By Will Soutter
Benefits of 3D
Printing in Manufacturing
Materials for 3D Printing
3D Printing has the potential to literally turn the world of
manufacturing on it's head. It allows objects to be built up a layer at
a time from a wide variety of materials. This "additive" manufacturing
is the opposite approach to most traditional, "subtractive"
manufacturing techniques, where a larger block of material is carved
away into the shape required.
3D printing technology is proving most useful in research and
education, as prototype products can be iterated rapidly and at little
cost. This is especially valuable in engineering fields such as
robotics. Researchers in theoretical physics and mathematics can also
benefit, as 3D models can help to demonstrate concepts which would
otherwise be purely conceptual.
Some large manufacturing businesses are concerned that the
increasing availability of affordable 3D printing systems will result
in increased levels of counterfeit goods. However, some commentators
believe this will lead to a more competitive, more effective ecosystem,
and some manufacturers are taking advantage of the opportunities the
technology will offer.
Figure 1. Oglaf Diegel,
from Massey University, New Zealand, produces 3D printed guitars which
would be impossible to create by any other method.
3D Printing in Manufacturing
As 3D printing technology becomes more and more affordable and is
adapted for more types of materials, it will begin to bring
transformative benefits to the world of manufacturing. Some of the
Shorter Assembly Lines - 3D printing allows products to be
assembled in a single stage, reducing the need for assembly stages.
This will reduce the size of manufacturing facilities, and help them to
run more efficiently.
Simple Transfer of Designs - CAD designs for a product can be
sent via the internet to locations all over the world in a standard
format which can be used by any 3D printing facility. This will make
international collaboration and prototyping of product designs more
efficient and straightforward, and allow manufacturers to expand into
new global regions more easily.
Print-on-Demand Products - 3D printing will provide a huge
boost to the practice of "Just in Time" manufacturing. The short
manufacturing times and flexibility of 3D printing systems will allow
manufacturers to produce products as they are ordered, reducing the
amount of surplus stock they will need to hold.
Flexibility for Factories - 3D printers can be used to make a
huge variety of products. Factories equipped with 3D printing equipment
would be able to switch between a number of products rapidly, with
minimal retooling or redesigning of processes. This would allow
companies to respond effectively to short-term changes in demand.
Figure 2. 3D printers
have already made the transition from home-built machines to polished
professional tools. Desktop 3D printers are hotly tipped to be the next
big move for the technology. Image credit: University of Iowa.
Shorter Supply Chains - The small footprint and ease of use
of manufacturing systems based on 3D printing means that international
companies can set up operations in the country where a product is
needed, rather than running large, centralized facilities.
Creative Product Design - The capabilities of 3D printing
allow shapes and structures to be used which could not be achieved by
any other method, or certainly not in large volumes. The technology is
already proving a popular medium for artists and sculptors, and
decorative 3D-printed objects are commercially available.
Materials for 3D Printing
3D printers can be adapted to work with a very wide range of
materials. Custom built systems can even use multiple materials in a
single build to create more complex products, containing multiple
colours or electrically conductive sections.
Even with the transformative effect of 3D printing on the
manufacturing industry, there will mostl likely still be a market for
premium quality printing materials with superior properties or novel
Plastics are the most common materials used for 3D printing.
The plastic is extruded as a fine thread from the printing nozzle as it
moves around, constructing the object one layer at a time. The wide
array and low cost of available plastics makes them ideally suited for
3D printing, particularly in rapid prototyping scenarios.
Ceramics can also be used to create 3D printed objects. These
are usually handled by a different method - layer upon layer of ceramic
powder is added in a block, whilst the stucture is temporarily created
using a binder or a laser sinter. The excess
powder is then removed to reveal the solid object, which is then fired
and glazed in a kiln.
Metals can be 3D printed in a similar way - metal powder is
sintered, or a binder is added, to create the structure. The object is
supported by the rest of the free powder until the metal is fused at
high temperatures and the rest of the material is removed.
Figure 3. This video
demonstrates 3D printing of ceramics for rapid prototyping.
It is generally accepted that 3D printing will be a revolutionary
force in manufacturing, whether positive or negative. Despite concerns
over counterfeiting, many companies are already using the technology to
repeatably produce intricate components, for example in automotive and
As 3D printers become more affordable, they will inevitably be used
for local, small scale manufacturing, largely eliminating supply chains
for many types of product. Consumer units for home use will even become
feasible, allowing end users to simply download a design for the
product they require and print it out.
There will be major challenges for the conventional manufacturing
industry to adapt to these changes. The opportunities for technology
and engineering are clearly huge, however, and the creative
possibilities in product design and printing material formulation are