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From hype to mainstream: 3D printing proves itself worthy

Posted: 29 Apr 2016     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:3D printing  Internet of Things  production 

Similar to how innovative technologies make themselves known, 3D printing has awed the world with creations never seen before. Although it has been close to a decade, talking about it still piques the interest of many listeners. But the more deeply people understand, amazement has slowly turned to appreciation and then to application.

These days, there are now more serious uses for 3D printing and it promises to rejuvenate production by bringing creative designs and small-lot printing to many industries. 3D printing is an umbrella term for printing solid products with a spectrum of different materials. We can choose between plastics and ceramics, metals or composites and the biological side now has human cell-based offerings. With all these choices, industry has many options for making parts that otherwise would be uneconomic or impossible to create by conventional means.

Let's look at some of today's practical uses. Making plastic parts has typically required a substantial investment in tooling a moulding die. Even so-called "soft" tooling involves metal cutting and both expense and, more importantly, delay. Often tooling is the pacing item to getting a new product to market, given the time to fabricate the die and then tweak it in to specification. It is essential to model the CAD design as carefully as possible before investing in tooling, so that adds to design costs and schedule, making projects even longer.

With additive metal printing, soft tooling can be constructed quickly and cheaply, and if mistakes are made, corrections won't break the bank. The result is a much faster design process, followed by fast introduction. Customisation of a design to, say, add a different customer logo can be done in hours and tooled in days.

3D printing

Figure 1: 3D printing promises to revitalise production by rolling out creative designs. Source: American Standard.

Making the demo sample of a part for a customer also speeds up. Using plastics, metal or whatever works, a customer can get a demo in minutes or hours. Think about the selling value of being able to quote a solution by sending the actual part with the bid!

One result of the small run efficiencies of 3D printing is seen in the aerospace industry, where a complete production run might consist of a couple of hundred parts over a few years. The space agencies take this one step further, since one-off parts are common since each satellite is customised so much. Even parts like thruster cones, which take a lot of heat and stress are being printed today, with normally difficult to manufacture titanium.

Making moulds isn't just restricted to plastics, of course. Dies for rubber gaskets can be made on a printer and moulds for anything from cakes to building bricks fit the profile. One high-profile industry that's moving rapidly to printing is the jewellery trade. It's possible to design unusual, one-off pieces without having to create a lost-wax mould from scratch....printing with wax is one of the options today. The result is jewellery is achieving new lower cost levels in production, while customisation is within reach of a new set of buyers.

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