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3D Printing: When Will It Enter Mainstream Manufacturing?

Posted By Paul Tate, October 08, 2013 at 7:41 AM, in Category: Factories of the Future

When a technology gets hip -- along comes the hype. 3D printing is no exception. For the last two years, 3D, also known as additive manufacturing technology, has been heralded as the next big thing. Some even consider it the start of a third industrial revolution.

But what’s the reality of this potentially transformational technology? Where are we now? What are the practical limitations? And what does the industry need to do to move the technology forward?

GE Global Research recently hosted a Google ‘Hangout’ webcast bringing together a panel of 3D printing experts to assess the current challenges and the future potential of additive manufacturing technologies.

“It’s certainly an exciting time for manufacturing,” began event leader Christine Furstoss, technical director of manufacturing and materials technologies at GE Global Research. “3D printing is all about innovation, collaboration and new business models. It has the potential to open up a whole new world for designers and a new way of thinking about manufacturing.”

GE is already one of the world’s leading industrial-scale pioneers of 3D printing technologies. It is the largest user of additive technologies for metallic parts, has one of the largest fleets of 3D printing systems, has 600 engineers working on various aspects of the technology, and is already using 3D printing techniques to create final products and parts for the aerospace, electronics, and medical sectors.

That hands-on experience has also led to a growing sense of realism about what is possible with additive manufacturing systems right now and what needs to happen next. “There is a move to make this technology more part of mainstream manufacturing,” added Furstoss, “but there are a lot of questions we still need to answer.”

Terry Wholer, CEO of 3D printing industry watchers Wholer Associates, pointed out that while additive manufacturing techniques have been used extensively for prototyping applications over the last 25 years, sales of 3D printers are now growing at 29% a year and they are increasingly being seen as a new platform for mass-market, design-driven manufacturing.

But he also warned that for mainstream applications there are still many challenges ahead: “Today additive may be useful to consider for low volume, high complexity, high value parts,” Wholer said. “That’s where the business case is right now. The next frontier is to apply the technology to the mass-production of real parts. But to do that we will need to rethink manufacturing processes to get the right quality, safety and repeatability.”.

Panel member Avi Reichental, president and CEO of 3D Systems, was more poetic. He regards the new technology as the driving force behind a new “maker movement” around the world that will lead to the greater “democratization of craftsmanship” and the potential for truly localized manufacturing. “The ability for garage start-up entrepreneurs to create products that were only previously available to deep-pocketed corporations is really a game-changer,” he believes.

Both Reichental and fellow panel member Dr. Ryan Wicker, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Director & Founder of the Keck Center, University of Texas at El Paso, stressed that the real value for 3D printing’s future would most likely be in complex, multi-material, multi-functional components with embedded electronics that could help support the increasingly connected world of the Internet of Things.

But to do that, developers will need to take more sophisticated approaches and explore more “mash ups”, which harness both additive and subtractive manufacturing techniques to be able to create increasingly complex, intelligent parts and products.

The panel also highlighted a number of other challenges for the future of 3D printing, including:

  • Current difficulties in scaling to larger products and volumes due to the lack of large additive manufacturing production platforms and the integrity of materials when used at scale
  • Ensuring quality, safety and repeatability to match the levels of traditionally manufactured products
  • The price point of 3D printing materials needs to fall through mass supply in order to get any fair cost comparison with traditional production techniques
  • Product finishing techniques also need improvement to match current standards
  • CAD and design tools need further development to make them more effective in combining additive and subtractive production techniques
  • More advanced gamification of design tools is needed to make it easier for more people to begin to get involved in the technology
  • New approaches are needed to both education and workforce development to familiarize students and manufacturing employees with the potential of 3D printing and focus future innovation.

Such a broad range of challenges, of course, is not easily addressed by any one industry sector, noted Rob Gorham, Deputy Director for Technology Development at the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) and National Center for Defense Manufacturing & Machining (NCDMM). It requires a community of developers from multiple disciplines and sectors to work together to create the right eco-system for progress.

“None of us can do it alone,” concurred 3D Systems’ Reichental. “For this technology to succeed it needs to scale --- and to scale we need a passionate community of multiple interests and types of expertise, not just big companies and institutions, but also thought-leading, innovative individuals.”

So where could 3D printing be headed in the next few decades? The panel suggested a range of blue-sky possibilities -- from 3D-printed food, to the bio-printing of human organs, the rise of local manufacturing clusters, and manufacturing in space.

But the truth is, concluded 3D printing analyst Wholer, “I don’t think we know. No one was able to forecast a full-length video on our phones because back then you couldn’t imagine putting VCR tape into your phone. It's a different frontier and what’s most exciting is that we don’t yet know where this is going in the future.”

One thing’s for sure, though. Despite the current challenges, the innovative momentum currently underway across industry, academia, research institutes and individual makers suggests that additive manufacturing looks set to become a lot more useful and effective over the next few years. In one form or another, 3D printing is a manufacturing technology that’s clearly here to stay.

What's your view?

GE Global Research 3D Printing Hangout - www.ge.com/research/live/

Written by Paul Tate

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor with Frost & Sullivan's Manufacturing Leadership Council. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, the Council's annual Critical Issues Agenda, and the Manufacturing Leadership Research Panel. Follow us on Twitter: @MfgExecutive

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