Is 3D Printing the Future of Manufacturing?
3D Printing has the potential to reshape manufacturing by lowering costs and shortening the amount of time it takes to make complex parts. Much of the progress at the high end is being driven by the aerospace industry.
The precision and robust approach to testing required for success in aerospace will once again provide benefits for other industries as they get to work with vendors who have survived the experience of having their work pushed to the limit by aerospace engineers.
What is 3D Printing?
The 3D printing technique (also called Additive Manufacturing) builds parts by melting a metal or plastic and applying it one layer at a time. Extremely complex parts can be constructed in less time, and at lower weight, than it takes in traditional manufacturing, which might forge parts or cut them out of blocks of material. Replacement parts can be built when needed and new designs can be put into place with less prototyping.
What is the Most Ambitious 3D Printing Project?
Additive Manufacturing techniques are now being applied to nearly every field of manufacturing and repair. A 3D printed car even made the cover of Popular Mechanics last month, and there is definitely a pop-star type of glow around the concept. The University of Connecticut is building the Pratt and Whitney Additive Manufacturing Innovation Center at its Storrs campus. GE is investing $125 million in a plant in Alabama devoted to 3D printing. And several governmental and business organizations are encouraging inventors to push the technology.
One of them is Sikorsky Aircraft, which is looking for technology from small and large teams around the world to submit 3D Printing technology ideas to Sikorsky Innovations’ 6th Entrepreneurial Challenge. Learn more about the Sikorsky Innovation Challenge and how you might compete for $25,000 in no-strings-attached funding.
So What’s the biggest Hurdle for Mission Critical 3D Printing?
But 3D printing faces obstacles before it fulfills the promise many industrial experts expect of it, with the largest probably being finding a way to test complex printed parts to ensure they meet all the specifications.
How Do You Test a Complicated 3D Printed Part?
The ideal testing concept is called non-destructive testing, or NDT, which finds flaws with X-rays or other methods of figuring out what is inside the object without cutting it open. Many items created by 3D printing are extremely complex; if traditionally manufactured they would contain two dozen separate pieces. Non-destructive testing, however, is not yet advanced enough.
Greg Morris, manager of additive manufacturing and business development at GE Aviation, acknowledged that the industry still faces many challenges in finding, preventing and correcting defects in AM products. Morris said last year at the Propulsion and Energy Forum of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics that, “right now, inspection processes account for 25 percent of the total cost of parts produced additively.” Those costs, he said, must come down before the technology can gain wider acceptance.
Many experts, though, are optimistic about the future of 3D printing.. Terry Wohlers, a long-time consultant in 3D printing, pointed out that the technology has already made dramatic progress. In his newsletter, (title of newsletter and link) Wohlers said that additive manufacturing was once considered only for the creation of models, prototypes and patterns. Today, however, manufacturers like Boeing use 3D printing to produce complex environmental control ducting for military and commercial jets, significantly reducing inventory, labor, weight and maintenance.
“Given what I am seeing, I believe that AM will eventually have a greater breadth of impact on the production of products than any manufacturing technology in recent history,” Wohlers wrote.
When Do I Get to 3D Print a Car?
Which brings us back to the printed car given such prominent space by Popular Mechanics. It was made by a Phoenix-based company called Local Motors, which describes itself as a “technology company that designs, builds, and sells badass vehicles.” The car design featured in the magazine is called the Strati and was built out of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic in collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
As Troy Stains of Popular Mechanics wrote, “Developing countries would love this technology for cheap transportation, but so might the rich guy who wants a thousand-horsepower car of his own design, printed in a production run of one. Or the carmaker that wants to churn out a complete car in ten hours rather than 24, using a fraction of the components. Modern cars are complicated, but the union of 3D printing and electric propulsion — where the motor has just one moving part — points to a future in which that’s no longer a given.”
The U.S. Government wants Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing to Advance.
That kind of look toward the future is shared with government and business organizations alike. The U.S. Navy, in a request for proposal earlier this year, endorsed the potential of 3D printing. The technique, the Navy wrote,” is of wide interest across many industries and throughout the world …. This technology is expected to be of interest to many commercial industries, including aerospace, automotive, and medical.”