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3-D Printing: The Hype Is Unwarranted, But The Hype Is Completely Warranted

3D printer printing prototypes, Getty

Three-dimensional (3-D) printing has been in and out of the news for years now. Is the hype warranted? The answer is both yes and no.

On the no side, you won’t be buying a 3-D printer for your house to print anything your heart desires, including replacement body parts so you can live forever. Manufacturers aren’t ready to install thousands of 3-D printers to custom-print goods tailored specifically to your individual needs, supplanting mass production with mass customization. In reality, there’s relatively little actual manufacturing being performed with 3-D printing today. Serious technology hurdles remain.

The hype stirred up by an oft-cited article in The Economist from over seven years ago was therefore not warranted.

But on the yes side, there’s been tremendous growth in product prototyping done with 3-D printing. The technology’s ability to turn a computer design into a solid rendering quickly and economically is unrivaled. Its additive nature means far less raw material waste, promising big cost advantages as actual manufacturing takes off. Further cost advantages can be gained with innovative new materials and combinations of materials, as well as parts count reductions and other new design capabilities. The technology has enormous manufacturing promise that’s finally being realized.

The industry has been around since the late 1980s. It arose from the work of various pioneers such as Chuck Hall of 3D Systems (inventor of stereolithography), and Scott Crump of Stratasys (inventor of fused deposition modeling).

Early commercial efforts, by companies such as EOS and Z Corp, were focused on fast prototyping. The technology remained stuck there for years. “To the early 2000s, 3-D printing was used exclusively for prototyping,” says Bruce Bradshaw, Chief Business & Marketing Officer at Evolve Additive Solutions, a new entrant in 3-D printing. There was plenty of demand for this, and 3-D printing service bureau companies arose – “the ‘contract manufacturers’ for prototypes,” Bradshaw said.

It was about ten years ago that consumer-level 3-D printing gained a foothold. In 2009, MakerBot was founded, and the company led the charge toward lower-cost printers with open-source software. This led to much lower costs for printers, and to much of the original hype. Office supply stores and other consumer outlets raced to stock household-targeted printers, and the stock valuations of the companies that made them skyrocketed. New entrants to the market followed, as did a deluge of unbranded printers.

Five years later consumer-level 3-D printing crashed, for a variety of reasons. Printer prices, while much lower than industrial models cost, were still $1,000 and higher. The printers were difficult to use, and the quality of the finished product was spotty. The consumer market shrank back; since then, “their use has remained confined to a niche audience of hobbyists enthralled by the future possibilities of the technology,” according to Rakesh Sharma in this Investopedia article.

Even so, 3-D development continued to move forward. It now consists of seven separate commercial technologies, by the count of industry analyst Pete Basiliere, Research Vice President at Gartner, an industry research and advisory firm:

  1. Material extrusion - material is selectively dispensed through a nozzle or orifice.

  2. Vat photopolymerization - liquid photopolymer is selectively cured by light-activated polymerization.

  3. Binder jetting - a liquid bonding agent is selectively deposited to join powdered materials.

  4. Material jetting - droplets of build materials are selectively deposited.

  5. Directed energy deposition - focused thermal energy fuses materials by melting them as they are being deposited.

  6. Powder bed fusion - thermal energy selectively fuses regions of a powder bed.

  7. Sheet lamination - sheets of material are bonded to form an object.

Evolve’s new offering, when it’s fully developed, will add an eighth.

Much of the progress in recent years has been on the industrial side, toward making finished goods. It’s here that a new hype is building. “The latest buzz is in manufacturing – in actual production,” said Bradshaw. He and Basiliere listed a number of items now being 3-D printed – low-tech ones like the molds for Invisalign braces (and perhaps one day the braces themselves) and hearing aid shells, and technologically advanced products such as medical implants, including hip cups and spinal discs.

Aerospace is an area with a strong push toward 3-D printing. GE is already big into the technology. They’re 3-D printing a fuel nozzle for their LEAP jet engine, and they also use it to produce their advanced turboprop engine (ATP), which powers the Cessna Denali. Lockheed Martin is printing large titanium fuel tank domes. Meanwhile, a start-up called Relativity Space is developing a 3-D printed rocket to be produced on their Stargate metal 3-D printer (the largest in the world, they claim). Their long-term goal is to 3-D print the first rocket made on Mars.

3-D printers are also being used to make parts for the manufacturing process itself, the jigs, fixtures, tooling, and gauges used to hold and check manufactured parts as they’re made and assembled. Companies are deploying their own 3-D printers on the factory floor, so that these tools can be made quickly on-site, and can also be readily replaced if damaged or modified to optimize production.

Basiliere believes the new hype is well-deserved, even while he’s blunt about the technology’s limitations. “When people say 3-D printing will never be as fast as injection molding, they’re absolutely correct,” he says. And he also points out that there are still kinks to work out in the finished products. As the technology continues to advance with new materials such as ceramics and carbon fiber, such challenges will loom larger.

But it’s in these new applications that further promise lies. Basiliere says, “You can design things that aren’t possible with any other technology.” He points to the GE fuel nozzle as an example – 3-D printing reduced the parts count for that assembly from 20 down to one, and cut the weight by 25%. Results for the ATP engine were even more dramatic: a parts reduction from 855 to a dozen, a fuel consumption reduction of 20%, and a power increase of 10%. Relativity Space, meanwhile, envisions reducing the number of components in their rockets from thousands to dozens and the construction time from half a year to 15 days.

It’s in programming that Basiliere sees another edge. Where other technologies are facing a much-discussed skills gap, he points out that, “We’ve got young people being exposed to 3-D printing in middle school. They’ll be asking their bosses, ‘What do you mean we don’t have a 3-D printer?’”

Perhaps that article in The Economist just came about seven years too early. “It’s been thirty years – we had the crazy hype, then the years in the wilderness,” Basiliere says. “But finally we’re seeing the real success.”

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