Updated: Aug 26
Some industry reports say Additive Manufacturing (AM) will render all other manufacturing obsolete. While that’s almost certainly overblown, at least for the foreseeable future, there’s no doubt that additive for production manufacturing has arrived. “We absolutely believe customers are shifting and will continue to shift production with AM,” said Vyomesh Joshi, president and CEO of 3D Systems, Inc. “However, there is also tremendous opportunity for additive and traditional manufacturing to be side-by-side on the production floor.” He pointed out that manufacturers in medical, dental, aerospace, defense, automotive and consumer goods are already transforming their production workflows through the power of AM. “In order to continue to expand in manufacturing, we have to address applications use-case by use-case, with complete solutions which include hardware, materials, software and expert services,” he added.
Publicly-traded 3D Systems (DDD) is a pioneering company for AM. Founded by their current Chief Technology Officer Chuck Hull, who invented stereolithography (SLA) in 1983 – one of eight existing AM technologies, and the first commercial rapid prototyping method. Today the company’s focus is on transforming their customers’ production workflows with AM by concentrating on the applications where they provide clear value propositions.
The result is a mix of business areas that span traditional manufacturing applications where 3-D printing has either made inroads or has taken over entirely, to whole new areas of manufacturing never before dreamed of. “It’s enabling designers to make new shapes, new ideas, new products,” said Joshi.
Dental devices are a rapidly growing segment – dentures, crowns and surgical guides, for example. “There are billions of opportunities here, since virtually anybody could benefit from 3-D printed dental solutions,” Joshi offered. It’s an ideal example of how AM enables new business models for “custom parts,” this one involving 3-D scanning, materials selections, software, printing, and post-production processing, all of which are integrated into the 3D Systems offerings.
“There are lots of ways that you can participate in production beyond just end parts,” said Menno Ellis, SVP, General Manager, Plastics. “From a business vision standpoint, we look at all of them.” Dental aligners, which are custom-designed for the end user and are changed out once per week, are produced by 3-D printing sacrificial molds that are used to create the final part. So are jewelry models, where a design is printed in wax or resin and is the sacrificial material around which a mold is built, then the model is melted away and replaced with the final precious metal.
Prototyping, too, remains a core part of the business. “Prototyping is what this industry was originally founded on, and it’s not going away – notwithstanding the excitement about the opportunities in production,” Ellis said. “This is still, without question, the best tool for prototyping, whether it’s a quick concept validation or more advanced designs and functional or finished models.”
Healthcare is another key area of focus, with applications ranging from surgeon training to volume manufacturing of titanium-based implants. For surgeon training, the company offers virtual reality (VR) based simulators that incorporate realistic simulation software and haptic devices to provide tactile feedback as a surgeon practices using actual surgical instruments. Increasingly, the simulators utilize VR headsets to provide a completely immersive experience. The training allows the surgeons to practice different complex procedures across a range of specialties. “This is becoming a standard for how surgeons get trained and certified, replacing traditional cadaver or animal-based training,” said Kevin McAlea, EVP and General Manager of Metals and Healthcare. “It’s like what the airline industry went through with advanced simulation and training.” The company has the largest range of simulators on offer, covering all major minimally-invasive surgical procedures, as well as some diagnostic procedures.
The company also uses advanced medical software and 3-D printers to create models and patient-matched instruments that are used by surgeons to plan and perform complex surgeries. Accurate anatomical models are created by converting patient CT or MRI data into accurate 3-D data files that can then be printed in a variety of materials. These models are used primarily for visualization and pre-surgical planning, although newer materials that simulate soft tissues would allow surgeons to actually practice on models in advance of surgery. For some complex surgeries, the 3-D data files created from the patient data are used to create surgical plans and 3-D printed cutting guides, templates, splints and other instruments that are used in surgery to make bone cuts and reposition anatomy correctly. “We can reduce time in the OR and help improve patient outcomes,” said McAlea.
Increasingly, medical device manufacturers build standard orthopedic implants using 3-D printing, typically using standard medical grades of titanium. With 3-D printing it’s possible to integrate useful functionality into implants, such as porous structures that enhance bone ingrowth and adhesion, and to also produce new devices that would be difficult or impossible to make conventionally. It also makes it economical to produce the correct mix of desired implant sizes. The company manufactures more than 75 FDA-cleared medical devices using its metal printers today.
McAlea sees tremendous future opportunity here. He believes 10% to 20% of the total implant market could eventually move to 3-D printing, to take advantage of custom design, better handling of complexity, and better materials.
These medical devices are created via the company’s metal 3-D printing solutions, which are also used for applications in aerospace, automotive and defense. An advantage here is that metal printing uses standard alloys already in wide use, so materials selection is based on traditional manufacturing experience. The benefits for customers are weight reduction, topology optimization, personalization, fluid flow enhancements, and better abilities to handle complexity. “There isn’t a major aerospace or industrial gas turbine company in the world today that doesn’t have a plan for how to adopt 3-D printing for some subset of their manufacturing requirements,” McAlea said.
The potential opportunities for 3-D printing seem limitless. “3-D printing can bring manufacturing closer to the customer, and provide local manufacturing, mass customization and manufacturing agility. Our solutions integrate into the digital factory, and this technology can transform the entire manufacturing workflow, starting with design and moving through manufacturing,” said Joshi.
”This is not just a hope or a dream,” he said. “There are real opportunities in front of us right now. Through our complete hardware, materials, and software solutions and collaborations with our customers, we’re pushing the boundaries of manufacturing innovation.”