3D printing has undergone a significant evolution in recent decades. Since 1990, we’ve seen the technology become an integral part of the manufacturing process, especially in industries that rely on personalization, precision and customization. This evolution is far from complete, with some of the most exciting and impactful changes that will help 3D printing emerge as a true manufacturing tool either underway or just on the horizon.
One of the primary drivers of recent expansion in 3D printing is the significant investment and involvement from technology and manufacturing industry giants like Microsoft, GE, Siemens and more. From printable materials and software for the printing process to the machines themselves, partnerships between these companies and 3D printing industry leaders like ours are advancing all aspects of the industry and improving the additive toolkit available to manufacturers.
In an example of this, we recently expanded our partnership with BASF to help accelerate development of both materials and software for 3D printing. We are working together within the framework of an open business model to continuously improve materials and software for various 3D printing technologies and bring them to market more rapidly. This, and other similar partnerships, allows for systematic, wider scale testing and further optimization by BASF of its materials on the machines and within our infrastructure. This collaboration allows us to leverage our nearly 30 years of experience in developing software for 3D printing along with BASF’s long history of chemical and material development to create the materials that will serve the needs of manufacturers in the consumer goods, automotive and aerospace industries.
Printable materials represent one of the fastest-moving aspects of 3D printing. New materials are developed every day, and the possibilities for 3D printing to expand to new uses and industries increase with each development. This is a difficult aspect of the industry to place solid parameters on due to the rapid rate of change. However, in the near future, we expect to see advances in the areas of lightweight, porous and textured surfaces to help manufacturers meet both performance and design objectives.
Beyond product and service developments, these partnerships will also act as a catalyst to talent development in the 3D printing industry. With demand increasing from large corporations, education and training programs will need to adapt to help engineers think in terms of additive, rather than traditional subtractive manufacturing. As new industry innovators are trained in 3D printing solutions for new applications, the speed of adoption of 3D printing across industries will continue to increase.
With a stronger talent pipeline and more versatile offerings for both plastic and metal 3D printing, the technology will add another option to the manufacturer’s toolkit. It’s important that as this tool is used more frequently, manufacturers understand the types of applications that are best suited for 3D printing. Engineers, who are well-versed in 3D printing and its strengths, review plans and problems with customer teams to ensure everyone understands how and where 3D printing can add value, and where its limitations lie.
While we may not immediately see widespread adoption of 3D printing for high-volume manufacturing, some industries that require a high level of personalization or customization like hearing aids and orthotics have implemented 3D printing to manufacture thousands of parts per day. However, where 3D printing truly shines is in low- to mid-volume manufacturing where customization is vital, and especially in highly-regulated industries like aerospace and medical due to the traceability and reporting options built into each step of software for 3D printing.
Manufacturers also have found value in 3D printing for their own operations. Beyond using 3D printing to manufacture products, the technology can also be used to improve the actual manufacturing process. Tools, tooling aids, or inserts for tools for high volume manufacturing systems can be 3D printed to precise specifications. These parts can lead to process improvements like more accurate cooling channels for injection molding systems and improved cycle times and costs. Manufacturers can also reduce the weight of grippers or end of arm tooling through 3D printed parts, allowing for smaller and faster robots and automated procedures. Implementation is currently limited by a lack of understanding of 3D printing’s capabilities, but as more designers and engineers begin to think in terms of additive manufacturing in the coming years, these solutions will become more prominent in manufacturing.
Bryan Crutchfield is Vice President and General Manager of Materialise North America.