hundreds of thousands of miles away, said Chapman.
When astronauts go into space on the ISS or future long-duration missions to Mars or other objectives, they simply can’t take all of the spare parts they might need due to spacecraft launch weight limits and storage constraints.
But if they can travel to far-away destinations in space with reliable 3D printers, then they could potentially print out the replacement parts or supplies as needed, especially if they have printers that can print with a variety of plastics and metals.
“Instead of carrying 1,000 parts that you may not need, you would make what you need as you need it,” said Chapman. “You also could need five of something that you didn’t take. There’s just no way that you could ever take every single part that you may need, and there’s a chance that you could need a very important part that you didn’t take with you,” said Chapman.
Whitney Sample, a research design engineer in the Pediatric Engineering Research Laboratory at the Nemours Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., said his lab’s key work with 3D printers happened partially by accident.
In the lab, Sample and his boss build child-sized Wilmington Robotic Exoskeleton (WREX) devices made of hinged metal bars and resistance bands that are custom-fitted to young patients who have medical conditions that prevent them from moving their bodies normally.
But as the team worked to build one such WREX for a 2-year-old girl, they found that the Computer Numerical Control machine used to mill metal components couldn’t produce the smaller parts that were needed for the child’s WREX device. Instead, they used a 3D printer in the lab to print out the required parts layer by layer using ABS plastic so the device would fit the child’s body correctly. The lab has had 3D printers since 2006.
Originally, the 3D printer in the lab was used as a test bed for designs, said Sample. However, it turned out that the printer could produce small parts with the reliability and durability required to produce a WREX that would allow the child to return home to the family.
Sample said he is convinced that there is more is to come from 3D printing because he can see uses in a range of industries.
“I really don’t think there is an aspect in all of our lives that won’t be touched by 3D printing,” Sample said.