The speed of 3D print development over the past few years has frustrated and excited in equal measure. No one would deny the compelling vision presented by a technology that offers the chance to essentially manufacture on demand or the prototyping opportunities enabled by low cost desktop 3D printers.
At the same time, there have been constraints that have delayed adoption, even deterred companies from exploring the opportunities. From lack of access to appropriate materials to a limited understanding of the potential of the technology, many firms’ perception of 3D printing is still rooted in the early forays into the market a decade ago.
This year, however, a number of critical innovations are coming together that herald a new era in 3D printing and its cognate technologies.. From the interaction of 3D printing with AI and machine learning; to immediate access to tens of thousands of chemicals for new material development; and proven models that blend AI driven Generative Design with 3D printing and traditional manufacturing processes, as Paul Croft, Director of 3DGBIRE and Ultimaker GB and founder of CREATE Education Project explains, 2019 will be the year organisations of every size begin to drive new value from 3D printing.
AI & Machine Learning
AI is transforming design; innovations in Generative Design (GD) are hugely exciting, enabling engineers to fundamentally reimagine design concepts. From creating lighter weight parts, using fewer resources yet offering the same mechanical properties, to using biomimicry to discover sustainable solutions, innovations in design are set to transform the viability of projects from car manufacture to space exploration.
The challenge to date in turning many of these exciting concepts into practical products has been that while GD enables the creation of designs with both structural performance and optimised material use, the ability to produce these complex geometries has been constrained by the method of manufacture. However, while traditional techniques simply do not lend themselves to GD created designs, and a number of Additive Manufacturing methods require expensive and time consuming set up, the latest generation of 3D printers is enabling organisations to realise the opportunities presented by GD. Essentially, the complex optimised structures created through digital testing can now be fabricated and realised on a commercial scale, bringing the extraordinary innovation of GD to life.
Consider an end-to-end production model that seamlessly combines AI with 3D printing and existing manufacturing techniques. The thinking is disruptive; the ability to combine GD tools with 3D printing to create the moulds for casting, for example, opens up amazing opportunities to achieve efficiency gains and improve customer satisfaction; yet the entire process is still completed using the traditional machinery and technology, removing any barriers to adoption.
Machine learning also has an essential role to play in eradicating the risk of error in large scale industrial 3D printing that can affect both cost and confidence. For any organisation undertaking large print projects, the ability to continually monitor the print procedure and compare it to the original digital file presents a compelling opportunity to reduce errors within the print process. Furthermore, with machine learning’s ability to continually enhance the process and identify specific problems, the entire model will gain the high level of accuracy and predictability required to drive further large scale industry adoption.
There is no doubt that one of the biggest constraints to early 3D print adoption was a lack of choice when it came to materials. That barrier has now been completely eradicated as a result of collaboration between 3D print vendors and the chemical industry. Today companies of any size can access the Intellectual Property of the vast majority of leading chemical providers and simply download the relevant material profile. A company can invest in a £5,000 desktop 3D printer and have a choice of tens of thousands of materials required not only to create a functional prototype but materials such as reinforced PLA that can be used to support the entire product lifecycle.
There is no longer any need to undertake protracted, trial and error based processes to get the correct print settings to produce a part. Instead, a company can select the pre-developed profile and hit ‘print’. Ultimaker’s recent partnership with leading materials companies including NASF, Clariant, DSM and DuPont is a great example of this. Whether looking for a material certified for medical use or one with heat resistant properties, this immediate and low cost access to such a depth of materials resources opens the way for a huge variety of companies to now consider 3D printing, not only for proof of concept and functional prototypes but for tooling, bridge manufacturing and production of spare parts.
Blended Manufacturing Models
With a 3D hardware resource that now offers the repeatability and reliability required within a manufacturing process plus the accessibility of global materials, organisations can now begin to fundamentally rethink the way 3D printing is used at every stage of the manufacturing process. Innovative companies, from VW to L’Oreal, have already proven the cost and efficiency savings that can be achieved by embedding 3D printing within a manufacturing process. In 2019, we are set to see a whole new set of use cases that will fundamentally transform the way companies consider the role of this technology.
For example, one leading brand is currently considering the way 3D printing can be used alongside its traditional manufacturing model to eradicate health and safety issues; while VW gained unexpected benefits from their deployment of the technology. When developing on demand internal printing of jigs, fixtures and drill guides to reduce the cost associated with damaging wheels during production the company found that the use of colour printing enabled the workforce to choose the correct tool for each side of the car - a new efficiency within production that was previously not considered.
Essentially 3D printing is now a proven, robust, repeatable and reliable technology that is complementary to existing manufacturing processes – and companies can now think laterally about the way in which solutions can be blended into existing processes to address a range of issues.
This is an incredibly exciting time for anyone involved in product design or maintenance manufacture. However, if companies are to successfully explore the value of 3D printing it is essential to build the skills and expertise. The UK Additive Manufacture Strategy identified a number of key barriers, including education and skills. Given the well-known lack of interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), it is essential to take innovative thinking into schools, as well as the existing workplace.
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to leverage 3D printing techniques to address that skills gap and entice young people to make a career in engineering, design or manufacture. In a similar way that 3D printing permeates through an organisation from engineering into design so to can the same happen in education. A tool thought isolated in design and technology can be used for printing pyramids for history lessons or maps for geography or complex mathematical theories. It is new thinking within education as much as industry that will be key to realising the potential of 3D printing in the longer term.