“Use a computer to make complex objects seemingly appear out of thin air?” It sounds ridiculous, but we all know this isn’t the stuff of science fiction (any longer). 3-D printing is here, growing and the mode of production of the future. If making an object becomes as easy as a quick download followed by a quick print, the manufacturing industry (and our lives!) will be changed forever.
The short answer is yes, but not as you’d assume.
To get a proper sense of 3-D printing, it should be thought of within a manufacturing context and referred to as additive manufacturing. This isn’t for the sake of pedantry; the term distinguishes the traditional manufacturing process from the new 3D process. Vivek Srinivasan regional manager of the Executive Programme for CSC’s Leading Edge Forum says:
“In traditional manufacturing, creating a tool like a wrench involves forging, grinding, milling, and assembly, not to mention the moulds, jigs and fixtures needed in the process. By contrast, 3D printing can create an adjustable wrench in a single operation, layer by layer. The wrench comes out fully assembled and ready to be used with all of its moving parts.”
Distinguishing the terms is important, as it reveals two distinct methods of manufacturing: the traditional and the additive. We will soon find the two processes quickly diverge, as different processes become optimal for the manufactory of different goods. Additive manufacturing won’t completely replace all forms of manufacturing, but for the right applications, additive manufacturing will have significant advantages. For example, Vivek continues:
“3D printing can make objects with a complex internal structure that would be almost impossible using traditional methods. There’s no large factory and no retooling of an entire assembly line. The same printer that creates a piece of art can be used next to print a bike part. And that printer can be kept close to the point of consumption, which has implications for logistics”
However, one of the more important applications of additive manufacturing is its use in prototyping. Robin Wilson, lead technologist at the Technology Strategy Board said “an important message for us, is around design. We see design as the key to unlocking the potential of this technology.” Now printers have fallen in price, companies are able to make experimental investments without having to do a full return on investment cost benefit analysis. Additive manufacturing will allow for rapid product development through prototyping, allowing design innovations to be unshackled from cost prohibitive factors and enable companies to respond to fast-changing tastes and needs. Eric Hanselman, chief analyst at 451 Research says:
“Once you’ve got something physical that you can create, it opens the door to much greater and more effective innovation. There’s no substitute for having that physical item in your hand.”
Designers are able to touch and feel multiple prototypes, and combine it with other parts or objects. They are able to learn more before committing to the expensive equipment and tooling needed for production. Since these prototypes are cheaper and faster to produce, more risks can be taken and innovative creatives will no longer have to play it safe. Waiting 10 or 12 hours for a 3D printer to produce a prototype which ultimately fails but provides the knowledge required for key improvements on the next attempt is certainly preferable to waiting days or weeks for the model shop to hand-craft an unimaginative sample which won’t always work nor drastically improve the overall product. Additive manufacturing enables designers to experiment with new bespoke solutions for products, creating an explosion in the need for training to cope with the new method of production.
For small companies, additive manufacturing can also go beyond the prototyping process. Paul Doe, chief designer at motorsport technology designers Prodrive, says it’s “transforming the way the company does business”. At first, the technology was used to exclusively make prototypes, and was the main reason Prodive bought its 3D printer in 2009.
“But our use of the machine changed quite a lot in 18 months to actually making production parts,” he says. “We discovered the technology was good in terms of strength, when we were using technology to make parts to test on the car.”
The company gradually started making more parts until:
“We realised it was actually good enough for production. We’re able to build shapes that you can’t mould cast or forge – pieces you can’t make in any other way but through additive manufacturing.”
Specialist parts cost a fraction of what they once did. The company was able to avoid fixed costs and the burden of carrying stock as they can simply manufacture parts on demand. Doe claims additive manufacturing saved a total of £80,000 on a single car project.
Additive manufacturing also enables companies to print their own tools, in the future this could change the nature of traditional manufacturing as increasingly complex tools provide new possibilities. But for now, impressive savings are made: “Modification of pieces of tooling – which previously would have cost around £10,000 – we can now print for £10,” says Doe. “The machines [printers] themselves were a heck of an investment in the past – some of the big ones were six figures. They now cost around £20,000.”
For smaller companies, additive manufacturing and its correct use is transformative, allowing them to do things they simply wouldn’t have the resources to do otherwise. Larger companies, such as Aston Martin, which have a huge manufacturing base and the resources to go with it, aren’t be affected as much. 3D printing technology will have to improve before parts for cars can be made on that scale.
Conventional automated production processes can rapidly manufacture large quantities of identical parts. Additive manufacturing produces single parts one at a time and the only scaling available is to install multiple printers to produce parts simultaneously. 3-D printing has and will continue to revolutionise design, development and production of low-volume, unique parts, particularly those with an intricate geometry. It’s great for producing one-off or small-quantity objects such as specialty products, art pieces, replacement parts no longer in production and has the potential to be used on the move. Certainly, 3-D printing capabilities will improve as well, with the ability to print faster using more materials, and with even more precision. But the problems of the scalability issue may ultimately limit additive manufacturing use in high-volume production.
The real potential of additive manufacturing lies in innovation, modelling and prototyping; as open-source machines, which have gotten into the hands of thousands of people facilitating a surge in creativity not limited to big businesses. It’s a radical democratisation of the creative process, enabling individuals to come up with their own designs to change the world. As recently as the 25th of August, Joel Gibbard, received the James Dyson award for his Open Bionics project which can 3D-scan an amputee and build them a custom-fitted socket and hand in less than two days, significantly shortening a process which typically takes weeks or even months. The project is also open source, meaning anyone can share and use designs without charge, as long as they share any improvements they make. The applications for this innovation are limitless and it all began from his bedroom in Bristol. The technology is there for all to seize upon and change the world; it simply requires the knowledge to use it to its full potential.
Additive manufacturing is a disruptive and transformative technology, and will change the world. But the science fiction lies in a big factory with big tools being made obsolete due to a ‘localised consumer printing process’. The dream of local shops with a range of materials and machines ready to make a whole variety of products made by companies small and large may be just a dream. Though, if it becomes a reality, transportation costs will be drastically cut, consumers will have a range of interesting and innovative products to choose from, each of them highly customisable. But at least for now, the technology simply isn’t available. And notwithstanding the lack of technology, further barriers come in the way of connecting the process across multiple industries involving a wide range of stake-holders.
3-D printing will, (and is!) changing the world, smaller businesses can thrive with cheaper prototyping costs, innovations can abound with a rapidly expanding creative threshold and components can be produced away from centers of manufacturing – greatly contributing to the potential on-site and mobile repairs (imagine additive manufacturing in space!). That said, we can’t simply rip traditional industry from the world overnight, it’s valuable process and cannot be replaced by additive manufacturing in its current form. Even with improved technology – which is a long way off – a gradual and sustainable method of merging the two processes into a single mode of production by focusing on the training of individuals to cope with an ever-changing manufacturing landscape is necessary before we can nip to the local shop to print ourselves a new car.
That future belongs firmly to the future… for the foreseeable future.