The Growing Popularity and Applications of 3D Printing

Since its invention nearly 30 years ago, analysts have been actively speculating about how 3D printing will disrupt the manufacturing industry.  So far, 3D printing has been used to create a vast area of products from bionic limbs and airplane parts, to food and clothing. In fact, Gartner predicts that by 2018 nearly 50% of manufacturers in consumer products, heavy industry and life sciences will be using 3D printing to produce parts for the items they consume, sell or service.

There are three main drivers behind the growing popularity and applications of 3D printing:

  1. First, 3D printers are getting faster. Hewlett Packard, for example, has developed a 3D printer that in 30 minutes can print a quarter-pound chain link capable of lifting up to 10,000 pounds. Also, start-up company, Carbon3D, printed a palm-size geodesic sphere in a little over six minutes, which is 25 to 100 times faster than traditional 3D printing solutions (Popular Science).
  2. Second, 3D printers can now print using a wide variety of materials including a broad range of polymers, resins, plasticizers, and metals. For example, Airbus, a leading aircraft manufacturer, is already using a variety of 3D printed plastic and metal brackets in its fleet of developmental aircraft and Italian food producer, Barilla, is using 3D printing for custom pasta production.
  3. Third, 3D printing is able to produce end-products that are stronger, lighter and more complex. Rather than manufacturing many parts and welding them into one product, manufacturers can use 3D printing to create a single part. At Airbus, designers were able to consolidate over hundred parts held together with rivets into a single part.

Manufacturing Changes Enabled by 3D Printing

Whether it’s a custom product for a customer, or a replacement part for a piece of equipment, creating products as they are needed is already transforming how companies do business. Below are a few of the changes we can expect to see with on-demand manufacturing:

  • 3D printing allows manufactures to product a single part in-house, test it, modify the design and print it again. This can reduce significantly product development cycles and accelerate design cycles.
  • 3D printers can be used to handle excess capacity or one-off demands. A bank of 3D printers can be treated as additional support to existing equipment, thereby adding agility and flexibility to the manufacturing processes.
  • 3D printers are more portable than traditional manufacturing facilities, which makes it possible to create products closer to the customer’s location.
  • Unlike traditional ‘subtractive’ manufacturing techniques, in which raw material is removed, 3D printing is an additive process that uses only what is needed. This can save significant amounts of raw materials and reduced carbon footprints. In the aerospace industry, for example, Airbus estimates 3D printing could reduce its raw material costs by up to 90%.
  • The number of parts that will be printed on demand will undoubtedly will grow over time. For manufacturers, this could eliminate expensive inventory holding costs and restocking order requirements, as well as free up warehousing space.

On-demand Manufacturing Network

In addition to prototyping, 3D printing can be used strategically by manufacturers in market delivery. Using data analytics, for example, companies can identify the most suitable parts for 3D printing. Once these parts are identified, they can digitized and converted into 3D printable files, which can then be integrated into a comprehensive order processing systems.

Further collaboration between network partners also is possible with new 3D printing capabilities. With 3D printing, partners can produce parts with the optimal materials, machines and post processing steps. For example, UPS has connected many of its stores with 3D printers to create an on-demand, manufacturing network. UPS is notified in real-time through its network partners when a customer orders a part. UPS then 3D prints the customer-requested part and uses its transportation network to deliver it. Connecting demand with production capacity is being called the “Uber of Manufacturing” and it can help manufacturers operate more efficiently, making them more responsive, profitable and competitive.

Of course there are some significant issues that must be resolved before 3D printing can be implemented in large-scale production manufacturing. To begin with, there are a variety of intellectual property protection and liability issues to be sorted out. Who owns the rights to products created using a 3D printer and who is responsible when the end result cause injury or misfortune? Also, especially in the medial and food industries, there are a number of regulatory challenges. It will be extremely difficult to regulate what individuals around the world will create with access to the Internet and a 3D printer.

However, once these obstacles are addressed the potential of 3D printing and on-demand manufacturing to change manufacturing as we know it is undeniable. While it may not replace the way high-volume or standardized parts are produced, it does create an additional solution that is better for the environment, saves money and allows manufacturers to be more responsive to their customers. It is time for companies to embrace the potential and apply on-demand manufacturing where it make the most sense to bolster existing processes and profitability.

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