3D printing gaining a foothold in manufacturing

A jet engine the size of a football whirrs and casts off blue smoke and fire. Soon it hits 33,000 RPMs. There’s nothing particularly novel about this miniature engine except for one thing: It was created entirely by a 3D printer.

The GE Angel Trumpet was created using direct metal laser melting, a process that lets manufacturers redesign parts with new geometries and alloys.

Technology using 3D printing is making inroads into manufacturing. Decades-old printing technology has gotten a second look recently, with layer-by-layer creation of solid objects, more choices of available materials and improved processing speeds.

Prices and form factors have also come down. As a result, the technology is making inroads into manufacturing. But the extent to which 3D printing can transform the industry remains in question.

Additive manufacturing vs. the maker movement
Much talk about 3D printers centers on the maker movement, in which people create their own products. Additive manufacturing is another, potentially more significant application. Gartner, a technology research company, predicted that by 2019, 10 percent of all discrete manufacturers—those producing distinct items such as cars, rather than process manufacturers, who refine raw materials—will be using 3D printers to produce parts for the products they sell or service. By 2019, 3D printers will be a $14.6 billion business, up from just under $1 billion in 2014.

Much of that business will be in developing prototypes and replacement parts. Where 3D printing shines is in production of objects from computer-based plans. It is not a tool for mass production—at least not yet. With 3D printing, volume is more important than geometry, said Timothy Cyders, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering at Ohio University.

No Moore’s Law for 3D printing
Rapid increases in capability are common in the tech industry. Moore’s Law, named after Intel’s Gordon Moore, asserts that the number of components on an integrated circuit doubles every two years. However, there are products, such as batteries, that remain stubbornly resistant to such progress. Though smartphones can do more each year, battery life remains more or less constant.

It’s unclear whether 3D printing will become more like semiconductors or batteries. Last year, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers held its first conference focused on 3D printing. Cyders said the consensus was that the technology still had a ways to go before it can be used for mass production. “Basically, everyone agreed that if we really want to make this a viable option for mass production, we need order-of-magnitude-type scale increases in speed. There’s no way to make it comparable to production of everyday items unless it’s way faster than it is now,” Cyders said.

One issue, Cyders said, is that 3D printing is very material-dependent. People have been casting—pouring liquid material into a mold—since the Bronze Age. Although 3D printing makes it easier to conceptualize a new object, the prospect of rows of 3D printers replacing a factory is unlikely, because it takes printers several hours to days to produce parts.

2016 applications
Since mass production via 3D printing is years off, the primary applications in 2016 are for prototyping and replacement parts. Mark Muro, a senior fellow and policy director at the Brookings Institution, said that 3D printing is letting smaller companies compete in hardware the way they do in software. He noted that Square, a mobile payment firm, developed its first prototype with a 3D printer.

Developing a prototype had been difficult for small players. “It was mostly done in analog,” he said. “First you had to make one item without a bunch of preexisting molds or processes. Then every time you made a change, you had to go back and alter physical molds.” Often, those activities required additional machinists.

Another current use of 3D printers is to provide replacement parts. If a part breaks or wears out at a remote office, the office can print a substitute. Gartner forecasted that by 2019, 10 percent of out-of-production spare parts for cars, trucks, bicycles, motorcycles, military vehicles and drones will be 3D-printed.

Finally, 3D printers are also useful for putting an “internal void in a material,” Cyders said. For example, spongy bone has a hard cortical outer surface but has a spongy area inside that makes it light. “You can make it very stiff,” he said. “You can transfer heat. You can make multifunctional materials. Regardless of what the shape is, you can still hit ‘print.’ ”

The future
While manufacturers are getting a handle on 3D printing of inanimate objects, MIT scientists have unleashed 4D printing, in which materials self-assemble when they confront water or temperature change.

Skylar Tibbits, a research scientist at MIT, said the technology could be used to build in “extreme environments” like space. Next-generation plumbing is another target. “Imagine if water pipes could expand or contract to change capacity or change flow rate,” he said.

Todd Wasserman has been writing professionally for over 20 years and was most recently Mashable’s Business Editor. From 1999-2010, he covered the advertising and marketing industry for Brandweek, and became editor-in-chief in 2007. He wrote for Computer Retail Week and various dailys, and freelanced for The New York Times, Business 2.0, The Hollywood Reporter and Inc., among others. He has appeared on CNN, NPR, Fox Business and BBC America.