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3D printing: the game changer for future manufacturing?

Printing has always been a manufacturing process that dates back to the invention of the first printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. However, today the printing is being done in three dimensions (3D) and it is predicted to fundamentally transform the nature of manufacturing.

Additive not subtractive manufacturing

Traditional manufacturing has been “subtractive” in nature. Machine tools take large pieces of metal or wood and then cut, drill or shave away significant portions of the original material to create finished parts. This produces substantial waste and most products must be made in separate parts and assembled.

Early manufacturing required highly skilled craftsmen who could make the finished product from end to end largely by hand with some assistance from tools. Industrialisation of manufacturing from the late 18th Century onwards shifted to semi-skilled labour and mass production. The ability to build machine tools and automated production lines helped to lower cost and produce goods in bulk, but at a standard of quality that was uniform.

Throughout the 20th Century the focus of manufacturing has been on how to design products for mass production at a cost and quality that is competitive. Total Quality Management (TQM), “Just in Time” and “lean manufacturing” focused on improving quality while lowering cost. Coupled with these concepts has been the notion of “agile manufacturing”, or the ability to quickly reconfigure the production line to produce customised products.

However, the most recent development has been the emergence of “rapid manufacturing” or what is also referred to as “additive manufacturing”. This employs the technology of 3D printing to rapidly create finished parts or even full products in a variety of materials. Unlike earlier subtractive techniques, 3D printing is additive because it adds layers of material that is usually fused together into a solid object. This process produces significantly less waste. It is also highly accurate in its assembly.

3D printing – from rapid prototyping to finished products to self-replicating machines

The first 3D printing was developed by Charles Hull in 1984 in a process known as stereo-lithography for which he secured a patent in 1986. These stereo-lithography apparatus (SLA) devices employ a UV laser beam to trace thin layers within a vat of liquid photo-curable polymers. As each slice is created a solid object is built.

These SLA were soon complemented with a series of alternative systems such as fused deposit modelling (FDM) and selective laser sintering (SLS). The FDM system employs a semi-liquid material (e.g. plastic) that is extruded from the printer head and builds the final object. The SLS system uses fine powdered substances (e.g. glass, aluminium, titanium, nylon) that are blown from the printer head and fused into a solid object via lasers.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) patented a 3D printer system in 1993 that employed a similar process to 2D inkjet printers. By the mid-1990s a series of industrial 3D printers were being sold and used in manufacturing, but in 2005 Z Corp launched the “Spectrum Z510” (see image below). This was a full colour, high-definition 3D printer capable of rapidly producing prototypes and models to a high level of accuracy.

Z Corp Spectrum Z510 3D full colour printer. Z Corp

The initial use of 3D printers such as the Z510 was to create full colour prototypes that could be used in new product development. These 3D printing technologies enabled much faster and lower cost modelling and prototyping to be undertaken. However, the use of 3D printing has begun to spread into mainstream manufacturing of finished products in a wide range of materials. For example, German company EOS has used 3D printers to manufacture violins out of a wood-like polymer that sound almost as good as their traditional cousins made from wood.

An example of the use of 3D printing in the manufacture of large and complex products is that of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS) Company. EADS is the manufacturer of the high technology civil and military aircraft such as the A380 Airbus and Eurofighter Typhoon. The company has been using 3D printers to create prototype parts, but is now working on introducing them to manufacture titanium parts and eventually entire wing sections. Another example is the Belgian Company LayerWise which used a 3D printer in February 2012 to manufacture a titanium replacement jawbone for an elderly woman.

However, one of the most potentially disruptive developments was the introduction in 2006 of the open source “Reprap” 3D printing project. This was an initiative of Dr Adrian Bowyer from the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. His vision was for a self-replicating machine that could put a manufacturing facility into the home of almost anyone on the planet.

The project commenced in 2005 and had generated its first working prototype by the following year. A biological evolutionary philosophy lies behind Reprap and when the first working Reprap 3D printer “Darwin” was created in 2008, it was rapidly put to work creating its own “child” which was then used to build a “grandchild”. Since then the second generation Reprap machine “Mendel” (see picture below) has been produced in 2009, and in 2010 the third generation “Huxley” model emerged.

RepRap Mendel 3D Printer.

As an open source, community project almost anyone can download the software and if they know someone with an existing Reprap they can have another one reproduced for subsequent assembly.

Similar open source 3D printing systems have emerged since the launch of Reprap. One of these is the “Airwolf 3D” printer from the United States (see photo below). This machine can produce a range of products in plastic and is designed to serve in both domestic and industrial environments.

Airwolf 3D Printer.

The impact of 3D printing on future manufacturing

The future of 3D printers on manufacturing is still not entirely clear, however, there are some who predict that they will change the way in which manufacturing works. According to an article published in The Economist in 2011, 3D printing has the potential to dramatically transform the way manufacturing operates. As additive systems, 3D printers are much less wasteful when compared to conventional subtractive manufacturing techniques. They also remove the need for substantial capital to be tied up in tooling, work-in-progress and raw materials. The factory may be eventually replaced with a “digital production plant” that can take a product from initial design to final production in a fraction of the time it currently takes.

The emergence of more advanced 3D printers will only increase the impact that such systems are likely to have on manufacturing. Some are predicting that the advent of such technologies is generating a Third Industrial Revolution. As the following video from The Economist outlines, there are companies such as Quirky and Shapeways from New York that are using 3D printing and crowd sourcing to generate a range of highly innovative products without the need for large, labour intensive and expensive factories.

Third Industrial Revolution.

Whether these machines ever fully replace conventional manufacturing systems only time will tell, however, it is clear that the pace of digital technology is moving ahead at a rapid speed. With 3D printing technologies the real value added in product manufacturing will be in the design and related software programs rather than the physical assembly.

They could also transform the distribution systems for physical products. No longer will retail stores need to stock large quantities of parts or finished products. Inventory might only need to consist of the necessary stocks of 3D printable material, and customers will be able to place their orders online and have the product printed and shipped. For consumers who own their own 3D printers it may be simply a matter of downloading the necessary software and printing out the product.

If such technologies do become mainstream it is possible that the existing comparative advantage of low-cost manufacturing countries such as China may diminish. As The Economist article notes, the Chinese are also buying 3D printers, but there will be no benefit in having them make products in China only to ship them overseas. Such products can be made just as easily in the destination country.

For entrepreneurs, the advent of 3D printing manufacture promises to make it much easier to design and launch new products. The cost of new product development will fall considerably, and the cost of production will also come down. Increasingly customers are seeking more customisation in products. These 3D printing systems offer much greater opportunities for customising and also much greater opportunity for customers to actively co-create the final product.

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